Iraq

The Short Goodbye

Samantha Power and Democratic Lies about Iraq

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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.

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  1. Prediction: 182 posts by 7 p.m.

  2. At 6:50 pm, I will revist this thread to ensure that Jamie is woron.

    Take that, aspiring Nostradamus of the tubes.

  3. I have posted.

  4. Young: “there is little prospect of the U.S. leaving Iraq without sectarian conflict ensuing.”

    Yes. And there is little prospect of the U.S. staying in Iraq without sectarian conflict ensuing — or should I say, continuing.

    And a vast majority of Iraqis — you know, those people Michael Young and other interventionists so desperately wished to “liberate” with the invasion — say the presence of U.S. troops is the leading cause of sectarian violence in Iraq. Oh, and they say the U.S. military should get the hell out too.

    It’s certainly telling, if not surprising, that the the opinions of the Iraqis themselves never enter into the thinking of the holier-than-thou advocates of war. Funny, that. Can’t have the actual views of “liberated” Iraqis upset the carefully constructed fiction created by the likes of Young and other hawks.

  5. Oh, and they say the U.S. military should get the hell out too.

    Do you have a link to their (Iraqis) elected representatives calling for U.S. withdrawal? The prime minister or a majority of parliament voicing that desire would be very convincing.

    I want to get out now. The government in Iraq wants the security we provide because they have proven to be unable to do it themselves. As hard as tough love is, it is time to kick the Iraqi government out of the nest.

  6. I love the headline…The Short Goodbye –
    Samantha Power and Democratic Lies about Iraq

    Can’t we just be honest and say EVERYONE has lied about Iraq?

  7. Number seven.

    Chili and a couple of deli meat sandwiches for lunch. Not much fun for my coworkers.

  8. The “lie” is that, while Barack Obama intends to start withdrawing immediately upon being sworn in and complete that withdrawal within a year or two, he’s going to take conditions on the ground into account as he goes about actually implementing that plan.

    Ooh! Gotcha, Barack! You’re just a big old considerer of real-world conditions in the implementation of your plans!

    That’s it, I’m voting McCain. No way he’d let the actual conditions on the ground in Iraq influence his course of action.

  9. I haven’t read the article yet, but I think Michael Young is a stubborn, pompous, thickheaded windbag.

    So if I say the same thing afterwards, it’s not this article’s fault. Just so you know.

  10. 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.

    Damned Democrats. Why can’t they just brand their opponents traitors like the grown-up party does?

  11. I read the article. Michael Young is still a stubborn, pompous, thickheaded windbag.

  12. Now that I know for sure that Michael reads his threads, these hate-fests for him are even more entertaining.

  13. Thank you, Chris, for that tsunami of tautologies. For those interested in Iraqi public opinion, here is a poll that examines several of the issues raised:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7299569.stm

  14. The government in Iraq wants the security we provide because they have proven to be unable to do it themselves. As hard as tough love is, it is time to kick the Iraqi government out of the nest.

    We’ve already done that once. Didn’t work out so great.

  15. Michael Young,

    Now that things are back down to 2005 levels (?), what happens if an surge in violence there reoccurs?

  16. “Michael Young is a windbag” is a tautology?

    I mean, even I wouldn’t go quite that far, Mike. Don’t beat yourself up, man. The article wasn’t that bad.

  17. …how American inaction, even mendaciousness, had allowed mass murder to go on in such places as Nazi-controlled Europe, Cambodia,..

    one could mention that before America “allowed” mass murder to happen in Cambodia, it was quite busy committing mass murder there itself, in the hundreds of thousands…just say’in

  18. If you follow Michael Young’s link to the BBC poll, you’ll find that most Iraqis believe U.S. troops are making the security situation worse, not better, and only about a third think U.S. troops should stay “until security has been restored.” And a plurality think U.S. troops should leave immediately, while there’s no mention of how many believe attacks on occupation forces are justified.

    And that’s the best result hacks like Young are able to point to. Think about that.

    Now consider these poll results Young neglected to mention, both conducted, respectively by those far left antiwar activist groups, the Pentagon and the State Department:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/18/AR2007121802262.html
    All Iraqi Groups Blame U.S. Invasion for Discord, Study Shows

    By Karen DeYoung
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 19, 2007; Page A14

    Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of “occupying forces” as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.

    —-

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/26/AR2006092601721.html
    Washington Post (9/27/06)
    BAGHDAD, Sept. 26 — A strong majority of Iraqis want U.S.-led military forces to immediately withdraw from the country, saying their swift departure would make Iraq more secure and decrease sectarian violence, according to new polls by the State Department and independent researchers.

    In Baghdad, for example, nearly three-quarters of residents polled said they would feel safer if U.S. and other foreign forces left Iraq, with 65 percent of those asked favoring an immediate pullout, according to State Department polling results obtained by The Washington Post.

  19. Chris Potter,

    He may have meant the use of the term as it refers to redundancies.

  20. 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.

    “I’m your worst nightmare… a Neocon with a gift for metaphor!”

  21. Ohhhhh! He tricksed me!

  22. I always wonder about polls taken in Iraq. How many of the respondants feel free to answer as they really want to? Is there some inherent mistrust that the poll taker might be a terrorist/insurgent operative in disquise looking for homes to target? (In the respondants mind: “Okay, if I say I want the U.S. troops to stay, I’ll be put right on the kill list.”) Or even, not so dire, but is there a cultural thing where if you say you like the Americans, you are looked down upon?

