samantha power’s syria speech, annotated

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, spoke on Friday at the DC-based Center for American Progress, delivering a stirring defense of the Obama administration’s proposed plan for limited military intervention in Syria. As political speeches go, hers was a good one, and as many commentators observed in its aftermath, one which a senior-level official should have delivered much sooner. Not because of its policy impact, which is likely minimal, but because the administration has not proven concerned with deliberative democracy. Public justification is an important democratic process, which in an elevated sense lends marginal moral virtue to public policy decisions of national importance. However artificial the deliberative process may be–and it quite obviously is, as administration officials have clearly made up their mind on Syria–the twin discourses of deliberation and justification strengthen civic culture.

Power is an official I admire, and one who has provided much inspiration for the content of this blog:. Like many political liberals, and many mass atrocity prevention advocates, I read her history of U.S. (non-)response to genocide as a call to civic arms. Insofar as I have heroes, she probably tops my list (others: Tony Judt, Atticus Finch, Winnie the Pooh). Hero-criticism is a difficult task, particularly when those heroes are graced with tremendous power. Andrew Sniderman, of “human-rights drones” fame, did this well here, shortly before the current administration’s march to limited military intervention.

Whatever my personal outlook on Power’s opus, she is clearly an important–indeed, formative–member of what is increasingly defined as the “mass atrocity prevention community”: that is, the loose coalition of people who think mass atrocities are morally important, and that they merit political attention. As Tibi Galis often says, this community might be best defined by its ideological pluralism, rather than its common language. Within this community, there are many who disagree with the merits of the “responsibility to protect” norm, with classifications of “local” and “international” peacebuilding,” and undoubtedly with the efficacy and moral value of military force, however limited. The process of creating a community is dialectic: it results from the practical synthesis of divergent voices, rather than the consolidation of consensus. Below, I’ve annotated Power’s speech, in hopes of displaying this pluralistic outlook:

Samantha Power: Good afternoon.

A very sensible greeting, given the time of day.

SP: I’m very glad to be back in Washington this afternoon and among so many friends here at the Center for American Progress. As you know, my topic today is Syria, which presents one of the most critical foreign policy challenges we face. Syria is important because it lies at the heart of a region critical to U.S. security, a region that is home to friends and partners and one of our closest allies. It is important because the Syrian regime possesses stores of chemical weapons that they have recently used on a large scale and that we cannot allow to fall into terrorists’ hands.

It is important because the Syrian regime is collaborating with Iran and works in lockstep with thousands of extremist fighters from Hezbollah.

These are important points, but appear inconsequential to the present task. As I’ve discussed before, advocates over the past decade have embraced the alleged convergence of mass atrocity prevention and national security. One presumes that Power’s concern, as a mass atrocity-concerned official within the U.S. government, is also the convergence of both themes. U.S. national security, strictly defined, refers to the safety of U.S. persons and infrastructure around the world, and to the continuity of direct U.S. interests, such as military operations and private business activities. For Syria’s mass atrocity to impact U.S. national security interests, Power would have to demonstrate that the Syrian regime’s mass killing of civilians affects any of those prior characteristics; given her comments, it’s not clear that this relationship occurs. Power’s stuck in an argumentative rut, so to speak. Either U.S. national security interests, strictly defined, are not a useful moral frame to justify actions against Syria’s mass atrocity; or, the way we understand what matters to U.S. security exceeds our present discourse, and we need to expand this moral frame. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but Power’s comments accommodate neither.

SPAnd Syria is important because its people, in seeking freedom and dignity, have suffered unimaginable horror these past two and a half years. But I also recognize how ambivalent Americans are about the situation there. On the one hand, we Americans share a desire, after two wars which have taken 6,700 American lives and cost over $1 trillion to invest taxpayer dollars in American schools and infrastructure. Yet, on the other hand, Americans have heard the president’s commitment that this will not be Iraq, this will not be Afghanistan, this will not be Libya. Any use of force will be limited and tailored narrowly to the chemical weapons threat.

On the one hand, we share the deep conviction that chemical weapons are barbaric, that we should never again see children killed in their beds, lost to a world that they never had the chance to try to change.

Yet, on the other hand, some are wondering why, given the flagrant violation of an international norm, it is incumbent on the United States to lead since we cannot and should not be the world’s policeman.

