What Samantha Power actually said about ‘imposing a solution’ on Israel

June 6, 2013

You are probably going to see this video of Samantha Power quite a few times as she faces confirmation hearings to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. So it's worth pausing for a moment, before it gets swept up in the polarized politics of such hearings, to evaluate what it actually shows.

Here are the basics: In 2002, Power, then the executive director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, went on a Berkeley, Calif., public access show hosted by University of California professor Harry Kreisler. During the interview, Kreisler asked Power how she would handle a hypothetical human rights calamity in Israel-Palestine, to which she gave a somewhat jumbled reply that appeared to indicate a possible willingness to send in U.S. troops to impose peace on Israel.

In 2011, Power, by then a well-known official in the Obama administration, gave an interview to a prominent pro-Israel rabbi. He wrote, in an article that was considered by some to absolve Power, "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."

And now the video is resurfacing again, sure to cause more controversy and invite accusations that Power is quietly hostile to Israel, the sort of charge to which the U.S. Senate can be acutely sensitive. (And, as BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray points out, the Israeli ambassador to the United States just happened to post a Facebook message congratulating Susan Rice, who also got a new appointment Wednesday, but not Power.)

So what actually happened in the interview? The video is embedded above, but it's a bit of a slog (you can maybe see why Kreisler's campus TV program never got picked up by NBC), and neither the interviewer nor his subject is particularly clear. It appears that Kreisler asked Power how she, if she were a presidential adviser and human rights atrocities broke out in Israel-Palestine, would advise the president to "put a structure in place to monitor that situation [where] at least one party or another [may] be looking like they might be moving toward genocide."

That last part is important: the hypothetical she's addressing is about what to do if genocide appears imminent. He's not asking Power, hey, do you think we should invade Israel to impose a two-state solution? Still, even remembering that she was being prompted with an extreme and unlikely worst-case hypothetical, Power's answer was not ideal.

"What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in the service of helping the situation. And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import," she began, a clear reference to American supporters of Israel. It's true that lots of Americans support Israel, but it's strange to suggest that the greatest downside of imposing a political solution on Israel would be the degree to which it might upset some U.S. voters. It's stranger still to wink at those supporters' "financial import," the apparent implication being that pro-Israeli donations or groups might weigh heavily on a president's decision to act on an apparently looming genocide. It's a view of the so-called Israel lobby that seems to exaggerate its influence and assume it would oppose direct U.S. action to end a genocide within Israel or the Palestinian territories.

Power also suggested that preventing an imminent genocide might require "imposition of a solution" and "a mammoth protection force — not of the old Srebrenica kind or of the Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence." (Srebrenica, a Bosnian town, was the site of a 1995 massacre.) As an academic engaging in a wild hypothetical scenario, it's disputable but far from crazy to suggest that U.S. peacekeepers and an imposed political solution might be required to prevent a genocide within an ally's borders. The problem is that Power now holds the kind of job where throwing around hypotheticals about invading an ally isn't just bad diplomacy, it's bad foreign policy. Of course, she said it years before she entered government. But she has to defend it now, fair or not.

Another quotes you may hear mentioned is Power's description of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the time as "dreadfully irresponsible" and "fundamentally, politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people." She didn't clarify what she meant and both leaders have since left office, so this one might not cause too much consternation, although it certainly does not sound diplomatic today.

Here's one thing that does stick with me from this interview: Power is discussing a remarkably sensitive subject, maybe the world's most sensitive, as she wanders into obviously controversial hypotheticals with a kind of blithely cavalier attitude that's surprising even for someone outside of government. Recall that, in 2008, Power had to resign from the Obama campaign after calling democratic nomination opponent Hillary Clinton a "monster." Those two data points do not make a trend, but it's something that's worth watching out for and she possibly assumes one of the country's most important diplomatic posts.

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Max Fisher | June 5, 2013