    I would really like to see the results of an election held with secret ballots asking the Iraqis if they’d like the U.S. troops to stay. I think that would be a great way for us to either leave Iraq while looking valiant, or, in the less probable case that the Iraqis vote for us to stay, give us more legitimacy for being there which, in itself, might end the war by deflating the insurgency/terrorists.

  23. charlie @ 5:06pm

    [T]here’s no mention of how many believe attacks on occupation forces are justified.

    Q26? Acceptance of attacks against coalition forces has plummeted to 42%.

  24. It’s almost 7 p.m.

    Nowhere near 182 posts.

    Strong indicator of Michael Young’s complete lack of significance, I think.

  25. Has anybody pointed out in these 182 approx 25 comments that the idea that Power was a victim of anyting else than the circular firing squad that is the Democratic primary process is ridiculous?

    The Occam’s shaving kit explanation seems to me the correct one: that her ouster was about calling Clinton a name, not any second order, internal, under-the-radar, foreign- affairs-vision power struggle.

    The only foreign policy preferences that are politically significant at this particular moment are the views on Iraq, Afganistan, and Iran. (note that I am am not saying these are the most important foreign policy issues facing us, just that these are the only ones in the public consciousness and hence in the politcal arena). And there is no light between the positions of either Democrat on these. The only politically significant difference is the obvious one: Obama says he was against the Iraq war from the start, and Clinton voted for it. The only hand Clinton can play – and did with the 3am ad – is that she is ‘more experienced’ to be able to execute successfully the Democrat foreign policy preference vis a vis these three countries.

  26. Nah, Kolohe…we all know that.

    But we’re having much more fun bashing Michael Young.

  27. Maurkov:Q26? Acceptance of attacks against coalition forces has plummeted to 42%.

    I missed that, so thanks for pointing that out. But “plummeting”? Really? According to the same poll, a year ago 51% of Iraqis said it was okay to kill occupation forces — and that is lower than any other recent polls out of Iraq that I’ve seen, including those from the U.S. military. A 9% decline might beat the poll’s 2.5% margin of error, but it’s hardly drastic. And once you take out the Kurds, who have never been a part of the insurgency (though that could change since the US sold them out, again, to the Turks), then that number still climbs to above 50%.

    And if that’s success, can we then pull out now?

  28. Good point, Kolohe.

    Let’s not forget that, on the day Hezbollah turned out the largest mass protest in Lebanese history, Michael Young told us that they had just rendered themselves irrelevant to the future of Lebanese politics.

    And then, of course, there is his year’s worth of gloating about Arab Spring.

    I’m sure Mr. Young has his strong points, but explaining politics isn’t among them.

  29. This just in…

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday declared the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a “successful endeavor” in a visit to Iraq that was overshadowed by a suicide bombing that killed at least 25 people.

    Mr Young…do you even bother to read the posts regarding your articles?

    Even folks on this board who support the war aren’t as full of the sunshine you (and Mr Cheny) have blown up your own keester.

  30. Michael Young is truly an embarrassment. How long is Reason going to keep him around?

  31. O, I can not say anything about this. The political is too complex for me to understand!But I have a wish to stop breeding and continue to peace!

  32. Michael Young,
    You must be gleefully awaiting the next terror attack so you can again feel righteous in arguing for more wars. Maybe if we get a nuke attack in a American city like Chertoff is promising you will be able to arrest those of us who don’t take too kindly to your war promoting. I know you will be able to sleep soundly if you can draft some of our kids to be killed while fighting wars to protect the House of Saud and Zionism and you will be happy to call us anti-semites and racists fro opposing such wars. The fact that Reason took part in calling Ron Paul a racist makes it clear that you will have a long career at Reason.

  33. Thank goodness Buckley got rid of all the racists and conspiracy kooks so that the conservatives can get on with the business of national greatness war promoting. FDR and Wilson, true conservatives that even Michael Young can love.

  34. Just so I got it: America cannot stay in Iraq.
    America cannot leave Iraq. If we try to prevent
    genocide, that’s wrong. If we don’t try to prevent genocide, that’s wrong too. That was
    easy.

  35. Young ~is~ an embarrasment to Reason. Time for a purge of the faux libertarians befouling this magazine. Oh wait, that would mean canning half of the staff.

  36. bagehot
    If the government takes more and more of our money and liberty to fund wars in the Middle East then it is wrong. It is destroying freedom domestically. Some naive cheerleaders clam that they destroy liebrty at hoem to promote freedom abroad, but they are merely useful idiots ebcause Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz had made it clear that tehy didn’t expect to create havens of liberty in the mideast, they intended to create quagmires and long wars that benefit the military industrial complex. Furthermore they itended to lend money to both sides of the war..fundamentalist regimes in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia vs theological socialist in Israel. They created Al Quada adn that is public knowledge, they soldiifed Sadams power and gave him chemical weapons to massacre his people….it is unclear when these groups stopped receiving support and fundign from our intelligence agencies but we are ordered to believe that they have nothing to do with the CIA or the Pentagon anymore.

    yes genocide and oppression is bad, the best way to end it is to stop ramping up the tyranny and evil at home and then work from there.

  37. charlie, yes, down 15% from Aug ’07 is a plummet. But I was going for sardonic when I noted that it remains a horrifying 42%.

  38. “If you follow Michael Young’s link to the BBC poll, you’ll find that most Iraqis believe U.S. troops are making the security situation worse, not better, and only about a third think U.S. troops should stay “until security has been restored.” And a plurality think U.S. troops should leave immediately, while there’s no mention of how many believe attacks on occupation forces are justified.

    And that’s the best result hacks like Young are able to point to. Think about that.”

    If you know how to read you would’ve also noticed that, according to the poll, a majority of Iraqis want US troops to currently stay.

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