This seems like a credible commitment to limited action, but it’s a contradictory conceit. The policy phenomenon of “mission creep,” which most detractors use to describe the expansion of a previously-limited military mandate, is best understood as “institutionally necessary,” and not “inevitable.” In this circumstance, mission creep makes sense, given the policy bureaucracy’s goals. If the U.S. wants to limit the use of chemical weapons, the Obama administration must decide what that means. Do you target the weapons themselves, an action which could carry grave humanitarian consequences? Or, do you target the military command that controls the weapons, in the hopes that such an action would either annihilate their capacity to use them, or at the very least deter the command’s future intentions? In either circumstance, a “limited and tailored” operation won’t cut it: to target the weapons, but limit their second-order impact, you would need an on-the-ground capacity to manage the technical details; to target the military command, likewise. I have no knowledge of the U.S. government’s current capabilities, but they would clearly need to extend beyond a “limited and tailored” cornucopia of military strikes.

SP: Notwithstanding these complexities, notwithstanding the various concerns that we all share, I’m here today to explain why the cost of not taking targeted, limited military action are far greater than the risks of going forward in the manner that President Obama has outlined.

Every decision to use military force is an excruciatingly difficult one. It is especially difficult when one filters the Syria crisis through the prism of the past decade.

But let me take a minute to discuss the uniquely monstrous crime that has brought us to this crossroads. What comes to mind, for me, is one father, Nalguta (ph), saying goodbye to his two young daughters. His girls had not yet been shrouded. They were still dressed in the pink shorts and leggings of little girls. The father lifted their lifeless bodies, cradled them, and cried out, “Wake up! What would I do without you? How do I stand this pain?”

As a parent, I cannot begin to answer his questions. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to feel such searing agony. In arguing for limited military action in the wake of this mass casualty chemical weapons atrocity, we are not arguing that Syrian lives are worth protecting only when they are threatened with poison gas.

Rather, we are reaffirming what the world has already made plain in laying down its collective judgment on chemical weapons. There is something different about chemical warfare that raises the stakes for the United States and raises the stakes for the world.

There are many reasons the government representing 98 percent of the world’s population, including all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, agreed to ban chemical weapons. These weapons kill in the most gruesome possible way. They kill indiscriminately. They are incapable of distinguishing between a child and a rebel. And they have the potential to kill massively.

We believe that this one attack in Damascus claimed more than 1,400 lives, far more than even the worst attacks by conventional means in Syria. And we assess that although Assad used more chemical weapons on August 21 than he had before, he has barely put a dent in his enormous stockpile. And the international community has clearly not yet put a dent in his willingness to use them.

This is important, and Power deserves kudos for bringing it to the fore. As I’ve previously discussed, human society justifies the separate category of mass atrocity for various reasons, among them the disproportionate quickness of widespread death. Personally, I view the technological caveat–that is, that the weapon matters–as irrelevant, with the important exception of annihilatory nuclear weapons, but there’s a legitimate moral argument that sees the technological capacity to cause wide human suffering as a human crisis. Our moral imagination sees these technological capacities in extremes: Rwanda’s machetes, which are unimaginable in their physical proximity, and Syria’s chemical weapons, which are crudely distant.

SP: President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and many members of Congress have spelled out the consequences of failing to meet this threat. If there are more chemical attacks, we will see an inevitable spike in the flow of refugees on top of the already two million in the region, possibly pushing Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq past their break — breaking points. The fourth largest city in Jordan right now is already the Zaatari refugee camp.

Half of Syria’s refugees are children, and we know what can happen to children who grow to adulthood without hope or opportunity in refugee camps. The camps become fertile recruiting grounds for violent extremists.

As with Power’s national security argument, this detail, while morally significant, is immaterial. A “limited and tailored” operation, which exclusively targets chemical weapons, would have few positive consequences for Syria’s refugee crisis.

SP: And beyond Syria, if a violation of a universal agreement to ban chemical weapons is not met with the meaningful response, other regimes will seek to acquire or use them to protect or extend their power, increasing risks to American troops in the future.

We cannot afford to signal to North Korea and Iran that the international community is unwilling to act to prevent proliferation or willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction. If there are no consequences now for breaking the prohibition on chemical weapons, it will be harder to muster an international consensus to ensure that Hezbollah and other terrorist groups are prevented from acquiring or using these weapons themselves.

People will draw lessons if the world proves unwilling to enforce the norms against chemical weapons use that we have worked so diligently to construct. And Israel’s security is threatened by instability in the region, and its security is enhanced when those who would do it harm know that the United States stands behind its word. That’s why we’ve seen Israel supporters in the United States come out in support of the president’s proposed course of action.

For reasons Jay Ulfelder discussed today, Power’s punitive logic doesn’t quite play out. According to the U.S. intelligence community’s declassified chemical weapons report, Syria appears to have used chemical weapons out of strategic weakness, rather than defiance. These political and strategic contexts matter, and often determine the operational logic of using the technological tools of mass atrocity. Short of an expansive regime of targeted political assassination, which would buck a standard norm of public statecraft, it’s unlikely that Assad’s authoritarian counterparts would view the non-use of U.S. military force as a blanket authorization for chemical weapons’ use.

