Even in a political culture as poisonous as ours is of late, there’s still something deeply disturbing about the perverse dishonesty of the right-wing attacks on Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations.
There are so many layers of bad faith at work here that it’s hard to know where to begin. On the broadest level of principle, the president is taking the nation’s most articulate proponent of international action to prevent genocide and putting her in the very spot where she’s most needed. All those conservatives who rail against American lassitude in Syria, Libya and so on back to the Holocaust should be thrilled. But no. Instead, we’ve been hit with a barrage of accusations over the past 24 hours.
Far more startling is the substance of the attacks. Most of them are based entirely on two statements she made years ago, which are twisted to make her sound anti-Israel. One is an outrageous distortion, turning her response to a bizarre, hypothetical “thought experiment” during an obscure 2002 interview into a clarion call for invading Israel. The other is a flat lie – a repetition of two sentences, one about the malign influence of lobbyists, the other about our “important” alliance with Israel, and making them sound like a single thought by removing the middle of the paragraph. (A handful of attackers have dredged up a sprinkling of other statements that are more difficult to distort, though they’re trying.)
The most popular charge is that she “advocates” sending a massive U.S. invasion force into Israel and the territories to “impose a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This is based entirely on two-minute segment in an obscure, undated 2002 interview she gave to a Berkeley professor, Harry Kreisler, now circulating on YouTube. He asks her to respond to a “thought experiment”: if she were an adviser to the president, how would she advise him to act if it looked like either Israel or the Palestinians were “moving toward genocide.” Her answer was to take the same action she recommends in other genocidal situations: send in troops to stop it.
Nobody said they were moving toward genocide. Kreisler opened by cautioning that he wasn’t asking her to respond to the general issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Power wasn’t advocating troops as a strategy for the existing Middle East crisis, but for an imaginary, hypothetical scenario. Perhaps she should have observed that the scenario wasn’t entirely plausible, and perhaps if she had already become a Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity author (that happened in 2003) and/or high-profile public servant (2009) she would have thought of it.
It’s worth noting, though, that at the moment she was evidently speaking – in the wake of the Jenin battle – the notion wasn’t entirely implausible, as I’ll explain in a moment.
As for the influence of pro-Israel or Jewish lobbying, this one is a doozy. The quote being circulated by the critics comes from a 2007 interview published in an on-line journal of Harvard’s Kennedy School, her home institution. Here it is, as posted by the Zionist Organization of America, Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs and Ed Lasky in the American Thinker, among others:
Another longstanding foreign policy flaw is the degree to which special interests dictate the way in which the “national interest” as a whole is defined and pursued…. America’s important historic relationship with Israel has often led foreign policy decision-makers to defer reflexively to Israeli security assessments, and to replicate Israeli tactics, which, as the war in Lebanon last summer demonstrated, can turn out to be counter-productive.
Lasky first published that quote, ellipsis and all, in an old piece trashing Power during the 2008 presidential campaign, lifted from a Commentary article that called Power “an advocate of the Walt-Mearsheimer view of the American relationship with Israel.”
Now, here’s the original quote as the Kennedy School published it. I’ve highlighted the missing words in bold:
Another longstanding foreign policy flaw is the degree to which special interests dictate the way in which the “national interest” as a whole is defined and pursued. Look at the degree to which Halliburton and several of the private security and contracting firms invested in the 2004 political campaigns and received very lucrative contracts in the aftermath of the U.S. takeover of Iraq. Also, America’s important historic relationship with Israel has often led foreign policy decision-makers to defer reflexively to Israeli security assessments, and to replicate Israeli tactics, which, as the war in Lebanon last summer demonstrated, can turn out to be counter-productive.
Two entirely different thoughts: First, the negative influence of special interest lobbies, like Halliburton and private security contractors. Second, the exchange of tactics and assessments that characterizes the important U.S.-Israel relationship can turn out to be counterproductive.
Some writers go on to criticize Power’s notion that Israeli assessments and tactics help shape American security thinking, trying to make it sound like she’s suggesting that Capitol Hill is “Israeli-occupied territory,” to quote one notoriousy liberal former White House staffer (it was a liberal, wasn’t it?). It sounds insidious, until you remember that programs to bring Israeli influence into American counter-terrorism and tactical security thinking are numerous, longstanding and frequently celebrated. This an Anti-Defamation League description of its program bringing local American police officials to Israel. This news report describes an Israeli military program that trains U.S. Marines. This is a flattering Washington Post roundup of various governmental and private programs to give Israeli training to American agencies. This is a research paper from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, drawing lessons for U.S. counter-terrorism from Israeli tactics during the Second Intifada. I could go on.
Finally, I said I would discuss the mood in 2002 that gave plausibility to the fear of genocide against Palestinians. Of course the idea is repellent. But the Israeli prime minister in the spring of 2002, Ariel Sharon, hadn’t yet become Sharon the wise old warrior-peacenik of Gaza 2005. He was still carrying around the reputation of Sharon the butcher of Beirut, which—let’s not forget—had been given to him not by American radicals but by an official Israeli judicial commission of inquiry, the Kahan Commission, which charged him with “indirect responsibility” for the Sabra and Shatila massacres and forced him to step down as defense minister.
How incendiary was the atmosphere in the spring of 2002? The Israeli general with overall responsibility for the West Bank, chief of Central Command Major General Moshe Kaplinsky (today IDF deputy chief of staff), gave an interview to Yediot’s Alex Fishman that spring that began with Kaplinsky’s description of how his troops were trained and ready to enter the Muqata’a and “take out” Yasser Arafat the moment an order was given. Fishman asked him what he thought would be the result of such an action. His reply: “Catastrophe.” He said it would ignite the entire region and result in mass bloodshed. That’s not some anti-Semite speaking, but the Israeli general in charge of the West Bank, on what he thought his government was capable of at that moment.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).