Dissipating Power

    I remember it well, the heated 2008 campaign, and one of the vaunted risers in the party - scratch that, *conscience* of the party - Samantha Power - had just called Hillary a "monster". In this case it was for "deceit", saying anything to win, but it might as well have been for Powers' forte, foreign policy - poking holes in US reactions in Bosnia and Rwanda and elsewhere.

    9 years later, Powers goes out like a vanquished lion - braying in futility in her last moments as UN rep against Russia's transgressions in Syria. But what happened in-between? Where did these outspoken values go in the Obama years with a largely reactive, not pro-active stance on human rights and threading our way through more Mideast engagements and muddied mushy responses? Seth Mandel provides a comprehensive summary of this transition from Lion Queen to largely defanged kitten.

    This is not a post of schadenfreude - I'm saddened and confused and disheartened. It's symbolic of the real world as we know it, the demise of optimism and righteous fury, and where we get tripped up time and time again. The other side's busy ignoring that world, running red lights, hitting pedestrians on the sidewalk - but still, careful driving doesn't make you a good driver. But it's a helluva lot easier to tell if someone's a good driver than whether they're doing the right thing in foreign politics.

    Ironically, one of Power's standout accomplishments of the last 9 years is "She is considered to have been a key figure in the Obama administration in persuading the president to intervene militarily in Libya" (Wikipedia) - teamed up with Hillary & Susan Rice. (Yes, Democrats know how to work together after a bloodbath - unlike the GOP's code of omertà and other traits)

    That Libya thing's a pretty damning achievement - but should it have been?

    Shadi Hamid of Vox puts the situation in quite a bit of perspective. First, how does it compare with say Egypt, where we didn't intervene? Not much different - including a period of islamist rule then overthrown. Second, what was the risk? Between the then estimate of 1000-2000 civilians already killed and the disaster of Syria with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, significantly high (Qaddafi being say somewhere closer to Assad than Mubarak in temperament and brutality).

    What was the actual result? If the revised numbers are to believe, about 5000 on each side, mostly "combatants". In the civil war that started *2 1/2 years later*, another 5000 or so have died. Horrific, but on a scale 1/100th of what happened in Syria.

    And that's ignoring the granddaddy of them all, Iraq, where 200 deaths a day have been common for over a decade.

    How do we actually measure our efforts in an unbiased manner? For more apples-to-apples, in all the countries of the Arab Spring, where if any did we get it "right", and more importantly, why?

    One of the "plusses" of the Libya overflights was that it was done in collaboration with the UK, France, Italy and Canada (with Qatar added as one of the final 19 to give some Arab street cred).

    But the flipped version is that Italy and France just wanted Libya's oil, nothing to do with protecting civilians. Or as per the consulate attack in Benghazi, it was just a staging point for smuggling arms to Syria (not that there aren't a lot of much closer entry ports to Damascus or Aleppo than Benghazi). Or presumably the most damning is that the UN overshot its mandate (which Hamid notes isn't that unusual or unjustified).

    There are 2 or more issues at play here that complicate our notion of an effective foreign policy. The first is what role if any we should play in developing global situations. The "America always wrong"  sees us as needing to mind our own business; the "America First" needs us to influence every outcome. And then there's the tough middle ground of "it all depends... adjust strategy to situation". Obviously it's easier to just turn tail or bludgeon our way forward - the middle way dies by a thousand cuts. Despite being a heroine to the Democrats' left, Samantha Power was mostly railing about our fecklessness in combatting violence and evil, taking the easy way out. Yet throughout her tenure at the UN, she was mostly backing soft-to-mushy power, angry sobriquets with no teeth in them.

    A second more complicated issue is what right or justfication the international community has to intervene in internal affairs of states - whether ensuring or promoting democracy and the right to vote for representative government, how to finesse the traditional "spheres of interests" of superpowers vs. the right of the "interestees" to have free choice, the conflicting status of Security Council parties to decide and violate UN precepts, etc.

    The US of course is not guiltless in execution. Even in Libya, it's possible we took more of a government-hunter/rebel air partner role than a strict or even reasonable interpretation might warrant. In Yemen, we've backed a Saudi-interested effort against critics that doesn't necessarily jibe with strict "terrorist" evaluations (i.e. can an Arab protest or have a different opinion without being labeled a terrorist?). In Pakistan, our drone program has skirted international law - perhaps letting Pakistan escape complicity, but at times rather blind to the bad optics & reality of civilian deaths. Our arming of "moderate rebels" in Syria comes amidst the arming by Qatar and Saudis of similar or different factions, and creates a fuzzy horrid mess of international militias similar to the "African World War" that tore apart the Congo in the 90's and 2000's.

    But the answer isn't just to go home. The Obama response to the Ukrainian crisis was again pure Obama, but aside from the inevitable and impossible to thwart loss of Crimea, the sanctions and support have helped Ukraine muddy along, avoid the World War III that a number casually predicted, and gives Ukraine some breathing space to potentially become an EU-aligned democracy. That, in a corruption-plagued sphere, is not a given by any means, but if complete absence of corruption were required, Greece and Cyprus and Italy and "New Europe" wouldn't be part of the EU either.