SP: These are just some of the risks of inaction, but many Americans — and some members of Congress — have legitimately focused as well on the risks of action. They have posed a series of important questions, and I would like to use the remainder of my remarks to address a few of them.

Some have asked, given our collective war-weariness, why we cannot use non-military tools to achieve the same end. My answer to this question is: We have exhausted the alternatives.

For more than a year, we have pursued countless policy tools short of military force to try to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons. We have engaged the Syrians directly — and at our request, the Russians, the U.N., and the Iranians sent similar messages — but when scuds and other horrific weapons didn’t quell the Syrian rebellion, Assad began using chemical weapons on a small scale multiple times, as the United States concluded in June.

Faced with this growing evidence of several small-scale subsequent attacks, we redoubled our efforts. We backed the U.N. diplomatic process and tried to get the parties back to the negotiating table, recognizing that a political solution is the best way to reduce all forms of threat. We provided more humanitarian assistance. And on chemical weapons specifically, we assembled and went public with compelling and frightening evidence of the regime’s use.

We worked with the U.N. to create a group of inspectors and then worked for more than six months to get them access to the country on the logic that perhaps the presence of an investigative team in the country might deter future attacks or, if not, at a minimum, we thought perhaps a shared evidentiary base could convince Russia or Iran — itself a victim of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous chemical weapons attacks in 1987-1988 — to cast loose a regime that was gassing its people. We expanded and accelerated our assistance to the Syrian opposition. We supported the U.N. Commission of Inquiry.

Russia, often backed by China, has blocked every relevant action in the Security Council, even mild condemnations of the use of chemical weapons that did ascribe blame to any particular party. In Assad’s cost-benefit calculus, he must have weighed the military benefits of using this hideous weapon against the recognition that he could get away with it because Russia would have Syria’s back in the Security Council.

And on August 21, he staged the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter-century while U.N. inspectors were sitting on the other side of town.

This is probably the most compelling argument for limited military intervention, and Power voices it well. In my recent posts on Syria, I have avoided offering specific policy alternatives to military force; not because I think there aren’t any, but because I cannot in good faith argue their credible success. The most frustrating element–and, there are many–of this public debate over military intervention in Syria is the often-implicit insistence that, because policy alternatives to military intervention are not credible, military intervention must be. For a public deliberation to justify a policy, the policy must make both positive (in-itself) and negative (in-relation-to-others) sense. The U.S. is very clearly not “doing nothing” in Syria, but it’s unclear that an intervention would more productively deter further chemical weapons use–or, more importantly, mitigate civilian violence–than would the status quo.

SP: It is only after the United States pursued these nonmilitary options without achieving the desired results of deterring chemical weapons use that the president concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war.

I am here today because I believe — and President Obama believes — that those of us who are arguing for the limited use of force must justify our position, accepting responsibility for the risks and potential consequences of action. When one considers pursuing nonmilitary measures, we must similarly address the risks inherent in those approaches.

At this stage, the diplomatic process is stalled because one side has just been gassed on a massive scale and the other side so far feels it has gotten away with it. What would words in the form of belated diplomatic condemnation achieve? What could the International Criminal Court really do, even if Russia or China were to allow a referral? Would a drawn-out legal process really affect the immediate calculus of Assad and those who ordered chemical weapons attacks?

We could try again to pursue economic sanctions, but even if Russia budged, would more asset freezes, travel bans, and banking restrictions convince Assad not to use chemical weapons again, when he has a pipeline to the resources of Hezbollah and Iran? Does anybody really believe that deploying the same approaches we have tried for the last year will suddenly be effective?

Of course, this isn’t the only legitimate question being raised. People are asking, shouldn’t the United States work through the Security Council on an issue that so clearly implicates international peace and security? The answer is, of course, yes. We could if we would — we could — we would if we could, but we can’t.

Power is a staunch defender of the ICC, and many commentators have incredulously opposed her dismissal of the Court’s relevance in Syria. Fundamentally, though, she’s right: while the peace-trumps-justice dichotomy is often false, there are few indications that an ICC indictment would credibly shift the Syrian regime’s incentives for political negotiation. A successful UN Security Council referral, which would require a Russian abstention, might, but that’s much more a result of informal diplomatic signaling, rather than the ICC’s inherent value.

SP: Every day for the two-and-a-half years of the Syrian conflict, we have shown how seriously we take the U.N. Security Council and our obligations to enforce international peace and security. Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three separate Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict.

This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use.

We believe that more than 1,400 people were killed in Damascus on August 21, and the Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval.

The international system that was founded in 1945, a system we designed specifically to respond to the kinds of horrors we saw play out in World War II, has not lived up to its promise or its responsibilities in the case of Syria. And it is naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position and allowing the U.N. Security Council to assume its rightful role as the enforcer of international peace and security.

