- Samantha Powerforeign policy adviser to Sen. Barack Obama. She is a Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard University and the former head of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. In 2003, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Her latest book is a biography of UN diplomat Sergio de Mello called Chasing the Flame.
Samantha Power discusses Obama’s foreign policy platform and why she temporarily left her post at Harvard University to advise the presidential candidate. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: On the campaign trail, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama came under criticism from several quarters for his stances on foreign policy this weekend. Republican presidential frontrunner John McCain called Obama “dangerously naive” for saying he would be willing to meet with Raul Castro, the new president of Cuba. And Democratic rival candidate Hillary Clinton sent an email to supporters accusing Obama of backtracking on earlier calls for normalizing relations with Havana, now making such a step contingent on progress toward democracy. Meanwhile, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader accused Obama of switching his view on the Israel-Palestine conflict once he became a US senator.
Well, where does Barack Obama stand on foreign policy issues? Samantha Power is Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser. She is a professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard University, former head of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. In 2003, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Her latest book is a biography of UN diplomat Sergio de Mello called Chasing the Flame.
On Friday, Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez and I sat down with Samantha Power.
JUAN GONZALEZ: As a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama, I’d like to ask you about Latin America. At last night’s debate, there was quite a few areas of discussion and debate on immigration, on Cuba, and Barack Obama raised specifically the neglect of Latin America under the current administration. But he also raised it from the perspective that people like Hugo Chavez are problems for the United States and that that’s — because of that neglect, we have so many problems, whereas other people look at what’s happening in Latin America as an enormous flowering of popular democracy that has occurred in many of these countries. Your sense of what would be the policy of Barack Obama toward Latin America? Would he seek to sort of find ways to contend in a more intelligent way with people like Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, or would he welcome these new developments that have been occurring throughout the region?
SAMANTHA POWER: Well, of course, the answer to “Will he engage in a more intelligent way?” is a resounding yes. But I think that, first of all, one has to just start by saying that Latin America has been always the kind of orphan of American foreign policy, or worse, a place where we play out our own ideological agendas, and Obama’s certainly very aware of the history there and the level of suspicion of US motives. So just to go to Latin America from a position of actually, again, thinking in terms of dignity and autonomy and self-determination and the fact that there are elected governments in Latin America that have to be treated as partners and treated with respect, that’s giving Latin America its due. Making it a priority for foreign policy would be itself a breakthrough.
I think what he was saying about Chavez and what I’ve heard him say in the past is, there are plenty of things that Chavez is doing domestically that I think those of us who care about human rights and human dignity — at least I speak for myself — find very problematic. But Chavez has been able to galvanize an awful lot of support, even for doing those things, because, of course, he has stood up to President Bush. And when the United States presents an alternative model for actually how to advance human rights and human dignity, rather than, in a sense, confirmation of what Hugo Chavez is saying most days, that’s actually going to make for a much more interesting conversation.
But the other thing that Obama has said from the start, as you know, is he wants to be in the room with everybody, unconditionally. He doesn’t think that meeting with the president of the United States is a reward you get for good behavior. He thinks that by being in the room, you actually identify whether there are sources of agreement. If, for instance, Ahmadinejad in Iran — I know it’s not your question — but even Chavez, continues to deviate from what Obama thinks are international norms that should be adhered to domestically, then that’s a problem. But at least you will be in the room. The United States will not be seen or Barack Obama will not be seen to be the problem. We’ll actually be able to focus on what Chavez does well and what Chavez does badly from the standpoint of the Venezuelan people.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s much difference on the issue of foreign policy between Clinton and Obama?
SAMANTHA POWER: I think there are profound differences, yeah. I mean, I think what Obama is able to do is look at the world as it is today. A lot of tectonic plates have shifted over the last decade. I mean, they’ve been shifting, of course, for a long time. But I think the danger of thinking one can dust off policies from the 1990s or simply get rid of the driver of the car, that George Bush is the driver of the car, and you just get rid of the driver and then you put in a new driver and everything’s fine — I think Obama, when he talks about changing the mindset that gave rise to Iraq, he’s talking about changing the driver, the car and the road we’re on.
