THE HARVARD GAZETTE, a publication of Harvard University, has recently published an interview with former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. In its introduction, the Gazette writes,
More than eight years (after joining Barack Obama’s campaign). Power has returned to Harvard as the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at HKS and professor of practice at Harvard Law School.
Power figures prominently in a new HBO documentary that debuted Jan. 19 called “The Final Year.” The film chronicles the behind-the-scenes whirl of key players on Obama’s foreign policy team, including Secretary of State John Kerry and speechwriter Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, as all three crisscross a world that seems on fire. They organize historic presidential visits to Hiroshima and Laos, and they grapple with the conflict in Syria and the resultant refugee crisis, the Ebola epidemic, mass abductions by Boko Haram militants, and the Iran nuclear negotiations, against the looming backdrop of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Speaking about Syria, Powers in her responses to questions reveals a whole mindset from the Obama administration, stemming from Obama himself, which simply ruled out the use of force in Syria, whether to halt the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale, or to counter first Russian and then Iranian military intervention:
GAZETTE: Now that you’ve had a year to process it, how do you view your time in the Obama administration? What are you most proud of accomplishing, and are there any misgivings or disappointments?
Syria stands out, of course, as the conflict that caused the most human suffering probably per square inch on planet Earth over the life of our time in government. But again, every tool in the toolbox, short of military force, we deployed. It’s just the complexity and brutality, frankly, of what was going on on the ground that made, for us, a solution elusive, it’s fair to say. And then, I also think if we had to do it again, I wish we had not gotten so entangled in the war in Yemen. Initially, to be defending our Saudi partners in the region made some sense — Iranian aggression, Iranian support for armed elements on the ground in Yemen — but then, as we backed the Saudi-led coalition, the amount of carnage inflicted from the air by the Saudi air force was so significant that I think there came a time where we should have pulled the plug on that. And I regret that we didn’t.
GAZETTE: In “The Final Year,” you said Syria was “beyond frustrating” and “haunting” in part because it was an issue “where my thoughts and feelings and ideas have made such a marginal impact on desperate people.” What else do you wish had been done?
We didn’t use military force against the Assad regime there. I think the critics would say that we had a responsibility to try everything, given the knock-on effects of the conflict. But I don’t think anybody within the administration who advocated that course, who wanted to use force, for instance, after the chemical weapons attack that Assad’s regime carried out, I don’t think any of us could speak with any dogmatism that, had we done that, that things would look so very different afterward.
–Christina Pazzanese, Samantha Power: The world in her rear-view mirror,” The Harvard Gazette, January 24, 2018.
The central flaw in the Obama administration’s policy towards Syria and Russia’s military intervention in Syria was, precisely, its refusal to seriously consider and to use military force. This refusal continued long after it had become clear that neither the Bashar Al-Assad regime nor Russia could be persuaded by any other means. Power’s answers to the Gazette’s questions reveal how deeply embedded this assumption was in the minds of Obama and his closest advisers.
Over 500,000 people have died in Syria, in large part as a result of U.S. failure to take forceful action to halt the atrocities of Bashar Al-Assad or to counter Russian and Iranian intervention. Moreover, the war continues.
The key decision points, and the record of U.S. vacillation and inaction beginning in 2011-2012, have been chronicled here. (Type Syria in the Search Box to retrieve a list of articles.)
One might have hoped that Powers would provide a candid account of foreign-policy decision-making in the Obama administration. Unfortunately, judging from her responses quoted above, this does not now seem likely.
The Trenchant Observer