By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What Power means by “monstrous”

Samantha Power has just resigned as Barack Obama’s chief foreign-policy adviser after intemperately referring to Hillary Clinton as a “monster” in an interview with the Scotsman. She was thought to be on the fast track to a top job in an Obama White House, should such a thing come to pass. Perhaps, after a suitable period of rehabilitation, she still may be.

Power did the right thing in quitting. The purpose of this post is to offer a little perspective on why she might think the Clintons are monstrous. In September 2001, the Atlantic Monthly published a long article by Power titled “Bystanders to Genocide,” in which she criticized the Clinton administration for its inaction in the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994.

Here’s an excerpt that will give you some idea of Power’s take on the Clinton team’s behavior:

In March of 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, President Clinton issued what would later be known as the “Clinton apology,” which was actually a carefully hedged acknowledgment. He spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: “We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred” in Rwanda.

This implied that the United States had done a good deal but not quite enough. In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term “genocide,” for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing “to try to limit what occurred.” Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.

With the grace of one grown practiced at public remorse, the President gripped the lectern with both hands and looked across the dais at the Rwandan officials and survivors who surrounded him. Making eye contact and shaking his head, he explained, “It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate [pause] the depth [pause] and the speed [pause] with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

Clinton chose his words with characteristic care. It was true that although top U.S. officials could not help knowing the basic facts — thousands of Rwandans were dying every day — that were being reported in the morning papers, many did not “fully appreciate” the meaning. In the first three weeks of the genocide the most influential American policymakers portrayed (and, they insist, perceived) the deaths not as atrocities or the components and symptoms of genocide but as wartime “casualties”—the deaths of combatants or those caught between them in a civil war.

Yet this formulation avoids the critical issue of whether Clinton and his close advisers might reasonably have been expected to “fully appreciate” the true dimensions and nature of the massacres. During the first three days of the killings U.S. diplomats in Rwanda reported back to Washington that well-armed extremists were intent on eliminating the Tutsi. And the American press spoke of the door-to-door hunting of unarmed civilians. By the end of the second week informed nongovernmental groups had already begun to call on the Administration to use the term “genocide,” causing diplomats and lawyers at the State Department to begin debating the word’s applicability soon thereafter. In order not to appreciate that genocide or something close to it was under way, U.S. officials had to ignore public reports and internal intelligence and debate.

Power continues, “The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen.”

Nevertheless, Power’s research clearly convinced her that not only could the White House have done much more to stop the killing, as Clinton himself acknowledged; but also that the administration knew much more than Clinton has ever acknowledged, and that top officials — including the president — chose, for the most part, to look the other way.

Here is an interview I conducted with Power for the Boston Phoenix in 2003 on the future of Iraq.

Photo (cc) by the Barack Obama campaign, and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Anonymous

    Bad move on Obama’s part here.This was more “Silly season”, then real issue, and he should have framed it as such. Capitulating to Hillary isn’t what he needs to be doing right now, when her only hope is to make him appear incapable and damaged to steal the supers from him.

  2. Anonymous

    There is no defense for calling Clinton a ‘monster’ in that frame. It was unprofessional, and unethical. What did she think was going to happen if she said it in an interview situation, the reporter would smile approvingly, then keep it to himself? The ‘resignation’ was appropriate in action and timing. Now, put it behind, and hope that it doesn’t become a habit…personal attacks on character are beneath the campaign’s ethic, at least it’s professed ethic.

  3. michael

    Help me out, here. According to the article, Power said to the interviewer, “She is a monster, too – that is off the record ….”I thought that if you stipulated that something was off the record during a conversation with a reporter it meant it could not be repeated. Am I wrong? It looks like it.I don’t know if I will ever be in a situation where a reporter come asking me questions, but if I do, you can be damn sure I will have nothing to say.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: You can’t put something off the record after you’ve said it. Of course, Power can try, and I assume that’s what she was doing. By actually quoting her making the request, it seems to me that the reporter was going out of her way to screw her over. But at least according to the way the game is played, the reporter was within her rights.

