Power Outage, Part 2

It’s been a rough day for Samantha Power.

The flap over her “monster” comment was just brewing when another, slightly more substantive charge emerged. In an interview with the BBC, Power said that Barack Obama’s plan to pull out of Iraq within 16 months isn’t a commitment but a “best-case scenario” that Obama will have to revisit when he becomes president.

The Clinton camp is all over this one , saying it shows Obama isn’t actually serious about quick withdrawal. In a conference call today, a Clinton surrogate compared the remarks to what Austan Goolsbee allegedly said to Canadian officials about Obama’s commitment to NAFTA.

He’s right—this is like the NAFTA flap. But not how he means it. As with NAFTA, both candidates have been much more strident in their campaign rhetoric than they can possibly be as president. Obama and Clinton have condemned the free trade agreement but stopped short of saying they will scrap it. The only “commitment” they’ve made regarding NAFTA is to “renegotiate” it, without specifying what parts they would renegotiate. (Both say they would reform the deal’s labor and environmental standards, but that’s not the part manufacturing workers in Ohio are concerned about.)  

Similarly, both candidates are playing chicken on the subject of withdrawal from Iraq. Obama promises to “remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.” Clinton’s stance is less decisive: She promises to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to start bringing troops home within 60 days. But neither candidate has presented a definite “timetable for withdrawal,” let alone explained the logistics of pulling out such a massive force in such a short period.

The fact is, Power is exactly right. Whoever becomes president will be confronted with a much messier situation than the candidates acknowledge. “Best-case scenario” might not have been the ideal choice of words—”goal” sounds a little more optimistic— but Power was correct to say that “you can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009.” Essentially her point was that things change—a fact that neither candidate has been willing to admit. It’s disappointing that the first person to do so gets sacked.