Speaking truth to Power


Samantha Power is the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, and she has a professorship at Harvard (in something called “Global Leadership and Public Policy”). She is also a senior foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama. This isn’t an honorific: she has worked for Obama in Washington, she has campaigned for him around the country, and she doesn’t hesitate to speak for him. This morning, the Washington Post has a piece on Obama’s foreign policy team, identifying her (and retired Maj. Gen. Scott Garion) as “closest to Obama, part of a group-within-the-group that he regularly turns to for advice.” Power and Garion “retain unlimited access to Obama.” This morning’s New York Times announces that Power has an “irresistable profile” and “she could very well end up in [Obama's] cabinet.”

She also has a problem: a corpus of critical statements about Israel. These have been parsed by Noah Pollak at Commentary’s blog Contentions, by Ed Lasky and Richard Baehr at American Thinker, and by Paul Mirengoff at Power Line.

Power made her most problematic statement in 2002, in an interview she gave at Berkeley. The interviewer asked her this question:

Let me give you a thought experiment here, and it is the following: without addressing the Palestine-Israel problem, let’s say you were an advisor to the President of the United States, how would you respond to current events there? Would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, at least if one party or another [starts] looking like they might be moving toward genocide?

Power gave an astonishing answer:

What we don’t need is some kind of early warning mechanism there, what we need is a willingness to put something on the line in helping the situation. Putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import; it may more crucially mean sacrificing—or investing, I think, more than sacrificing—billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine, in investing the billions of dollars it would probably take, also, to support what will have to be a mammoth protection force, not of the old Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence. Because it seems to me at this stage (and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses, which were seen there), you have to go in as if you’re serious, you have to put something on the line.

Unfortunately, imposition of a solution on unwilling parties is dreadful. It’s a terrible thing to do, it’s fundamentally undemocratic. But, sadly, we don’t just have a democracy here either, we have a liberal democracy. There are certain sets of principles that guide our policy, or that are meant to, anyway. It’s essential that some set of principles becomes the benchmark, rather than a deference to [leaders] who are fundamentally politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people. And by that I mean what Tom Friedman has called “Sharafat” [Sharon-Arafat]. I do think in that sense, both political leaders have been dreadfully irresponsible. And, unfortunately, it does require external intervention…. Any intervention is going to come under fierce criticism. But we have to think about lesser evils, especially when the human stakes are becoming ever more pronounced.

It isn’t too difficult to see all the red flags in this answer. Having placed Israel’s leader on par with Yasser Arafat, she called for massive military intervention on behalf of the Palestinians, to impose a solution in defiance of Israel and its American supporters. Billions of dollars would be shifted from Israel’s security to the upkeep of a “mammoth protection force” and a Palestinian state—all in the name of our “principles.”

This quote has dogged Power, and she has gone to extraordinary lengths to put it behind her. Most notably, she called in the Washington correspondent of the Israeli daily Haaretz, Shmuel Rosner, to whom she disavowed the quote:

Power herself recognizes that the statement is problematic. “Even I don’t understand it,” she says. And also: “This makes no sense to me.” And furthermore: “The quote seems so weird.” She thinks that she made this statement in the context of discussing the deployment of international peacekeepers. But this was a very long time ago, circumstances were different, and it’s hard for her to reconstruct exactly what she meant.

It must be awful, at such a young age, to lose track of why you recommended the massive deployment of military force, and not that long ago. So let me help Samantha Power: I can reconstruct exactly what she meant.

Power gave the interview on April 29, 2002. This was the tail end of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s offensive into the West Bank in reaction to a relentless campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings that had killed Israeli civilians in the hundreds. The military operation included the clearing of terrorists from the West Bank city of Jenin (April 3-19). At the time, Palestinian spokespersons had duped much of the international media and human rights community into believing that a massacre of innocent Palestinians had taken place in Jenin. It had not, but the name of Israel had been smeared, particularly in academe. At Harvard, pro-Palestinian activists canvassed the faculty for support of a petition calling on Harvard to divest from Israel. (It was published on May 6.)

