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Does Samantha Power Mean War?

The humanitarian hawk must betray her principles---or lead the Obama administration into Syria.

Unlike Susan Rice—President Barack Obama’s newly appointed national security advisor, who hasn’t published any major book or article on issues relating to global affairs—Samantha Power, designated to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a very long and impressive paper trail, including a Pulitzer-winning book on American policy response to genocide.

And while this Rice (not unlike the other Rice) is first and foremost a political operator and bureaucratic infighter and not a foreign-policy intellectual in the tradition of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power is clearly a serious thinker who has very strong views on America’s role in the world and could probably be described as one of the founders of a foreign-policy school of thought known as “humanitarian interventionism.”

Moreover, if you read what Power has written and said about the need to use American military power to protect citizens of other nations from atrocities committed against them by their own leaders, you have no choice but to conclude that she has been a forceful advocate of that position and has devoted much of her professional career to advancing it at home and abroad as an activist and woman of ideas. If fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to call her an idealist, committed to fighting for her principles.

Which raises the question of why President Obama nominated Power for a top foreign-policy position in his administration. Another important question is why Power agreed to take the job now.

After all, if you examine President Obama’s hands-off response to the evolving civil war in Syria, you could argue that it has been a challenge to much of what Power believes—which explains why the administration’s Syria policy has been decried by so many liberal internationalists (as well as neoconservatives) who continue to believe that Washington should intervene in the conflict, if not by deploying troops then by increasing military assistance to the Syrian anti-government militias and establishing a “no-fly zone” in some areas of the country.

Indeed, at times it seems that President Obama—who has probably read A Problem From Hell—has decided to pursue in Syria the very opposite of what Power advocated in her book. “My prescription,” she said, “would be that the level of American and international engagement would ratchet up commensurate with the abuse on the ground.” Obama has not followed her advice in Syria, and his critics in the interventionist camps on the political right and left could justifiably argue that his policies have enabled Syria’s Bashar el-Assad to remain in power.

It is true that the U.S. ambassador to the UN doesn’t make policy and is tasked with reading long speeches and doing public relations for the president—the way Susan Rice tried to do after the attacks in Benghazi. Sometimes the ambassador to the UN even lies in the process, like when in 1961, after the U.S.-orchestrated attack against Fidel Castro’s communist forces at the Bay of Pigs, then-U.S. ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson delivered an address disputing allegations that the attacks were financed and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (they were).

Perhaps Power isn’t really interested in having the power to advance her ideals and is just looking forward to enjoying the prestige and perks of being a UN ambassador and mingling with the high and mighty on the island of Manhattan. There is nothing wrong with that. But it would require her to do what this Rice (and that Rice) did very well, which is to defend policies that run contrary to her cherished principles.

The problem is that against backdrop of 24/7 media coverage of the bloodshed in the Levant, it is difficult to imagine Power zipping it up. And with New York City being the world’s media center, where every move you make and every thing you say is going to be blogged and tweeted, it is almost inevitable that she will end up being the anonymous “top-level official” complaining to a New York Times reporter about President Obama’s Syria policy.

But it’s quite possible that Power’s nomination signals a willingness on the part of the White House to reassess its strategy in Syria and to allow Power more influence in drawing up an activist approach that would resemble the U.S. military interventions in the former Yugoslavia under President Bill Clinton and more recently in Libya under Obama.

My hunch is that we might see such a change in policy if and when Srebrenica-like atrocities are committed in Syria and broadcast around the world, which is very likely scenario. Under these conditions, I find it difficult to believe that President Obama would be able to resist the pressure to “do something” with Power providing him with the intellectual ammunition to support an assertive military intervention in Syria. But maybe I am wrong.

In any case, Power and Rice are only making us more confused about the direction of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in his second term, which looks and sounds more direction-less than ever.

John Kerry, it seems, has become the Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, shuttling between capitals in the region and engaging in what seems to be a make-believe form of diplomacy aiming at reviving the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”—or what’s left of it—and hoping and wishing and praying that the Russians will agree to invite Assad and other members of his family to spend the rest of their lives in exile in a dacha.

And while nominating Chuck Hagel as Pentagon chief, confirmed despite neoconservative opposition, may have cheered up American noninterventionists, there are no signs that Hagel is having any great effect on President Obama’s policies, with the exception of being more open to cuts in defense spending. Whenever I watch Hagel on television he looks as though he has just awoken from a deep sleep, as he reads some meaningless statement from a piece of paper.

If, as some suggest, Thomas Donilon was the real architect of what has until now been a more pragmatic and realistic foreign policy from the Obama Administration, his departure as national security advisor is bad news.

It is President Obama who makes the crucial decisions on war and peace, but it was important that someone like Donilon was sitting next to him when he was making those choices and could counter pressure from advisors like Power. That he won’t be there now means by definition that Power is going to have more power.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.