Samantha Power testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Ambassador Samantha Power made her case for military strikes in Syria today at the Center for American Progress, where she argued that in the face of a “paralyzed” Security Council, the deployment of American war power is the only viable response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, if one that supporters needed to “justify.”
“This is the right debate for us to have,” Power said, and yet took no questions, turning the assembled press into props. To be fair, President Obama answered many questions from reporters this morning. But the absence of a question-and-answer session created the impression that, despite the optics of appearing before the press at a progressive institution, Power wasn’t particularly interested in a real conversation. CAP president Neera Tanden, meanwhile, expressed her support for military intervention.
Power did strike a humble, open-minded note in acknowledging the validity of the many questions raised by skeptics of intervention. “There is no risk-free door number-two that we can choose,” she said, and recognized that the administration must “[accept] responsibility for the risks and potential consequences of action.” But she spent little time considering those risks and how they might be contained, and instead focused on the failures and shortcomings of non-military solutions.
“At this stage, the diplomatic process has been stalled because one side has been gassed and the other side thinks it’s gotten away with it,” Power said. “What would words, in the form of belated diplomatic condemnation, achieve?” She described the Security Council as “paralyzed” by Russia, argued that going to the International Criminal Court would be of limited use because of the need for quick action, and said new economic sanctions would be undercut by Syria’s allies.
Power said it was “good and important” to ask how the United States could avoid being drawn deeper into the conflict in Syria once military action were initiated, but she offered a less-than-satisfying answer. “The president has repeatedly demonstrated that he will not put American boots on the ground to fight another war in the Middle East. The draft resolution before Congress makes this clear,” she said. As I wrote yesterday, these promises are relatively meaningless, since military strikes invite an uncertain reaction from Syria and its allies. “The United States has the discipline, as a country, to maintain these limits,” Power said.
Power seemed to characterize congressional authorization as helpful, but unnecessary, saying, “There is no question that authorization by our Congress will help strengthen our case.” She drew parallels between public skepticism about military action in Syria and opposition to President Clinton’s decision to bomb Serbian forces in Bosnia in 1995, saying there were times when a president’s concern for national interest trumped public opinion. She asserted that “there is no question that [the] deployment of American power” after the House failed to authorize further military action in 1999 “saved lives and returned stability to the a critical region,” raising yet more questions about whether the administration intends to proceed with airstrikes regardless of the vote in Congress. (This morning, Obama refused to give a direct response to repeated questioning on this point.)
Power asserted the now-familiar administration message that the military strikes in Syria are essential to deter Iran and North Korea from going nuclear. As Bob Dreyfuss points out, the decision to initiate military action in Syria is perhaps guided less by conditions on the ground in Syria than by concerns about the implications for the slow-churning conflict between Israel and Iran. Power nodded toward this dynamic when she said, “Israel’s security is threatened by instability in the region, and its security is enhanced when those who would do it harm know that the United States stands behind its word,” she said.
“Does anybody really believe that same approaches will suddenly be effective?” Power asked. Most opposed to military action in Syria would likely answer with a resounding no. But the administration has thus far failed to articulate how military strikes, too, will be effective, and Power was no exception.
There could be a compromise bill on Syrian intervention in US Senate.