Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Team of Bystanders

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power’s credibility is taking a bit of a hit this week. Power is a voluble proponent of the doctrine of R2P–responsibility to protect, which advocates military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Thus, when evidence mounted that the Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad were committing massacres with chemical weapons, proponents of Syria intervention expected more than a tweet from Power. They didn’t get it–not yet, at least.

In early afternoon on Wednesday, Power wrote: “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.” The responses were predictable, typified by Irish journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes, who tweeted back: “When she was a journo and an academic @AmbassadorPower was pretty clear about genocidal acts like yesterday’s in Syria. Not so much now.”

In fact, more than just being “pretty clear” about such atrocities, Power was more than happy to name and shame Americans she thought insufficiently active in propelling the U.S. government to action. Her 2001 Atlantic essay “Bystanders to Genocide,” on the Clinton administration’s dawdling during the Rwandan genocide, makes for chilling and uncomfortable reading. Her eloquence and honesty on such matters were thought by some to be reason enough to celebrate her nomination to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to the UN–a Cabinet-level post in this administration.

Yet what Power may be realizing, and what the public should have understood long ago, is that Obama’s “team of rivals” is really a team of fig leaves. Hillary Clinton was not hired as secretary of state because Obama had suddenly come around to the advisability of liberal interventionism. She was hired because Obama wanted her out of the Senate where she could challenge his agenda. Instead, she was to be tied so closely to the president’s agenda so as to make it virtually impossible for her to undermine him.

One of the targets of Power’s Atlantic piece was Susan Rice, who is portrayed as being nearly as cynical as her then-boss, President Bill Clinton. According to Power, Rice was more concerned about midterm elections than victims of the ongoing genocide. But Power quotes Rice declaring she learned her lesson: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” As the bodies pile up in Syria, there are certainly flames–but Rice is floating high above them from her perch as Obama’s national security advisor.

It is ironic to some degree that Rice’s promotion to national security advisor cleared the way for Power to take Rice’s old job. But the two shouldn’t be compared: when Rice was at the UN, she was so impolitic that her Russian and Chinese counterparts complained about her. She wasn’t the craven diplomat that the West nowadays deploys. She called a spade a spade–and called a thug a thug.

When the UN called an emergency meeting this week on the chemical weapons reports, Power was unavailable. Yet some perspective is in order: Power has given no indication that she has Rice’s innate toughness or reflex to defend Western values and interests. As Hillary Clinton might say, had Power been at her post when the meeting was called, what difference would it have made?

And the reason for that goes beyond the issue of hypocrisy. Yes, it’s bad form for Power to make a career out of shaming her countrymen for doing what she’s doing now. It has to do with why Rice has also been generally ineffective at getting the administration to take action. Rice promised her inaction on Rwanda would forever guide her perspective on future conflicts. That made it essential for Obama to bring her into the administration–not to allow her to pursue her objectives but to co-opt her and silence her by ensuring she couldn’t criticize the administration from the outside.

The same is probably true of Power. Obama knows that Samantha Power would love nothing more than to pick up her pen and take shots at his administration for his constantly moving “red line.” But as a representative of the administration who answers to the president, all she can do is tweet from undisclosed locations while her subordinates fill in for her at the UN.

Obama prefers to centralize decision-making as much as possible. This can be most dangerous on foreign policy, where his experience, interest, and frame of reference are weakest. It’s also true that the president is petty and thin-skinned, and does not handle criticism well. Hiring his critics to shut them up was thus a tactically brilliant maneuver, all the more so because the media inexplicably believed, and happily circulated, the ruse.

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