Samantha Power Makes a Humanitarian Case for What Sounds Nothing Like a Humanitarian Intervention

Well-advertised, though announced only 24 hours earlier, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power’s appearance at the Center for American Progress was ringed by pomp. Outside the think tank’s downtown Washington offices, a dozen Code Pink protesters waved signs and bullhorned jokes at reporters. Inside, there were two security checkpoints to assure, presumably, that a speech for which 23 cameras would pack into a small room would not be interrupted.

And it was just that – a speech. Power took no questions, choosing instead to deliver 20 minutes of arguments for air strikes on Syria. She was preced by CAP President Neera Tanden, who offered a plea to fellow progressives.

“Many people of good will worry about mission creep, but the bottom line is that the use of chemical weapons on anyone, let alone on their own population, is an affront to humanity that can’t be ignored,” she said. And the strikes shouldn’t be compared pre-emptively to the invasion of Iraq. “As someone who opposed that war from beginning, let me say it would be tragic if Iraq, that needless and mindless war, colored our view of Syria.”

Power made the same case, giving liberal critics every assurance that she hated war as much as they did. “We Americans share a desire, after two wars, to invest taxpayer dollars in American schools and infrustructure,” she said. “This will not be Iraq, this will not be Afghanistan, this will not be Libya… public skepticism of foreign interventions is an extremely healthy phenomenon.”

The problem came when Power delineated the reasons why other options had been “exhausted,” and Assad could only be tamed with airstrikes. Among the reasons to act: “the Syrian regime is collaborating with Iran,” the Security council was frozen by “Russia, often backed by China, and “if Assad got away with using weapons “other regimes will seek to require or use them.” She asked the audience to think of the plight of a Syrian father who lost his family, and evoked the memory of the Clinton administration’s Bosnia intervention. “Public opinion consistently opposed action there,” she said. “The House of Representatives, reflecting public opinion, voted against deploying troops to a NATO mission.”

But she insisted that the Syria intervention would not, strictly speaking, be so comprehensive. Intervention was “not designed to solve the entire Syria problem.” The United States would destroy some stockpiles, send a message, get out.

After Power finished (a security detail preventing any unseemly scrum of reporters), I asked founding CAP president and former Clinton chief of staff about the effort to win progressives over to the cause. Would they face backlashes if they ended up voting for this intervention?

“There’s no question that the public in general leans against this thing,” he said, “and I’m sure that’s true for most progressives as well.”