Sam Power: Moscow’s Irish Problem From Hell

Ireland’s Samantha Power named US Ambassador to the UN

(Well, we always make it parochial, don’t we?)

Anyways, today’s appointment announcements of Samantha Power as US Ambassador to the UN and Susan Rice as National Security Advisor are a little more interesting than the BBC seems to realize. Depicting Power and Rice as “two liberal interventionists” suggests a little ignorance on the backstory. So allow me…

Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning reflection on the failures of the US Foreign Policy apparatus to prevent the “Problem from Hell” from emerging in all its genocidal horror in Rwanda in 1994 was, among much else, a de facto critique of… Susan Rice.

Here’s wiki:

At the time of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, Rice reportedly said, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Rice subsequently acknowledged the mistakes made at the time and felt that a debt needed repaying.[18]

Such a representative Clintonian sentiment triggered various reactions then and since. But few were as determined and constructive as Samantha Power whose subsequent book, “A Problem From Hell” eventually caught the attention of a rising political leader in Illinois …

So, what can one Catholic educated determined voice really achieve?

Fast forward to March 2011, the Chicago Senator has been elected President of the United States and is considering what to do about the pending extermination of a large portion of Benghazi by Muammar Qaddafi and his henchmen.

I’ll let Michael Lewis take it from here:

Before big meetings the president is given a kind of road map, a list of who will be at the meeting and what they might be called on to contribute. The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qad­da­fi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options. “The intelligence was very abstract,” says one witness. “Obama started asking questions about it. ‘What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?’” It didn’t take long to get the picture: if they did nothing they’d be looking at a horrific scenario, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. (Qaddafi himself had given a speech on February 22, saying he planned to “cleanse Libya, house by house.”) The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”

For those among you convinced that American Foreign Policy is irredeemably nefarious, the next bit may be uninspiring. For those of you wondering how much impact you could really have if you dedicated your life passionately and thoughtfully to addressing one issue, it should be more interesting.

Gates was right to insist that we had no core national-security issue. Biden was right to say it was politically stupid. He’d be putting his presidency on the line.”

Public opinion at the fringes of the room, as it turned out, was different. Several people sitting there had been deeply affected by the genocide in Rwanda. (“The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room,” as one puts it.) Several of these people had been with Obama since before he was president—people who, had it not been for him, would have been unlikely ever to have found themselves in such a meeting. They aren’t political people so much as Obama people. One was Samantha Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell, about the moral and political costs the U.S. has paid for largely ignoring modern genocides. Another was Ben Rhodes, who had been a struggling novelist when he went to work as a speechwriter back in 2007 on the first Obama campaign. Whatever Obama decided, Rhodes would have to write the speech explaining the decision, and he said in the meeting that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre over why it hadn’t. An N.S.C. staffer named Denis McDonough came out for intervention, as did Antony Blinken, who had been on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, but now, awkwardly, worked for Joe Biden. “I have to disagree with my boss on this one,” said Blinken. As a group, the junior staff made the case for saving the Ben­gha­zis.”

So, what might the elevation of Power and Rice to senior administration positions mean for intervention in Syria?

Speaking to a friend who works on these issues before today’s announcements, the debate in DC seemed to be basically this:

Russia’s determination to back Assad is the primary driver just now, stronger than any American will to intervene and risk a proxy Russian-US war (Moscow’s alliance with Assad includes a navy base in Syria and a shared opposition to the political Islamists who might take over in his wake).

So if the current balance of things remains in Assad’s favor due to the contrast between focused and unified Russian will vs. American disunity fueled, not least, by disagreement over what happened and is happening in Iraq, do today’s appointments of Power and Rice represent a gathering force for intervention?

It’s a question sure to be asked with a mixture or nervousness and excitement in Damascus and Moscow tonight.

But we know this, if Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a test of American resolve in the face of a growing temptation to commit acts of ethnic cleansing in Syria then the appointment of Samantha Power to a senior position in this Administration may yet represent his and Putin’s own problem from hell.

  • maybe if the Europeans powers hadn’t intervened before and US hadn’t intervened we wouldn’t quite have some of these problems. she is a useful idiot to excuse western wars

  • Ruarai

    And breathe…

    You present “western wars” as though they’re by definition a force for bad without exception. How easy and pure the world must seem through such a prism.

    Can I assume that you would have been in favor of giving Qaddafi free reign to run rampant in Ben­gha­zi?

    And that you believe the US did the right thing by doing nothing in Rawanda?

  • aquifer

    In the former Yugoslavia it was the US that bombed the ethnic murder and rape gangs back to Belgrade, as Europe wiffled.

    The world is a smaller place for despots and exterminators thanks to the US.

    Hard to think what they can usefully do in Syria though.

    The Russians will not want to risk a democratic decision to be kicked out.

  • Kevsterino

    Syria is an ungovernable mess. Personally, I’d rather see a Ba’athist regime than another “Islamic Republic”. I don’t see how America can intervene without making it worse. If those folks are hellbent on killing each other I don’t know how to stop them.

  • BarneyT

    The west needs to take a long hard look at the rebels, theirs aims, ethos and politics before jumping in with them, not just in Syria. The Alawites (minority ruling culture in Syria) as I understand it, present a more tolerant face of islam, particuarly with regard to women. The effort surely must be to confront Assad to bring about change, retain him in a revised capacity and then preserve any level of moderacy that exists. The alternative is a fragmented society with intollerant extreme elements fighting over the spoils.

  • @Barney,

    “The effort surely must be to confront Assad to bring about change, retain him in a revised capacity and then preserve any level of moderacy that exists.”

    Traditionally dictators in the Third World have killed off or driven out moderates so that they can then turn to their patrons and say, “It is a choice between me and them.” Considering that the patrons of Assad are Moscow and Tehran, there is little chance of that. Tehran’s interests in Syria are keeping its sole Arab ally in power and keeping a supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is Tehran’s oldest foreign ally in the region. Moscow’s interest is keeping its one remaining ally in power after seeing all of its former clients defect to the West or be toppled one by one: Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. So its safe to say that these allies won’t be making too many human rights demands of Assad. So why should he suddenly listen to the West, which has never really supported him?