    It's easy to go for the fences, claim great promises to all people, use the impossible as a standard. It never holds up, but especially in elections, these are the crowd-pleasing statements that drive the populist messaging that everyone craves. No more poverty, no more war, no more trade agreements, etc. Opium to the masses. Incrementalism never sells as well, but it's the only solution that usually gets accomplished, short of a typical revolution that runs as great a risk of killing millions as helping a few.

    The only actual practical solution I see is to speed up the pace of incrementalism in some way, to make it acceptable, measurable, predictable, enforceable.

    Right now the deck is rigged against those who've actually done something, for those who just chatter and have no responsibility. H.L. Mencken noted 100 years ago, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.". Someone else noted optimistically that every solution produces 5 more problems, but in our case, every action produces 5 or 10 enemies, 20 or more negative anecdotes or attributions, while pleasing only a couple of allies and drawing little praise. In other words, accepting & addressing complexity while more useful saps away our strength.

    While people call for better Democratic messaging, what they seem to want is the same quasi-true but in-general-wrong platitudes that are easy to comprehend but impossible to implement. Sure, we can build a wall, slap on a 15% tariff and hope for the best, but hoping largely doesn't cut it. When the US tried playing hardball with Milosevic, he sent hundreds of thousands of Albanians scampering towards the borders. Putin annexed Crimea and then hacked our elections. Even internal supporters will require their piece of flesh to uphold a bargain. It's all negotiation - either selling on cost or benefits or both - almost no one's in this for altruism and philanthropy.

    So how can we present a platform, policies, in a comprehensive way, that try not to simply demonize groups but demand accountability and progress in real measure? That search for the beauty of half-measures. And can that be presented in a way that's easily understandable, attractive, supportable?

    And since much is about leadership, not just policy - how do we take a Samantha Power and cultivate her passion, not extinguish it, make her more relevant and practical without turning her once enthusiasm and needed vitriol into mush?

    P.S. For all of Assange's gnashing of teeth over the US response to Wikileaks circa 2011, the official response was fairly mild, and the worst "damage" was to autocratic Arab leaderships. [No one could responsibly fully absolve Bradley/Chelsea Manning for whole scale leaks, though her pardon largely accepts & condones with conditions]. While it shook things up, sadly aside from Tunisia it didn't have the immediate benign outcomes that the fall of the Wall had. But that shouldn't be the entire post-mortem - there has been a softening and modernization in the Muslim world, a needed step forward. The issue is that the Mideast really *wasn't* ready for liberal democracy - the values released through populism were not always compatible with what we consider "modern values", even as those standards have been rapidly changing and adjusting year by year. Maybe next year or 5 years or ..., but it will come. It already is. Perhaps, perversely, us now acting worse will give them room and motive to act better.


    I hopped from the Seth Mandel piece to Andrew Ferguson's on Obama. The two pieces make a nice contrast: which is better, Shrieking Like a Banshee or King of So Much Cool That One Starts to Snore?

    It makes me see clearly: neither. Rather: a Bill Clinton, not a Hillary Clinton (who in actuality tends to have a little too much banshee for my taste at least.) There's a big difference between the two, whether Bill likes that judgment or not. There's not one around, unfortunately I got nothing else. Except that I still think, as I did back in 2003 with Bush, that the "outrage" thing doesn't work, doesn't solve anything. Want proof: just visit Israel v. Palestine.

    Yes, I don't think outrage quite gets it either - but how to keep the excitement up while handling the more mundane? How to even communicate that things are moving & where they're going, while the other side is busy burning the Hussites and storming the gates of Kiev (or at least claiming to)?

    It is hard to measure our efforts in an unbiased manner.
    The first problem is that criticisms couched in terms of the path not taken have the obvious problem of not providing much in the way of a comparison due to the fact that path was not taken. Not much evidence from that front, eh?
    If we can learn from experience, it means we take our limitations to heart. One has to go at least half way.
    The messaging of the last election cycle omitted consideration of a world as a place we had to fit into. It was only about what the rest of the world could do for us or our excellent qualities that we could continue to provide to them.
    I think we need to change this tune.

    All we can or should expect is an Obama. A "good enough" President.

    o One precedent- setting accomplishment (or per Joe Biden , a BFD):Obamacare .  Without an  offsetting  failure elsewhere of equivalent  magnitude . Despite the truly despicable  efforts of the (dis)loyal opposition.

    o Foreign policy ? Comme ci, comme ca.What you make on the bananas, you lose on the coconuts.

    o Civil liberties ? A lot of good stuff.

    o Presidential  image ? Excepting Carter and Bush 41 the first president since Ike  who wasn't an embarrassment to the office.. . 

    What's not to like? I'll take it.


      revised to add Bush 41

    Well-done Peracles, had overlooked this with the pace of news.  Your point is particularly well taken by yours truly, because I wrote a piece praising Ambassador Powers to no end a few years back. I was genuinely inspired by her book.  Here's a snippet of what I wrote, and don't think it's stood the test of time:

    Were Samantha Power free to speak on her own behalf right now, I submit she would, without hesitation, use every waking moment to promote whatever intervention is needed to stop the ISIS slaughter.  I understand the need to consider other factors surrounding any decision to step up our role.  Still, it is my firm belief and conviction that it is both fair and just to ask ourselves whether we as human beings living in the most powerful nation in the world can stand by yet again and do nothing -- as thousands or tens of thousands of innocent human beings  are slaughtered -- and right before our very eyes.

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