Power of persuasion

I think of our newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power in the words of the title of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book: “A Problem From Hell.” Power passionately believes that the armed forces of the United States should serve causes far larger than the national interest of the United States. Of the commenters on Power’s nomination, Ralph Peters is the only one I have seen make this point.

We can get a bead on several strands of Power’s thought via the interview clip below, dating from 2002 and the publication of “A Problem From Hell.” The clip derives from Conversations with History, a weekly interview program broadcast nationally on the DISH Network and on YouTube. The program was created by host Harry Kreisler, executive director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the interview Kreisler asks Power how she would address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict if she were an adviser to the president. Here’s the famous interview excerpt, per Slate’s transcription. Kreisler asks:

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?

Here is Power’s response, the rationale of which alludes to points made in A Problem From Hell:

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. What we don’t need is some kind of early warning mechanism there. What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in service of helping the situation. And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import. It may more crucially mean sacrificing or investing I think more than sacrificing literally billions of dollars not in servicing Israeli’s military, but actually in investing in the new state of Palestine…

Power’s answer continues:

…in investing billions of dollars it would probably take also to support, I think, what will have to be a mammoth protection force. Not of the old, you know, Srebrenica kind or 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, you know, major human rights abuses, which we’re seeing there. But — 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, you know, our policy, or that 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, there’s — 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, of “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 stakes are just becoming ever more pronounced.

The Slate commenter implies that Power has since walked back the highlighted portion of the statement. Not true, as far as I can tell. She walked back her reference to a mammoth protection force. “Even I don’t understand it,” she said in a 2008 interview, at a time when she had moved into the world of high politics. She added: “This makes no sense to me.” And: “The quote seems so weird.”

What about Power’s reference to the “domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import”? I’m not sure if she has walked that one back as well, but it isn’t weird at all. I’m sure that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, among many others, could explain Power’s thinking to her.

In case you haven’t seen the video, here it is.

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