Samantha Power on How To “Frame” Withdrawal

AUSTIN, TEXAS Samantha Power has kept a low profile ever since leaving the Obama campaign. But she resurfaced Saturday to appear on a panel about “war pundits” at Netroots Nation.

Power no longer speaks for the Obama campaign, at least not officially. But her answer to one question about the “human costs of withdrawal” from Iraq captured the same nuanced view of the war that, in part, forced her resignation. (She left after referring to Obama’s withdrawal plan on British television as a “best-case scenario.” Well, that and calling Hillary Clinton a “monster.”) It also captured a potential split between Obama, who would agree with Power on this one, and his supporters on the left.

During her presentation, Power had spoken about the need to acknowledge that withdrawal could get ugly. Tom Matzzie, former Washington director for, objected to her “framing.”   Here’s the whole exchange (cleaned up a bit for readability):

Tom Matzzie: The question is really about framing, and about building the story about what withdrawal means. The human consequences are something you have to consider, but we can’t help the right build the frame that disengagement is going to have negative humanitarian consequences. … The war’s already a tragedy, you know? That’s why you don’t want to get into them, they’re tragedies. So I’d be interested about how you can revise your language to help not build that right-wing frame. …

Samantha Power: I don’t feel inclined to revise my frame out of deference to this manifestly moribund discourse that the administration and its supporters inflicted upon us in the course of the last few years.

By avoiding addressing John McCain’s apocalyptic claims about what will follow a U.S. withdrawal, we have allowed his claims to hang above the Iraq debate. When he says, as he said last year, that when we leave Iraq it’s going to make Srebrenica and Rwanda look like a Sunday school picnic—those were his analogies that he used on multiple occasions—and we say, No no, it’s going to be fine , because we don’t want to address that there could be any downside at all to withdrawal, I think we’re giving him a free pass.

I think we can instead say, [look at] all the costs—to Iraqis, to the region, to Afghanistan, to the military readiness, to U.S. national security—of staying, and address that head on, and then say the costs of leaving are unknowable. You, who predicted we’d have a cakewalk, are now to be trusted to tell us it’s going to be like Rwanda when we leave? How’s that? …

[Then we say], there are always risks, there are always consequences that are unknowable. Here’s what we’re going to do to address the concern. I think that’s a much more effective approach than to say, Oh , just because all the violence followed us into Iraq it’s going to follow us out of Iraq. I think it’s insulting to the American voter, the American people who know that certain things are unknowable. … That kind of belief that it’s all or nothing is in its own way analogous to the old one that was in this administration.

It makes you wonder how much of this Obama can say. Acknowledging the costs of withdrawal is one thing. Convincing people that the costs of leaving will be less than the cost of staying is different, especially when the costs of staying—at least in terms of human lives—appears to be decreasing. It’s a minefield Obama may have to navigate soon if Prime Minister Maliki’s endorsement of his withdrawal plan carries as much weight as people seem to think .