And the fact that he had the courage of his convictions to stand up to the — against the war in October 2002, people talk about that as an example of his judgment, which I think it is. He predicted with uncanny prescience — I mean, you all did, as well, of course, but — the sectarian violence, the degree to which one sector of our society would be stuck shouldering the national security burden, how we weren’t all part of this so-called war on terror, that there was no sacrifice being asked of anybody in terms of restoring our standing in the world, and so forth. I mean, he nailed it in terms of substance, but moreover, he did not focus-group his way to understanding what our foreign policy should be.
And that’s true also on the debate over whether you talk to our so-called enemies or to our rivals in the world. I mean, all the pundits would have said, “No, don’t say that! You can’t say that!” On Cuba also, everybody said, “No. Florida! You can’t — you can’t say you’re going to open up the relationship and allow remittances and travel. You’ll pay a price.” And Obama, in the case of the Iraq war judgment, in the case of talking to dictators or talking to our foes — or however one wants to look at it — in the case of Cuba, in the case of saying he wants to live in a nuclear-free world, who says that? You’re not allowed to say that in American politics. And he said, “I’m not saying we’re going to disarm unilaterally tomorrow, but what I’m saying is how did it become inconceivable in American politics to even state that the world would be better if it didn’t have nuclear weapons? It would simply be better. It would be a safer world.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: About this issue of the Iraq war, as I know there’s been much discussion about it and certainly on this show, we early on raised many of the questions in terms of the justifications for the war. But it does seem to me that it’s a little bit different being a state legislator in Illinois from a district that’s probably very much antiwar and having him being in the US Senate. If he had been in the US Senate and taken the same position at the time, I think that would have been a much firmer stand, that he could say, “I was against the war from the beginning.” But when you’re in a district in Illinois, you’re along with about one-third to 40 percent of the American people who at that time were questioning of the war to a large degree, and I think that it was a tougher situation for those who were in the Senate. It still doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton was right in her judgment, but I find it hard to equate the two positions because of the relative differences in where they were at the time.
SAMANTHA POWER: I think that’s a fair point. I think Obama has made the same point, right, that there are different circumstances. But so I think for that reason it’s good to just focus on his circumstance and draw attention, though, to the fact that he was about to run his first statewide campaign to become a US senator.
He started with one major drawback, which is that his last name was Obama. As it happens, his middle name was Hussein, remains both — both remain true. And if you start with those, at that time, which would be seen in mainstream political circles as major liabilities, to compound your woes — and believe me, anybody who knew Barack Obama from the time he was in law school onward was already referring to him as a future presidential candidate. I mean, first African American president of the Harvard Law Review — everybody knows the biography by now.
So it’s not as if he was simply thinking about, you know, his judgment in the moment. He had people whispering in his ear and saying, “You may live in an antiwar district for these five minutes of your life, but you’re going big time. Are you sure you want to put this on your record?” And he’s saying, “I’m not getting into national public service from the standpoint of simply thinking about myself. The whole point of this is to actually take a stand on issues of life and death.” And everybody’s saying, “But what about Sam Nunn? Don’t you remember Sam Nunn, Georgia senator, Southern Democrat? He had such a bright political future, and he opposed the Persian Gulf War, and then he was doomed. He could never run for president. Do you really want that to happen to you? And you’ve already got the name Obama.” And Obama said, “I’m going to stand up.” So I completely take your point, and I think one doesn’t even have to do the compare and contrast between state senate and US Senate to simply look also at Obama’s life trajectory and his willingness to risk it with a stand.
AMY GOODMAN: But then, when he gets into the Senate, he, like Hillary Clinton, continually vote for the war funding, when many antiwar activists saying pull out now.
