There is a passage in Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell, her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on how the United States dealt with genocide throughout the 20th century, worth pondering for what it says about hypocrisy in the formulation of foreign policy. It is also worth pondering for what it tells us about Power herself, an academic who resigned recently as an advisor to Barack Obama after calling his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton a "monster" in an exchange with a Scottish newspaper.
Here, Power is writing about Anthony Lake, who in 1970 resigned from the National Security Council in protest against the Nixon administration's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. A year after his departure, Lake and a colleague published an article describing what they viewed as a problem in the way America shaped its overseas behavior. Power quotes a paragraph from that article in her own chapter on the war in Bosnia, management of which landed in Lake's lap after he became national security advisor to President Bill Clinton in 1993.
In their article, Lake and his colleague argued, "A liberalism attempting to deal with intensely human problems at home abruptly but naturally shifts to abstract concepts when making decisions about events beyond the water's edge. ‘Nations,' ‘interests,' 'influence,' 'prestige,' are all disembodied and dehumanized terms which encourage easy inattention to the real people whose lives our decisions affect or even end."
Power follows this observation with an admonition. She reminds us that "When Lake and his Democratic colleagues were put to the test"—in other words when Lake was appointed a senior Clinton administration official—"although they were far more attentive to the human suffering in Bosnia, they did not intervene to ameliorate it."
You have to wonder how Lake feels about Power's phrase today, because if Power was an advisor to Obama, Anthony Lake happens to still be one. In reading her criticism, what comes to his mind? That Power, even if what she said was partly justified, went a bit overboard in picking Lake as the exemplar of American lethargy in Bosnia? That she misleadingly depicted him as an armchair moralist, when the fact is he had written his article after years of being "put to the test" at the State Department, and had even interrupted a promising career out of a sense of moral compunction? That Power, though a journalist in the former Yugoslavia from 1993 to 1996, was herself perhaps something of an armchair moralist for having distributed stern moral verdicts from a safe perch at Harvard University, where she wrote her book, which included the type of uncompromising verdicts she would later measure and dilute once she had stepped into the pit of political calculation as an Obama confidante?
The dilutions notwithstanding, weeks before her resignation Power had become a lighting rod for criticism directed against Obama. Her outlook on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had provoked the ire of supporters of Israel, amid signs that Obama was having trouble with Jewish voters. Obama's case was not helped any by the unearthing of a comment Power made in 2002, seemingly advocating American military intervention on the Palestinians' behalf. So bizarre was her proposal that Power later told an Israeli reporter, "Even I don't understand it...This makes no sense to me."
Power's self-immolating comment on Clinton was made during a trip to the United Kingdom. She had the good grace to end it all quickly, though another Obama advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, insisted an apology would have been enough. However, Power showed more political acumen than he did. By hanging on, she would have only remained a magnet of controversy, detracting from Obama's homilies, with the likelihood that the campaign would have eventually jettisoned her anyway.
But Power made a much more significant statement in London, one in which she talked about Obama and Iraq. That the Clintonites brought out their knives in response, that what Power said was valuable only as a weapon in the ongoing pursuit of convention delegates, a weapon doubly lethal for being added to her rash attack on Hillary Clinton, showed how incapable the Democrats are of debating Iraq's future in a forthright way.
In an interview with the BBC program HARDtalk, Power was asked about Barack Obama's plan to remove American troops from Iraq. In her response, she described the candidate's tight withdrawal timetable as "a best case scenario," which he would "revisit" once elected. That sliced and diced answer prompted the show's host to inquire whether Obama's commitment to withdraw most soldiers within 16 months was, actually, no commitment at all. Power's reply was revealing:
You can't make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan—an operational plan—that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn't have daily access now, as a result of not being the president. So to think—it would be the height of ideology to sort of say, 'Well, I said it, therefore I'm going to impose it on whatever reality greets me.'
Between Power's "monster" quote and her admission that Barack Obama was being less than candid about his intentions in Iraq, suddenly there was too much light shining onto Obama's studied ambiguities. Campaign manager David Plouffe denied there was any change in the candidate's thinking on Iraq, then welcomed Power's exit. Yet Power had not said anything much different than Obama himself. For example, asked in February by Steve Kroft of CBS whether he would stick to his withdrawal timetable even if sectarian violence ensued, Obama had responded: "No, I always reserve, as commander-in-chief, the right to assess the situation."
And that was nothing compared to what Obama said in 2004, the day after his keynote address at the Democratic national convention in Boston. Speaking at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, he had declared: "The failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster. It would dishonor the 900-plus men and women who have already died...It would be a betrayal of the promise that we made to the Iraqi people, and it would be hugely destabilizing from a national security perspective."
Power's sin was to be frank, as the debate over Iraq continues to be distorted by falsehood. What none of the Democratic candidates will admit to, even as they deftly contradict themselves to later justify an about-face, is that there is little prospect of the U.S. leaving Iraq without sectarian conflict ensuing. Allowing this outcome would indeed be the betrayal Obama warned against in Boston, before betraying his rejection of such a betrayal by issuing his promise of a timed pullout that he is again likely to betray.
But thanks to Anthony Lake's 1971 co-authored essay, we now know that the human implications of withdrawal will carry less weight than the withdrawal's bearing on U.S. national interests. And what is the appeal to U.S. interests in Iraq? That Washington cannot afford to leave the country because that would favor Iran, which would interpret an American exit as the long-awaited opening to impose itself as the paramount power in the Persian Gulf, possibly with a nuclear weapons capacity in the coming years.
It's difficult to brand Power a victim, however, because she added to the ambient deceit on Iraq. In an interview with Salon in February, for example, she answered a question as to how the U.S. would get out of Iraq by glutinously suggesting that Washington might have to accept the "idea of sectarian or ethnic relocation if people are in a mixed neighborhood and feel that they'd be safer in a more homogenous neighborhood." She also strongly favored doling out a lot of money—to Iraq's neighbors for having taken in refugees (though Power failed to consider their contribution to the carnage in Iraq) and to internally displaced people.
It was a pitiful response from someone who had written so effectively about how American inaction, even mendaciousness, had allowed mass murder to go on in such places as Nazi-controlled Europe, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda—not to mention Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Yet here Power was with not a word to say about the possibility of mass murder in a post-American Iraq, proposing instead that the U.S. essentially consent to ethnic cleansing. There was nothing in what she told Salon about ignoring "some plan" that Obama had crafted as a candidate. There was nothing about relying on the sound judgment of people on the ground in Iraq. You could almost hear Tony Lake laughing out loud as Power's crystal ball of self-righteousness shattered into a thousand little shards of duplicity and elision.
But we have to hand it to Power that she subsequently blundered into coming clean. We have to hand it to her that she realized that coming clean meant she couldn't last in the Obama campaign. And we have to admit that her BBC comments were about as close to the truth on America's choices in Iraq as we're going to hear from any of the Democratic campaigns.
reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.