Samantha Power: How Iraq hurts us, and what to do about it

    Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power doesn’t like the Iraq war.

    “This is going to go down as the single greatest strategic blunder in the history of American foreign policy,” she said of the war in a lecture entitled “Iraq’s Collateral Damage” at Harris Hall on Monday night. Photo by Spencer Kornhaber

    Power, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote “A Problem from Hell”: American and the Age of Genocide, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

    Power gave several reasons why the Iraq war has critically damaged American interests abroad:

    • America has less power. Both in the traditional definition of power as the ability to coerce, and in the newer definition of power as the ability to persuade, America is weaker.

      “Even on the old abacus of military might and economic strength, we are much more vulnerable because of Iraq,” she said.

      Competency issues in Iraq – and also in dealing with Hurricane Katrina – have made America a less legitimate leader in the eyes of the world, and thus less powerful.

      “We’re no longer seen in the world as the country that put the man on the moon,” she said. “Iraq and Katrina stand very prominently in the minds of our allies, and in the minds of our potential foes.”

    • The war itself has shifted the international stage. The Iraq war has increased terrorism in the Middle East and created a power vacuum in the region which Iran will fill.

      Also, the decision to invade Iraq but not Iran or North Korea sends a signal that the United States will not invade countries who obtain a nuclear weapon, giving non-nuclear states an incentive to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

    • Power has become concentrated in the executive branch. Though the recent American election should slightly reverse the strengthening of the presidency, it will take a long while to restore the balance of power in the U.S. government.

      In the meantime, media outlets like Al Jazeera broadcast the President’s every press conference into the Middle East, and oversteps of presidential power like wiretapping and abandonment of the Geneva Conventions makes America’s case for democracy seem hypocritical.

    • The language of democratization has been tainted. No one in the Middle East wants to endorse democracy, because “democracy” has become associated with torture and invasion.

    • The concept of “humanitarian intervention” is dead for the time being. Bosnia showed the world that a superpower could become involved in another country’s affairs to prevent humanitarian abuses. But Iraq has destroyed that confidence.

      “The ‘Iraq syndrome’ will hang over all discussions about international intervention,” she said.

      America doesn’t have the resources or the clout – especially in the Muslim world – to stop the genocide in Sudan. Other countries should be doing something about the Darfur crisis – but the “stalking horse” of Iraq makes it so that no one wants to “tend to the commons” and “answer the 911 calls” like America has traditionally done.

    Power then laid out what she what she thinks should be done to reverse the damage.

    • The U.S. must make policy according to a new kind of “empiricism,” where leaders look at what is going on inside other states and base their diplomatic relations on how regimes treat their own citizens. America must also enlist the help of international institutions – not merely as a matter of protocol, but rather out of an actual recognition that “these threats are of such a nature that we simply cannot do it alone.”

    • More accountability. “Adult” conversations need to be held between the government and its own citizens about foreign policy – including about sticky subjects like torture policy.
    • Make policy more cohesive. Since many foreign policy issues are decided by different groups of politicians – some by the President’s administration, some by congressional committees, some by the Pentagon, and so on – America’s foreign policy has a very “a la carte” feel. The fact that there’s little ideological unity in America’s actions creates suspicions among other international actors that the U.S. in engaged in a for-profit conspiracy. Though this is largely simply because of the structure of the government, there has been an unusually high degree of “a la carte”-ism lately that needs to be scaled back.
    • Use a “thicker” definition of democracy. Regular elections don’t automatically mean that a state is no longer repressive or ineffective.

      “Elections are enabling devices,” she said. “We’ve treated them as starting line and finishing line.”

      Instead of merely rushing to get authoritarian countries to let people vote, America needs to also put a greater emphasis on civil rights and free expression.

    • Don’t let Iraq scare American progressives into isolationism and values-free policy. Power worried about a poll in which “self-described liberals” ranked their top foreign policy objects as getting out of Iraq, working more with allies and stopping the spread of AIDS. While these are all worthy causes, Power said, America needs its foreign policy to reflect its values – which include intolerance for terrorism and promotion of freedom.

    Harris 107 was completely filled with professors, alumni and some students. Power, 36, was genial but serious, moving from half-jokes about Barack Obama taking the presidency to thoughts on the genocide in Darfur.

    You can listen to Power’s speech here. What do you think about her opinions on Iraq and her prescription for retooled foreign policy? Leave a comment.


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