SAMANTHA POWER: I think prior to the election in 2006 — and I worked with Obama in the Senate at that time, so I can speak to this a little bit — there’s no way for me to convey to you how impotent one felt with Republicans controlling the House, the Senate and the White House. There was no chance that this president was going to pull out of Iraq, none. And what you had was his intention of going full-throttle on the war and US soldiers who were not getting the equipment, who were not getting veterans’ care, who were not getting, who were not getting, who were not getting. Obama was truly torn between what would have been a symbolic vote, but one also that would have, from his standpoint, basically signaled turning his back on the US soldiers who were not being tended to by the very administration that had put them into harm’s way.
AMY GOODMAN: But then Democrats came into power, and the funding continued.
SAMANTHA POWER: But he came in, and he was put forth a plan with a concrete — he was the first person to come out with a concrete timeline for withdrawal. But when President Bush vetoed that, as soon as he vetoed it on the heels of the 2006 election, Obama then voted against the funding. And I should say that Senator Clinton waited to see how Obama would vote and then, in turn, herself also voted against the funding.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.
SAMANTHA POWER: Well, the Hillary part or the Obama’s funding part?
AMY GOODMAN: Hillary.
SAMANTHA POWER: Um.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the day of the vote?
SAMANTHA POWER: Yes. No, no, no, just waited as people have to make their judgments. And, I mean, maybe it was just a coincidence of timing, but Obama voted first against the funding, and then Senator Clinton followed. But to your point, which I think is a good one, I think this is something he has to explain to the base of the Democratic Party.
But for him, it was, oh, my goodness, the American people have spoken, we’ve got the House and Senate back, we’re now in a position. We’ve presented a very responsible plan for withdrawal with a timeline that should accommodate national security interests, as well as Iraqi interests, finally. And the President is just so hell-bent on this war that no amount of voice exercised in unison in the United States of America is going to make him change his mind and also that the equipment needs and those pipelines had been — those issues, he felt, had been at least resolved to some satisfaction. So now it’s just time to say that we’ve got to stop this guy somehow.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Samantha Power, Barack Obama calling for the unilateral attack on Pakistan, given certain circumstances?
SAMANTHA POWER: I mean, that is not exactly what he called for. What he said was, if — it was on the heels of the National Intelligence Estimate, which showed that the al-Qaeda leaders were hanging out in northwestern Pakistan, were giving Musharraf $1 billion of aid, uncritically, and we need to send a signal to him that if he doesn’t act, we are going to go after Pakistan. That didn’t mean bombing. It didn’t mean — he wasn’t at all specific. But it meant that, from Obama’s standpoint, you can’t allow al-Qaeda’s leadership to persist.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I have one last question, having watched many of these debates, as, on one hand, he argues that the arrogance of old of the United States around the world needs to change; on the other hand, he has argued to sharply increase the size of the US military, I think, by 90,000 troops, when this country already has a military budget that is equal to the rest of the world combined. Why does the United States need more military troops?
SAMANTHA POWER: I think because, much more than I, anyway, he has spent the better part of the last decade spending time with military families and has some sense of just how broken the military is right now, at its bending or its breaking point, from the standpoint of overstretch, from the — and this, I’m talking really specifically about soldiers, because what Obama has also said is that “we’re going to go through the books, because I’m not dependent on federal lobbyists and I’m not dependent on PAC money, and we’re going to purge our reliance on these obsolete weapons systems that are more about rewarding campaign contributions than they are about protecting national security and actually dealing with twenty-first century challenges.”
So I think that there are two aspects to this. One, how are you dealing with young men and women who go into the armed services, who have been put in harm’s way, who are not being adequately tended to — reservists, National Guard’s people? And I should say that even the issues that Sergio de Mello dealt with — I mean, ultimately peacekeeping and things that sound innocuous and noble — require soldiers, require, in some cases, police. We haven’t — and I think US soldiers and US police going to these places these days certainly would do more harm than good. But if you could imagine some day the closure of Guantanamo, the renunciation of torture, the responsible withdrawal from Iraq that actually puts the Iraqis as a centerpiece in people’s minds as you get out of Iraq, which is not something the debate has focused nearly adequately enough from Obama’s standpoint, if you could actually get to that moment where, you know, the United States could actually be supportive of peacekeeping missions, could transport soldiers to Darfur to flesh out that peacekeeping force, I mean, the dirty secret of peacekeeping is it requires military force. And for the United States to stand on the sidelines, I think, is also going to be a problem. I recognize all of the complexity of what I’m saying.
