Obama’s Samantha Power Problem: Crossing the Red Line
Policy + Politics

Obama’s Samantha Power Problem: Crossing the Red Line

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

On Tuesday, Great Britain and France and the United Nations joined the chorus alleging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against rebels who are trying to remove him from power.

Last August, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons by Assad was a “game changer.” He implied that the United States would intervene to stop their use and provide assistance to the rebels.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or utilized," Obama said. "There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movements on the chemical weapons or use, that would change my calculations significantly."

When reports of chemical weapons first emerged, the Obama administration largely downplayed the subject. Now that two close allies – France and Israel – have said Assad is using these weapons, the administration is still unprepared to talk about intervening in Syria.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with his British and French counterparts in Brussels Tuesday, but left meeting with a commitment to monitor the situation, according to reports. NATO officials have said the alliance has no plans to get involved.   

The State Department has taken a similar stance. On Tuesday, spokesperson Jen Psaki said the United States had not yet determined chemical weapons had been used. “We're still focused on seeing this process through, gathering facts, working with our allies,” she said.  

The latest reports of chemical weapons use, combined with the news that Syrian forces took back a strategically imperative city this week,  mark a key moment in the conflict. CNN reported Wednesday that “Sarin gas has been used … at least once by the Assad regime,” They cited results from test samples in France’s possession.

So far, the internationally community has been content to allow the conflict to wage without intervention, even as evidence grows that Assad is continuing to inflict atrocities against his own people.

This makes President Obama’s appointment of Samantha Power as U.N. ambassador all the more ironic.

Power made her name writing about the horrors of genocide, while condemning U.S. failure to act to stop it. She also championed U.S. intervention in the Libyan conflict.  

It’s not clear that the level of violence by Assad against his own people reached the level of genocide, but the atrocities committed against his own people are undeniable. He and his forces have killed more than 80,000 people. This appears to be exactly the kind of situation where Power would urge intervention.

Power has yet to comment publicly about Syria, and she did not mention the conflict in remarks made at the White House Wednesday. But even if she does lobby for U.S. involvement in the conflict, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears.

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The Obama administration has been very reluctant to intervene in foreign conflicts. It hesitated to get involved in Libya, offering only air support. The same was true in Mali, where the United States provided only tacit help.

The refusal of the United States to get involved with Syria continues this trend. Some have speculated that the president is reluctant to get involved in a conflict in another Muslim country after Iraq and Afghanistan. Or perhaps Obama remembers what happened in 1993 in Mogadishu, the infamous Black Hawk Down mission.

As a young journalist, Power witnessed firsthand the genocide in Bosnia. She has condemned politicians who allowed it to happen.

If she’s confirmed as U.N. ambassador, she might be forced to witness it again in Syria. This time, it will be from a much higher perch.