Obama National Security Council adviser Samantha Power has been named the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That news prompted a piece in the New York Times (6/9/13) headlined “A Golden Age for Intervention?” by Neil MacFarquhar. The article raises some of the usual issues surrounding Power’s work– most prominently the notion that the United States should use military intervention in the name of humanitarianism.
MacFarquhar writes that Power
wants the system to work. As flawed as the Security Council is, she has often said, its endorsement amplifies international approval for controversial action. She criticized the American invasion of Iraq because it lacked the council’s stamp, among other reasons.
But what did Samantha Power actually say about the Iraq War before it happened?
Power was prominent in elite foreign policy discussions at the time; her 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide won a Pulitzer the following year.
MacFarquhar makes it sound like Power had multiple reasons she opposed the war. But it’s difficult to find such evidence.
On March 10, 2003, she appeared on MSNBC‘s Hardball to debate pro-war writer Jonathan Chait–whom she agreed with on a few points.
Indeed, it was somewhat difficult to say what Power’s position was overall:
An American intervention likely will improve the live of the Iraqis. Their lives could not get worse, I think it’s quite safe to say.
The issue, though, is whether the United States can be, in a sense, the unilateral guardian of human rights and whether the intervention itself won’t have destabilizing consequences, both in terms of our security, the very security in whose name we’re really launching this intervention, and in the name of international principles like human rights, international justice, international stability.
Power seemed especially concerned about how the ramifications of the war on U.S. standing in the world:
It legitimates the go-it-alone approach and it sort of reinforces the impression of us as an outlaw nation, which is ironic because, of course, Saddam’s regime is far more an outlaw nation than ours.
So Power certainly did not support the way the United States was launching the war. But that’s not really the same as opposing the war; it’s wishing for more effective management of the war.
And host Chris Matthews closed the segment trying to get Power to take a position:
MATTHEWS: Is this a just war, Samantha?
POWER: It will have a just result locally and probably a very unjust result…
MATTHEWS: Is it a just war?
POWER: I don’t think we can be the guardians of justice…
MATTHEWS: No, I–so it’s not a just war?
POWER: We haven’t fought it yet, Chris. I mean, you know, you can’t say whether…
MATTHEWS: Well, you have to decide about a war before you start it, not afterwards. Is this a just war…
POWER: No, you can’t weigh in on proportionality, on discrimination, on whether we actually follow through and actually look out for the rights of the Iraqis…
POWER: … after the war. We don’t know that now.
MATTHEWS: But in its outset, is it a just war?
POWER: It’s not being fought for human rights reasons. I don’t know who–why–I mean, it would be great if human rights were a necessary condition.
At that time, bonafide critics of the Iraq War were much clearer than that, and it’s hard to find much else that would suggest that Power had a particularly clear anti-war case she made publicly–though she did, like many others, come around to articulating a more forceful critique of the Bush administration by the time that administration was almost over.
Weeks after the war started, a Los Angeles Times article (4/10/03) on Power included this assessment of Iraq:
“That’s what’s so great about the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now we can actually put our money and power where our might has been so far. We can demonstrate what we have claimed all along, that this war is about them,” she said, referring to the Iraqi people.
“The hard work is just beginning, in Iraq and also in restoring U.S. credibility as a global actor. I hope the book provides the spirit in which that can be done.”
Some of Power’s most pointed critics–like writer and lawyer Chase Madar–have argued that Power does not forcefully critique U.S. policies that have encouraged and enabled massive crimes against humanity, preferring instead to talk about instances where the United States could have taken steps to intervene militarily in a given crisis and didn’t.
But in the case of Iraq, at a time when the themes of her celebrated book were very much a part of the debate over whether or not to go to war, it was hard to determine where Power stood.