Commentary Magazine


Samantha Power: the Salon Interview

It might be time that I downgraded my opinion of Samantha Power from someone who I believe holds naive and mischievous opinions on the Middle East to someone who for the most part simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She gave a must-read interview yesterday to

What is the biggest foreign policy challenge for the next president?

The next president is really going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time, because no long-term peace in the Middle East is possible until we get some kind of modus vivendi in the Arab-Israeli situation.

Remarkable. Neither the Iraq war, nor the Iranian nuclear program, nor North Korean nuclear proliferation, nor the situation in Pakistan, nor the ascendant Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, in Power’s assessment, is comparable to “the Arab-Israeli situation.” This is, of course, the view of the world one gets from watching too many Christiane Amanpour specials on CNN; but it is also one that has virtually no currency among serious people.

You recently wrote in Time magazine that the U.S. needs to “rethink Iran.” What did you mean?

…To neutralize the support Ahmadinejad has domestically, we need to stop threatening and to get in a room with him — if only to convey grave displeasure about his tactics regionally and internationally — and then try to build international support for measures to prevent him from supporting terrorism and pursuing a nuclear program. If we’re ever going to actually put in place multilateral measures to contain Iran, the only way we’re going to do that is if we do it in a more united way with our allies.

To this, one can only reply: “Donny, you’re out of your element.” For starters, Ahmadinejad essentially has no domestic popularity in Iran. He is aggressively detested by everyone in the country with a reformist cast of mind, and he is widely blamed for crippling the Iranian economy through his imposition of some of the most half-baked centralized planning that exists in the world today. This Washington Post piece delves into Ahamadinejad’s domestic unpopularity; this piece from the Asia Times discusses his abysmal poll ratings. If Power thinks that we’re going to get anywhere with Iran by undermining Ahmadinejad’s “domestic support,” let me be the first to inform her: he doesn’t have any domestic support to begin with.

But that’s just a nitpick. The real swindle here is Power’s implication that the U.S. has yet to pursue a multilateral strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, a fascinating rewriting of history. Between 2002 and 2006, the Bush administration delegated Iran diplomacy to the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK), specifically in pursuit of the cultivation of an international consensus against Iran’s nuclear program. The EU-3, working extensively through the IAEA — another of those international bodies that Power believes has been sidelined by the Bush administration — demonstrated nothing more than the ease with which it could be repeatedly manipulated and thwarted.

By the summer of 2006, the matter was handed over to the UN Security Council, another multilateral lever. The Security Council has since then produced a series of wrist-slaps on Iran. Power’s complaint — that the U.S. hasn’t acted multilaterally — is a fantasy. The real problem with the past six years of Iran diplomacy is that the multilateral channels through which our diplomacy has found expression have proven themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the problem. But I suppose it’s much easier to give interviews to credulous Salon reporters and pretend that we never tried, rather than confront the much thornier problem — that we have been trying, and failing.

Samantha Power believes that people like me, who raise perfectly legitimate questions about her judgment and knowledge of the Middle East, are trafficking in “fabrications” and a “smear campaign” against her and the Obama campaign. In everything I’ve written about her, including this post, I have always linked to what Power herself has said, so that readers could judge for themselves whether I’ve treated her fairly. Is it a smear to accuse someone of a smear, when none has been committed?

UPDATE: Michael Young weighs in here: “the egghead smells a foreign policy post.