In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have.

This is exceedingly true, and exceedingly unavoidable. The UN system effectively sets international diplomatic agendas, but often fails spectacularly to execute them.

SP: Many Americans recognize that while we were right to seek to work through the Security Council, it is clear that Syria is one of those occasions — like Kosovo — when the council is so paralyzed that countries have to act outside it if they are to prevent the flouting of international laws and norms. But these same people still reasonably ask, beyond the Security Council, what support does the United States have in holding Assad accountable?

While the United States possesses unique capabilities to carry out a swift, limited and proportionate strike so as to prevent and deter future use of chemical weapons, countries around the world have joined us in supporting decisive action. The Arab League has urged international — international action against Syria in response to what it called the ugly crime of using chemical weapons. The NATO secretary general has said that the Syrian regime is responsible and that we, quote, “need a firm international response to avoid that chemical weapons attacks take place in the future,” end quote.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation blamed the Syrian government for the chemical attacks and called for decisive action. And 11 countries at the G-20 summit today called for a strong international response and noted their, quote, “support for efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons,” end quote.

As I have found over the last week at the U.N., the more that countries around the world are confronted with the hard facts of what occurred on August 21, the more they recognize that the steep price of impunity for Assad could extend well beyond Syria. The president’s decision to seek congressional support has also given the United States time to mobilize additional international support. And there is no question that authorization by our Congress will help strengthen our case.

One of the most common concerns we have heard centers less on the how or when of intervention, but on the what. Some Americans are asking, how can we be sure that the United States will avoid a slippery slope that would lead to full-scale war with Syria? On the other hand, others are asking, if the U.S. action is limited, how will that have the desired effect on Assad? And these are good and important questions.

The United States cannot police every crisis anymore than we can shelter every refugee. The president has made it clear, he is responding militarily to a mass casualty chemical weapons incident. Any military action will be a meaningful, time-limited response to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again and to degrade its ability to do so.

From the start of the Syrian conflict, the president has consistently demonstrated that he will not put American boots on the ground to fight another war in the Middle East. The draft resolution before Congress makes this clear.

Again, the best case for a “slippery slope” is not that it is unavoidable–it clearly is, in keeping with basic theories of human agency in international politics–but that it makes sense for the U.S. government to keep its mandate expansive, inasmuch as it credibly wants to achieve its goals.

SP: President Obama is seeking your support to employ limited military means to achieve very specific ends, to degrade Assad’s capacity to use these weapons again and deter others in the world who might follow suit. And the United States has the discipline as a country to maintain these limits.

Limited military action will not be designed to solve the entire Syria problem. Not even the most ardent proponents of military intervention in Syria believe that peace can be achieved through military means.

But this action should have the effect of reinforcing our larger strategy for addressing the crisis in Syria. By degrading Assad’s capacity to deliver chemical weapons, we will also degrade his ability to strike at civilian populations by conventional means.

In addition, this operation, combined with ongoing efforts to upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition, should reduce the regime’s faith that they can kill their way to victory. In this instance, the use of limited military force can strengthen our diplomacy and energize the efforts by the U.N. and others to achieve a negotiated settlement to the underlying conflict.

Here, Power is correct to describe the notion of a “military solution,” as opposed to various other distinctions, as a false distinction: during military interventions, diplomatic channels remain open, and the politics of mass atrocity response to not cease. However, neither the Obama administration nor its partners effectively demonstrate their willingness to invest in Syria’s conflict resolution, beyond a limited, marginally consequential military action.

SP: Let me add a few thoughts in closing.

I know I have not addressed every doubt that exists in this room, in this town, in this country or in the broader international community. This is the right to pay for us to have. We should be asking the hard questions and making deliberate choices before embarking upon action. There is no risk-free door number two that we can choose in this case.

Public skepticism of foreign interventions is an extremely healthy phenomenon in our democracy, a check against the excessive use of military power. The American people elect leaders to exercise judgment, and there have been times in our history when presidents have taken hard decisions to use force that were not initially popular, because they believed our interests demanded it.

From 1992, when the Bosnian genocide started, til 1995, when President Clinton launched the air strikes that stopped the war, public opinion consistently opposed military action there. Even after we succeed in ending the war, and negotiating a peace settlement, the House of representatives, reflecting public opinion, voted against deploying American troops to a NATO peace-keeping mission.

There is no question that this deployment of American power saved lives and returns stability to a critical region of the world and a critical region for the United States.

A brief plug: close-readers of Power’s work rarely extrapolate on her reliance on Albert Hirschman’s theory of bureaucratic conservatism, but this conclusion is straight Albert O., yo.

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