If This Samantha Power Video Is The Next “Big Controversy”, Will It Be The Right Controversy?
Some thoughts on a decade old video in which Samantha Power speculates on actions to take against an unfolding genocide.
This morning, the Washington Post’s Max Fisher wrote about a decade-old video of Samantha Power, President Obama’s current nomination for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that is once again beginning to make the rounds in political circles. The 3 minute clip comes from a 2002 interview on Conversations with History a public access TV program hosted by University of California professor Harry Kreisler. At the time Power was the executive director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. In the clip, as part a discussion of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of Kreisler poses a hypothetical question to Power about genocide and intervention:
Kreisler: Let me give you a thought experiment here without asking you to address the Palestine-Israel problem. Let’s say you were an adviser to the president of the United States. How would, in response to current events, would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, lest one party or another be looking like they might be moving toward genocide?
Power: Well I don’t think that in any of the cases a shortage of information is the problem. And I actually think in the Palestine Israeli situation there’s an abundance of information. And what we don’t need is some kind of early warning mechanism there.
What we need is a willingness to actually putting something on the line in terms of helping the situation. And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import. It may mean, more crucially, sacrificing, or investing I think more than sacrificing, literally billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel’s military but actually investing in the new state of Palestine; in investing billions of dollars it would probably take also to support I think what will have to be a mammoth a protection force — not of the old Srebrenica kind or of the 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 we’re seeing there — that is that you have to go in as if you’re serious, you have to put something on the line.
And unfortunately — imposition of a solution on unwilling parties is dreadful, I mean it’s a terrible thing to do, it’s fundamentally undemocratic — but sadly… you know, 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 they are meant to anyway, and there it’s essential that some set of principles becomes the benchmark, rather than a deference to people who are fundamentally, politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people.
And by that I mean what Tom Friedman has called ‘Sharafat’ — I mean I do think in that sense that both political leaders have been dreadfully irresponsible — and unfortunately it does require external intervention, which, very much like the Rwanda scenario, — that thought experiment: if we had intervened early — any intervention is going to come under fierce criticism, but we have to think about lesser evils, especially when the human costs are becoming ever-more pronounced.
[Core Transcript originally found at the New York Times. I added additional transcription — the question and the first paragraph of Power’s response.]
Fisher notes that this is not the first time this clip has come back to haunt Powers. In 2008 she publicly disowned the comments in an interview with MIFTAH, a pro-Palestine sovereignty website. Fisher points out Power also distanced herself from this statement in 2011 interview with a pro-Isreal Rabbi. However, given the difficulties Chuck Hagel faced during his appointment hearings, chances are Powers will be asked by Senators to once again account for this video.
And while there is nothing wrong with such questioning, I suspect, based on what happened to Hagel, that most of the focus on this quote will be misplaced. In other words the video will be used to question Power’s “Commitment to Israel” rather than her commitment to interventionism.
Setting aside the red meat issue of Power’s stance on Israel — something that Fisher deals with in his article — I find her justification of military intervention troubling. Again:
Power: And unfortunately — imposition of a solution on unwilling parties is dreadful, I mean it’s a terrible thing to do, it’s fundamentally undemocratic — but sadly… you know, 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 they are meant to anyway, and there it’s essential that some set of principles becomes the benchmark, rather than a deference to people who are fundamentally, politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people.
Power is saying that we have no choice but to intervene in the case of probable genocide if we wish to stay true to our liberal democratic values.
This stance immediately triggers a two thoughts:
First, while many conservative commentators have questioned President Obama’s commitment to American Exceptionalism, it seems to me that Power’s statement above is a profound realization of the concept. She’s suggesting that our our liberal democratic structure — the very foundation of our Exceptionalism — morally compels us to take “fundamentally undemocratic” actions and intervene in the affairs of other nations. Let that marinate for a moment or two…
Secondly, taking a long view, its difficult to see where Power’s views on intervention end and Neoconservative foreign policy begins. Both, as far as I can tell, are based on radical intervention and ultimately the transformation of foreign states through the imposition of liberal democratic values (i.e. American Exceptionalism). And both frame their arguments for said interventions in fundamentally moral/existential terms.
Regardless of how she now feels on the subject, Power’s nomination offers a moment to have a real discussion on the question and costs of intervention. It seems to me this is a valuable conversation to be had. Unfortunately, the cynic in me suspects that other things — in particular the Israeli-Palestinian context of the quote — will prevent that conversation from ever seriously taking place.
Side Note: I’m interested to see whether or not this video will actually generate much serious controversy. One thing that it has working against it is how convoluted it is — both in terms of the question and the response. As a result, it doesn’t provide any soundbites of note. In other words, its not media friendly. Contrast this to Hagel, who provided far more quotable quotes.