AMY GOODMAN: But as you say, you know, he’s looking at a broken military now because it is so overstretched. The idea is that if he were president, I think he’s putting forward that — if he’s saying he would pull out of Iraq —-
SAMANTHA POWER: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: —- well, there are your soldiers. Why would he call for vastly expanding the US military?
SAMANTHA POWER: Well, this is what I’m trying to suggest is that there are going to be functions for US soldiers to perform. Afghanistan is something that has been grossly neglected both from a humanitarian standpoint and from a stabilizing standpoint. European countries who have taken some delight in criticizing George Bush over the last seven years, as so many of us, I suppose, have — or not some delight, but have done it with such ease because of the big target that he constitutes both of militarism and incompetence — but have themselves now basically said, “We don’t want to be part of burden-sharing. We don’t want to be part of stabilizing Afghanistan. We’re getting out. We’re not going to go to the dangerous places, where the Taliban are locking women up in basements again,” and so forth. So, I mean, there are national security and humanitarian challenges out there that are going to require American attention, and sometimes that’s going to require military attention.
And, I mean, even just to give the families who come out of Iraq a breather, and Obama’s aim is to get those soldiers out within sixteen to eighteen months, a brigade or two a month. You still — I mean, again, the extent of the bending and the breaking, most — so many of the soldiers are National Guard’s people and reservists; they’re not actually professional military soldiers. And sadly, the private — we just had Jeremy on talking, who wrote the wonderful book on Blackwater — private security firms are drawing people out of the US military. It is not seen as an attractive destination for men and women because of the abuse that it has been subjected to by this administration. And so, there’s a whole lot of fixing and healing that is going to need to go on and a whole lot of rebuilding of trust that needs doing.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been talked about as a possible secretary of state if Barack Obama were to become president.
SAMANTHA POWER: By people who know absolutely nothing about our campaign, but, I mean, I don’t know if that’s — how to even take that, but there’s no chance of that. But —-
AMY GOODMAN: Of Barack Obama becoming president or you becoming secretary of state?
SAMANTHA POWER: Right, no. Hillary’s got her sound bite for the interview: “Adviser says no chance of Obama becoming president.” No, I hope -— we are all guarding against what Obama calls our Iowa heads. You know, we can’t get big heads. We can’t get Iowa heads. So, in terms of whether Obama can become president, it’s literally one precinct at a time right now.
But I’ve never thought about going into government, never thought about getting into politics. And when I met Obama in 2005 just actually at a meeting to talk about how to fix American foreign policy, he read A Problem from Hell and just wanted to discuss what the components of a tough, smart and humane foreign policy that would be not just a critique of Bush, but an alternative, would be, and we were supposed to meet for an hour, and an hour gave ways to a second hour and a third hour and a fourth. As we entered our fourth hour, I heard myself saying, “Why don’t I quit my job at Harvard and come and intern in your office?” And so, I’ve been blown away by him from start to finish. I don’t have any aspiration to go into government, but I do — I would like to do anything I can going forward to help Obama. So if that means going into government, I suppose that’s what it’s going to require, but believe me, he —- it’s not obvious to me that that would be something he would want. But, you know, I think if we’re all talking about how we need to share the sacrifice and respond to the call to service, it would be a little hypocritical to continue to sound off in my column and write books and so forth. And I think you sort of have to put your money where your mouth is at some point. So -—
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s a yes?
SAMANTHA POWER: It’s a yes to a question that’s never been asked to me, never would be asked, I suppose.
AMY GOODMAN: Samantha Power, senior foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama. When we come back, our conversation with her about her new book about the UN diplomat Sergio de Mello. Stay with us.