Power at the time was executive director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, which she founded in 1999. In 2001, she had recruited a celebrity director for the Carr Center: Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian intellectual and journalist who, like herself, had come to prominence writing about atrocities in the Balkans and Africa. A profile of Ignatieff in March 2002 described the division of labor in the Carr Center: “He shares administrative responsibilities with Samantha Power, the center’s executive director. The division of labor works wonderfully, he says: ‘She does all the work.'” Power later told a Canadian journalist that “their social relationship was based on three Bs: baseball, bottles and boys. They talked about the Boston Red Sox, of whom she is a fanatic supporter; they spent evenings together ‘yelling and laughing’ over bottles of wine, and she found him a kind and sympathetic confidant when it came to affairs of the heart.”

The Carr Center under this management team generally steered clear of the Middle East. But in that spring of 2002, the pressure to come up with something was very great. Ignatieff, who had been to the Middle East a few times, took the lead. On April 19, 2002, only ten days before Power emitted her “weird” quote, Ignatieff published an op-ed in the London Guardian, under this headline: “Why Bush Must Send in His Troops.” I wrote a thorough critique of this piece over five years ago, so I won’t repeat my dissection of its flaws. As I showed then, the op-ed includes every trendy calumny against Israel.

More relevant now are Ignatieff’s policy conclusions. “Neither side is capable of making peace,” he determined, “or even sitting in the same room to discuss it.” The United States should therefore move “to impose a two-state solution now.”

The time for endless negotiation between the parties is past: it is time to say that all but those settlements right on the 1967 green line must go; that the right of return is incompatible with peace and security in the region and the right must be extinguished with a cash settlement; that the UN, with funding from Europe, will establish a transitional administration to help the Palestinian state back on its feet and then prepare the ground for new elections before exiting; and, most of all, the US must then commit its own troops, and those of willing allies, not to police a ceasefire, but to enforce the solution that provides security for both populations.

Ignatieff ended with a grand flourish:

Imposing a peace of this amplitude on both parties, and committing the troops to back it up, would be the most dramatic exercise of presidential leadership since the Cuban missile crisis. Nothing less dramatic than this will prevent the Middle East from descending into an inferno.

So this was the thrilling idea that swept the Carr Center that April: a “dramatic exercise of presidential leadership,” through a commitment of U.S. troops to impose and enforce a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Middle East would be saved. The “amplitude” of this notion made divestment seem small-minded. Samantha Power did not misspeak ten days later in her Berkeley interview. She was retailing a vision she shared with her closest colleague. Power went a bit further than Ignatieff, when she spoke about how this show of presidential courage “might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import.” Ignatieff would never have written that. But it was implicit in his text anyway.

So Ignatieff’s op-ed was exactly what Power meant. That she should claim no recollection of any of this context seems… weird. Or perhaps not. Remember, Ignatieff wasn’t talking about deploying “international peacekeepers,” the context Power now suggests for her words. He specifically proposed United States troops, followed by anyone else who was “willing.” Their job wouldn’t be to keep the peace, but to “enforce the solution.” Far better today for Power to have some kind of blackout, than to tell the truth about the “dramatic exercise” she and Ignatieff envisioned.

(“Iggy,” by the way, left Harvard in 2005 to plunge into Canadian politics, and he is now deputy leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party. He still has strong views on what Americans should do. “I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve for a year,” he recently announced. “I’m for Obama.”)

Is there a conclusion to be drawn from this genealogy of a truly bad policy idea? Ignatieff himself may have hit on it. Last year he published a reflection on what he’d learned since experiencing real (as opposed to academic) politics. “As a former denizen of Harvard,” he wrote, “I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions. It is the street virtue par excellence. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners.”

Just substitute Pulitzer for Nobel.

Update: The Israel-relevant segment of the Power interview is now on YouTube.

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