Can a big-mouthed person be the US ambassador to the UN? Can someone with a track record of controversial quotes be forgiven for not always being at the top of her game?
It occurred to me that amid all the talk about Samantha Power’s nomination to succeed Susan Rice as the next UN ambassador this basic question is the real issue. It isn’t necessarily Power’s views that will be scrutinized at the hearings and by the public; it is her temper and manner. Power called Hillary Clinton a “monster”, Power spoke about “crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States”, she said about Secretary of State John Kerry that “he must have thought that having got shrapnel in his ass out there bought him some credibility. It didn’t”.
Oh, and she is “a hater of Israel”. That’s not a Power quote, of course, it is something that other people – people who obviously dislike Obama’s choice – say about her.
I don’t know if Power hates Israel or not. And I don’t suppose that those blaming her for hating Israel have any better knowledge of what’s in her heart. If they are worried about her, they have good reasons to be worried. Power said some disturbing things about Israel in the past from which one can get the impression that she is unsympathetic to Israel’s policies and that she views Israel disapprovingly, negatively.
Power said in an interview, when asked about her opinion on the proper way for the US to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that:
What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in service of helping the situation. And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import. It may more crucially mean sacrificing or investing I think more than sacrificing literally billions of dollars not in servicing Israeli's military, but actually in investing in the new state of Palestine.
Power once complained that “we will lambaste Yasser Arafat, investing significant political capital in regime change, but we will only ritualistically take issue with Ariel Sharon”.
And she famously spoke about the need for “a mammoth protection force”, presumably American, to shield Palestinians from Israel.
These are all disturbing quotes and pro-Israel advocates have every reason to insist on getting answers to the many questions arising from them. If Power is about to face her “Chuck Hagel moment”, as a writer for Slate suggested, she earned it fair and square by making these comments. If Jewish groups like ZOA feel that they can’t support the nomination of such a person to represent the US at the UN – they have enough controversial Power quotes with which to justify their position.
There are also many good reasons to support Power’s nomination, though, especially for those advocating a more robust US foreign policy. Senator Joe Lieberman, not exactly an enemy of the US-Israel alliance, offered “strong praise” for Power. "Generally speaking from her writings”, he told FP magazine, “Samantha is probably more personally interventionist as a matter of American foreign policy based on human rights than this administration has been. I'm very encouraged by the president's appointment". Alan Dershowitz, another famous advocate of Israel, said she is “the perfect choice”.
Can she be both a “hater of Israel” and “the perfect choice”? I don’t think she can. So for one to feel comfortable with her nomination one has to give Power a pass on some past controversial comments. As it happens, my interview with Power from February of 2008 is – for now – the only available line of defense for Power’s supporters on the issue of Israel. It was quoted today by The Atlantic, and by Slate, and by many other commentators, not because it can explain away all the suspicions but rather because it is the only available instance in which Power specifically referred to her Israel record. I should probably revisit this interview as well (and not for the first time).
If you want to read it in full, and get all the specifics, you should go to the source and see for yourself whether Power’s explanations seem convincing or not. But it ultimately comes down to this:
If you look at her specific quotes and the counter quotes, the misstatements and the excuses, you might not be convinced. If you dissect them one by one, attempt to find some logic in them, wishing to wipe any doubt about her true feelings, you might end up skeptical.
If you look at her rebuttal as a whole, though, and generally try to be forgiving, you might end up thinking, well, that she has a big mouth, that she said some dumb things, that she jumped her guns, and that she was speaking about things on which she isn’t an expert – that’s human. You might end up giving her a pass.
Power – I wrote back then – “is somewhat frustrated by the need to address every snippet of past statements”. For many years she was a writer, a reporter, an advocate for important causes, an opinion maker. She was constantly speaking in many places to many audiences and on many issues. She was not a careful politician, not a trained diplomat – she was a somewhat hotheaded author and columnist. You can’t seriously expect her not to stumble, along the way, on some mouth-mines. When I asked her about the invasion of her imaginary “mammoth protection force” she responded by saying that "Even I don't understand it. This makes no sense to me. The quote seems so weird”. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that she said it. So four options of interpretation are open to us:
- She said it, she meant it, and she now regrets it – but prefers not to say it, believing that a murkier path for explanation is the wiser one.
- She said it, she meant it, she still believes it, but she doesn’t want it to sabotage her career. In other words: her explanation is a lie.
- She said it, but didn’t mean it. It was a misstatement that she didn’t think through, something she said without even paying much attention to what she was saying.
- She said it, and can’t explain it, because she doesn’t remember why she said it. That’s what Power asked me to believe at the interview.
But when she was asking me to believe option D she was also presenting me with a second interpretive dilemma - because of the two options still available:
- She can’t explain it, and doesn’t believe in it.
- She can’t explain it, but truly does believe it, only she won’t say so (for fear of hurting her career).
Power told me that “what she said five years ago is less important than what she wants to say now” – but that is only true if option A is the one to pick. Which brings me back to the question posed at the outset of this article: can you tolerate a bigmouthed UN ambassador? The US has had many outspoken UN ambassadors: Daniel Patrick Moynihan was outspoken, as were Madeleine Albright, John Bolton, and Susan Rice. Like some of them, Power looks like a fighter for human rights, like some of them she seems like a fearless advocate for justice, like some of them, she sometimes has little patience for nuance – and that’s not always bad.
Could Power the diplomat refrain from making statements on issues on which she knows little? Could she make sure to no longer say “weird” things? Could she manage to always “make sense”? Could she do all that and still use her outspokenness to advance US interests? Since her troubling statements were all made long ago, and since she has showed her ability to demonstrate restraint in recent years, I’d say the answer is yes, and I hope not to be proved too optimistic.
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