Samantha Power

Samantha Power is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and a veteran foreign policy analyst (with a human rights focus); she is now Pres. Obama’s nominee to succeed Susan Rice as US ambassador to the United Nations. This nomination will draw right-wing fire for her allegedly anti-Israel views, but she also has backing over the years, and now, from such consistent Israel defenders as Alan Dershowitz (a professor of hers at Harvard Law School) and Martin Peretz.

And the following is from an energetic defense of her record by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (a recent Republican candidate for Congress):

… The principal comments attributed to her come from an interview she granted in 2002 in Berkeley, California while she was on her book tour. She was asked by an interviewer to respond to a “thought experiment” as to what she would advise an American president if it seemed that either party in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were moving toward genocide. Any seasoned media professional would have known that rule number one – as Michael Dukakis famously discovered in 1988 after being asked by Bernard Shaw of CNN how he would respond if his wife Kitty were raped – is never to respond to a hypothetical. But Power, fresh on the national media scene, was baited by the question and answered that preventing such a genocide would entail America being prepared to alienate a powerful constituency – by which she meant the American-Jewish community – and sending in a protective force to prevent another situation like Rwanda. From these comments – putting Israel and the possibility of genocide against the Palestinians in a single sentence – Power has been lobbed together with other enemies of Israel.

In our conversation she rejected utterly the notion she had any animus toward Israel. She acknowledged that she had erred significantly in offering hypothetical comments that did not reflect how she felt. She said that opponents of President Obama had unfairly taken her disorganized comments further and characterized them as ‘invade Israel’ talk. She said that if she really believed that Israel could even be remotely accused of practicing genocide against the Palestinians then the correct forum for her to express that view would have been somewhere in the 664 pages of her book wherein she details all the genocides of the twentieth century. She never even hints at Israel being guilty of any such atrocity. …

As if on cue, Martin Kramer (a neocon intellectual who is currently associated with the conservative Shalem Center in Jerusalem) has pushed back against Power, with a post that reminds his readers of Power’s very same offhand suggestion in 2002 of introducing an international force in the West Bank. There’s also this swipe from Jerusalem by the right-wing columnist and blogger, Isi Liebler.  (Still, this counterpoint in ForeignPolicy.com, recounts support for Power’s appointment among other neocons and advocates of humanitarian interventionism — Max Boot, John McCain and Joe Lieberman.)

In deference to Power’s controversial statement more than a decade ago about “sending in a protective force,” I actually would like to see at least part of the West Bank (and possibly the Gaza Strip as well) under a UN or NATO trusteeship so that Palestinians (and Israelis) are protected from attacks and abuses. This was an idea floated rather desperately by Yossi Sarid during his leadership of Meretz in the darkest days of the Second Intifada. But this would have to be with the agreement of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (and possibly Hamas as well), and understood as an interim step toward Palestinian independence, using the precedents of East Timor and Kosovo. Easier said than done, of course.

I’ve long admired Samantha Power and am delighted to see her nomination. Her counsel to the President is likely to be measured and wise, with a special eye to humanitarian issues.

Left-wing concerns that she has a quick-draw reflex toward military action are overdrawn and unfair. I remember her presentation at a New York University conference in 2006, in honor of the centenary of Hannah Arendt’s birth, in which she spoke of her break with Michael Ignatieff (her one-time colleague at Harvard’s Kennedy School), because of his pro-Iraq war stance. She was so angry at Ignatieff over Iraq that she tracked news of Ignatieff’s race for the leadership of Canada’s Liberal party at that NYU conference hall dais, on her laptop, openly hoping for his defeat. (He narrowly lost that day but won in 2008, only to lead his Liberal party to a historic defeat in the most recent Canadian national election of 2011.)

This links to a piece Power wrote for The Atlantic (back in 2001), on the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which implies the kind of humanitarian internationalism that she favors. I share her instinct for multilateral international efforts, including military intervention if advisable, to prevent or end humanitarian disasters. This is not a decision that should be taken lightly, nor one where the US acts more or less unilaterally in the face of widespread opposition, as it did in invading Iraq in 2003.

She’s being criticized from the Left today for supporting the West’s military campaign in Libya, but I think the bloody revenge that Muammar Gaddafi would have exacted if the US, France, Britain, and others had not intervened, would have been far worse than the murky situation that exists there today. Obama’s policy of “leading from behind,” in concert with European and Arab countries and without ground troops, was a triumph.

As for Syria, the West has apparently erred in not arming non-Jihadi rebel elements in the past year or more, in resisting a tyrannical regime that murders its own citizens (mostly unarmed civilians) in huge numbers. This has given an undue advantage to Islamist extremists, and we may pay a price for this in the future.

If I were a Western policymaker, I’d favor establishing humanitarian corridors on the Turkish and possibly Jordanian borders. We did this for the Kurds in 1991 and I hope we could do this again, as part of an international coalition. I believe that Power would agree with me on this.


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