The Dubious Shock Over Samantha Power’s Comments on Iraq


In one of the many classic scenes from Casablanca, Captain Renault said, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” I recalled that line, and the questionable shock, when seeing all the uproar over Samantha Power’s comments on Iraq during a BBC interview (video above, transcript follows):

STEPHEN SACKUR: Let me stop you just for a moment. You said that he’ll revisit it when he goes to the White House. So what the American public thinks is a commitment to get combat forces out within sixteen months isn’t a commitment, isn’t it?

POWER: You can’t make a commitment in whatever month we’re in now, in March of 2008, about what circumstances are gonna be like in Jan. 2009. We can’t even tell what Bush is up to in terms of troop pauses and so forth. He will of course not rely upon some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or as a U.S. senator. He will rely upon a plan, an operational plan that he pulls together, in consultation with people who are on the ground, to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president.

So to think, I mean it would be the height of ideology, you know, to sort of say, “Well I said it, therefore I’m going to impose it on whatever reality entreats me” —

SACKUR: OK, so the 16 months is negotiable?

POWER: It’s a best case scenario.

SACKUR: It’s a best case scenario.

POWER: It is, on the basis —

SACKUR: And of course in Iraq we’ve never seen best cases come off —

POWER: We have never seen best cases.

SACKUR: So we needn’t necessarily take it seriously at all.

POWER: What we can take seriously is that he will try to get U.S. forces out as quickly and as responsibly as possible, and that that’s the best case estimate of what it would take.

Politically this was a mistake, but in reality nobody should have been shocked. Anyone who believes that the statements by any candidate with regards to exactly what they will do in Iraq can be taken as a firm prediction or guarantee are fooling themselves. Until someone is in office, sees the conditions on the ground, and sees the response to their negotiations, it is impossible to give an exact time table.

This is true of Obama, and it is true of Hillary Clinton. Recently General Jack Keane, who has advised Clinton, made a very similar statement:

“Senator Clinton is very knowledgeable about national security and is probably going to be strong on defense,” he said. “I have no doubts whatsoever that if she were president in January ’09 she would not act irresponsibly and issue orders to conduct an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, regardless of the consequences, and squander the gains that have been made.” Mr. Keane added that he could not imagine any president in the White House making that kind of decision.

The Obama campaign acted shocked and criticized Clinton for this comment, just as Clinton supporters are now acting shocked over the more recent comment by Samantha Power. While we cannot expect statements during a presidential race to be exact predictions of what will occur once a candidate is in office, we can safely predict that either campaign will jump on the opportunity to attack the other in situations such as this.

With regards to Iraq, my decision as to who to support is based upon their underlying foreign policy views and view of the Iraq war, not the specifics of their plans to leave. It is important that the candidate understand that our very presence causes problems, as compared to John McCain who sees no problem with an American presence for another one hundred years. Similarly it is important to have a president who is less likely to make the same mistake, such as by having understood from the start that the war was a mistake. Comparing Obama’s initial opposition to the war to Clinton’s support, as well as her citing the 9/11 attack as a justification for attacking Iraq, is far more important than how many months each candidate says it will take to leave Iraq.

How Obama Will Bring About Change

In last week’s column, Jonathan Alter gave some reasons why he believes Obama can bring about change:

Obama’s got a few assets in the Washington change game that have gone underappreciated. The first is that he’s a senator. Comfortable with dominating their state legislatures, governors-turned-presidents often neglect congressional relations. (FDR and Ronald Reagan were rare exceptions.) Obama was smart enough to hire former majority leader Tom Daschle’s well-regarded staffers, who would likely follow him into the White House. He’s not in John McCain’s league in working across the aisle, but he has cultivated some important relationships.

For instance, archconservative Sen. Tom Coburn routinely puts a “hold” on dozens of bills (yes, a single senator can obstruct the whole process). He put one on a bill cosponsored by Obama and GOP Sen. Richard Lugar to clean up dangerous conventional weapons scattered across the former Soviet Union. According to Lugar’s office, it was only Obama’s unlikely friendship with Coburn that persuaded the Oklahoman to lift his hold and allow the bill to become law. The two senators from opposite sides of the spectrum go out to dinner (along with their wives) and clown around in the cloakroom, with Obama teasing Coburn that he can muss his hair, but Coburn can’t muss back. Deploying this kind of charm might seem trivial, but it’s an important reason FDR and Reagan got so much through.

Another Obama advantage is that he’s showing signs of a quality ascribed to Roosevelt—”longheadedness.” Behind their enigmatic smiles, longheaded politicians look farther downfield than most. In Obama’s case, that means that the onetime community organizer is likely to apply to congressional votes the same meticulous planning he’s using to win caucus states. To that end, he has already prioritized his presidency, with ending the war, reforming health care and beginning the transition to a prosperous “green economy” as the big three changes he wants to be judged on.

All the planning in the world is worthless if a president can’t inspire and excite the American people. In researching a book on FDR, I learned that on March 4, 1933, a woman brought along four handkerchiefs to an Inaugural reception, one for each of her children, so that after shaking hands with the new president she could wipe her hand on each hankie and thereby preserve traces of her hero’s sweat for each child. That sounds like some of the delirium I’ve seen at Obama events. If it continues, he could bring a lot more change than the cynics think.

Girl in Red Phone Ad Wants Obama to Answer Phone

When Hillary Clinton’s campaign had the “red phone” ad made, stock footage from eight years ago of two girls in bed was used. The girls are now older, and have a definite preference as to who should answer that 3 a.m. phone call:

The first girl in the ad is young Casey Knowles. It’s stock footage from eight years ago when she worked as a TV extra – footage owned now by Getty Images and used by the Clinton campaign.

But they couldn’t have picked a more unwilling star.

“It’s really sort of ironic that my image would be used to advocate for Hillary when I myself do not,” said Casey.

She may only be 17, but Casey has some very strong political opinions. She turns 18 – legal voting age – in April, in plenty of time before the general election.

“It’s perfect timing because I have a candidate that I really identify with,” she said.

“I’ve been campaigning for Barack Obama for a few months now,” she said. “I was actually a precinct captain at the caucuses a few months ago. I attended his rally a few months ago and I’m a very, very avid supporter.”

The Knowles family admit they have no control over how the footage is used. And while they see the humor of it all, they are mildly annoyed.

“I think it would be really wonderful if me and Barack Obama could get together and make a nice counter ad,” she laughed.

On Saturday, the Obama campaign released this statement: “The Obama campaign appreciates her support and all of her efforts on behalf of our campaign for change.”

Obama Wins in Wyoming

Barack Obama has beaten Hillary Clinton in the Wyoming caucus, winning the last thirteen out of sixteen contests. Obama is leading 59% to 40% and is expected to pick up a net of two additional delegates.

Unlike many other recent caucuses, Clinton did compete in the state, hoping that an upset would blunt Obama’s momentum. Wyoming’s caucus is also closed independents but this has not hindered Obama who has not always done as well among Democratic voters.