Samantha Power, known as a blunt critic of U.S. foreign policy, appeared subdued and deferential as she appeared before senators Wednesday seeking confirmation to succeed Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there was no sign of the firebrand who referred to the United States as an “empire,” who lambasted the Clinton administration for “virtually no interest in stopping” the Rwandan genocide, who mocked the Bush administration’s Iran policy as “a lurch from one imagined crisis to the next,” or who complained of Israel’s “major human rights abuses” toward the Palestinians.
Instead, Power backtracked on just about every criticism she’s ever lobbed at a U.S. administration and offered platitudes in lieu of nuance: “I believe the United States is the greatest country on earth. I really do.”
Power’s fans were dismayed and her critics dubious as her responses were parsed on Twitter, where her name was trending. Anyone who expected fresh, creative ideas on the issues of the day were disappointed to hear Power echo the Obama administration’s standard lines of tough talk on Iran, a hesitancy on Syria, a wait-and-see approach on Egypt, and, above all, unconditional support for Israel.
Most bizarrely, analysts said, was that Power’s remarks didn’t need to be so “over the top,” as one observer put it. Her confirmation looks to be a sure thing; the 42-year-old mother of two appeared at the Capitol flanked by Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, and enjoyed vocal support from both sides of the aisle.
A letter in support of Power’s nomination, signed by a long, bipartisan list of foreign policy and national security luminaries, specifically mentioned her criticisms of the U.S. response to genocide as helpful “so that we can more forcefully stand up” to confront repressive regimes around the world.
“She didn’t need to pander,” said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and Washington correspondent for the Middle East-focused Al-Monitor.com.
But Peter Galbraith, a former senior U.S. diplomat, said he empathized with Power, an old friend. He recalled being in the hot seat at the same age, trying to win confirmation as ambassador to Croatia, despite his record of heavy criticism of U.S. handling of the war at the time.
Galbraith said he gave safe, uncontroversial answers to senators who knew very well his real positions because he’d briefed them privately. He said a toned-down Power was to be expected at the hearing because her goal would be to get the job, then work her influence from within.
“The sole purpose of a confirmation hearing for a nominee is to get confirmed,” Galbraith said. “It is not the forum to present your worldview. It is a forum to avoid controversy, and you’re there to explain the administration’s positions. That’s a transition from being an advocate, an academic or a journalist.”
Lawmakers asked Power about how to trim the peacekeeping budget and bring about other reforms at the notoriously bureaucratic U.N. She gave concise answers, taking pains to avoid any headline-grabbing missteps. They also took her on a global tour of urgent world crises.
On Egypt, Power said she wouldn’t be baited into weighing in on whether the recent military takeover was a coup. She said she wasn’t “equipped to comment” and deferred to the White House.
On Syria, she blasted Bashar Assad’s regime for writing “a new playbook for brutality,” but offered no prescription for reducing the violence, which has claimed more than 90,000 lives. She conceded that the U.N. Security Council deadlock is “incredibly frustrating,” and said there was little reason to be optimistic about a breakthrough, particularly with the Russians.
On Israel, Power fervently pledged to help it win inclusion on the Security Council rotation and to work against any Palestinian bid for statehood.
“Israel’s legitimacy should be beyond dispute, and its security must be beyond doubt,” she said. “And just as I have done as President Obama’s U.N. adviser at the White House, I will stand up for Israel and work tirelessly to defend it.”
On Iran, Power sounded uncharacteristically hawkish, dismissing the much-heralded election of relative moderate President Hasan Rouhani as far from free or fair. She referred at least three times to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” even though the U.S. intelligence community has said repeatedly that it doesn’t believe Iran has restarted a program it suspended in 2003, Slavin said.
Power sounded almost jingoistic as she was quizzed on a 2003 essay in which she called for “a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States.” Power explained that she “probably very much overstated the case,” and waxed poetic about the United States being the greatest country on earth, with nothing to apologize for.
A puzzled-looking Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., replied, “So your answer to whether we committed or sponsored crimes is that the United States is the greatest country on earth?”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, only days ago described Power as “an excellent choice” for the U.N. post because of her extensive work chronicling human rights violations, especially in Bosnia. Power won a Pulitzer Prize for what’s considered a definitive book on genocide.
Roth, however, sounded less than enthusiastic about Power’s performance Wednesday, after she pledged to defend Israel from “bias,” but gave it a pass on its human rights record with Palestinians.
“Sad that Samantha Power feels compelled to say her 1st UN priority will be to address disproportionate Israel focus,” Roth said on his Twitter account.
Slavin, a longtime foreign policy analyst, said she was surprised that Power seemed so willing to ditch the stances that had been praised as refreshingly candid.
“The thing that disturbed me was that she disowned quite a number of sensible things she said before joining the administration,” Slavin said. “She was repudiating very legitimate criticism of U.S. policy she’d made over the years.”
As leader of the so-called “liberal interventionist” pack, Power was instrumental in persuading President Barack Obama to intervene militarily in Libya, joining the NATO-led campaign that ultimately led to Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster.
However, analysts said, Power is no longer wedded to just one definition of intervention. She’s fond of referring to a “tool box” of options, including sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans.
She might need to dig deeper in the toolbox for Syria, on which U.S. policy remains muddy as the war grinds into a third year. If confirmed for the U.N. post, Power would be under enormous pressure to break the Security Council deadlock over Syria and to help decide the appropriate U.S. response to recent military setbacks faced by the rebels fighting Assad.
That, her supporters say, is where her signature candor – absent Wednesday – must reappear.
“The issue is not whether she’ll be able to speak out, it’s whether the president will listen to her,” Galbraith said. “And I think he will.”