  5. michael

    >You can’t put something off the >record after you’ve said it.If that’s the rule, it seems like a pretty niggling one to me, like if you forget to say Simon Says, you’re out of luck.”Whoops, I didn’t mean to say that.” “Sorry, too late.”I guess you have to pretty damn careful what you say around a reporter. I don’t know about you, but that seems a little counter-productive to me.Correct me if I’m wrong, but when John Mitchell told Woodward and Bernstein Katherine Graham was going get her “tit caught in a big fat wringer,” didn’t he ask to make it off the record post facto, and wasn’t it left out of the newspaper article? Of course, it did show up in the book, but wasn’t Mitchell dead by that time?It seems unfair. Reporters tend to blindside people. It seems like they should cut them a little slack.I think every journalist as part of their training ought to spend some time on the receiving end of their profession, sort of like the physician (don’t remember his name) who wrote about his experiences as a cancer patient in the book, “A Taste of My Own Medicine.”

  6. Steve

    Dan – as for “the way the game is played”, it must be said: that’s not the Russert Rule. According to him, if an administration figure says something, it’s off the record unless they say otherwise.Of course, don’t expect this “courtesy” to be extended to Democrats.

  7. Anonymous

    It’s good to see that us liberals are finally teaming up to throw the Clintons under the bus. We’re now starting to come to terms with the fact that Bill Clinton was a bad president.I just wish it hadn’t taken us this long to see the light.

  8. mike_b1

    Classic case of the media creating a story out of nothing. Knowing that an Obama subordinate referred to the competition as a monster has no bearing on the electorate’s ability to make an informed decision. Instead, it changes the subject away from what is important. Powers was dumb for saying it, but no dumber than Reagan for cracking wise that he was about to nuke Russia when he mistakenly thought the microphone was off.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: Power is an insider — a journalist, for crying out loud — so she knows the rules of the game. As a reporter, I would treat her much differently from a civilian. I’m surprised she didn’t set some ground rules ahead of time — like, “Let’s talk, but if there are any direct quotes you want to use, I have to approve them.” If someone asks to put something off the record after the fact, the reporter is of course free to do so. I’d say Power made news with her loose talk, so it’s kind of naive to think the reporter wasn’t going to use it. Power seems to understand that.Steve: Not to give Russert a pass. Not even a little. But I always thought he might have gotten something of a bad rap over that admission. I’ve never covered Washington, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone at his level is dealing with people who basically have a ground rule like that in effect at all times. You either respect it, or you don’t get to talk to anyone. Let’s say he took advantage once, and really screwed someone over. What’s the point? Maybe one good story, followed by retirement?

  10. Anonymous

    See, the really interesting thing here is that although Power’s rage at the Clinton administration over Rwanda is justified, *she knows damn well* that Hillary was on her side and arguing strenuously for intervention.So Dan, don’t try to even partially excuse Power’s nasty characterization by citing her Rwanda crusade. That’s not what it was about and not where it came from.The Obama people are so convinced of their righteousness and entitlement to the presidency that they’ve convinced themselves Hillary is the devil incarnate, a “monster.”Ugh.

  11. amusedbutinformedobserver

    Score one for gotcha journalism. Obama knew it was a one-cycle story if he got rid of Power and got rid of her quickly.Context? Who needs context when we can put someone’s scalp on our belt. The monster comment was not a substantive statement about politics or policy and it was basically taken back in the same breath. Sure, it was fair to report it, but without the context provided here seems to be a cheap shot. This ‘journalist’ actually wrote “Mr Obama’s key foreign policy aide, let slip the camp’s true feelings about the former first lady.” Quite a stretch. This is no Earl Butz or James Watt type statement, but Obama knows how the game is played so out she goes.

  12. Anonymous

    Reagan knew the microphone was on Mike – it was a joke. Your revisionist history when it comes to conservatives is amazing.

  13. Anonymous

    Earth to bloggers:You are making fools of yourselves.”Monster” has no meaning whatsoever.Obama treated it like it was an ethnic slur against some ethnic that hasn’t even been created yet.

  14. mike_b1

    anon 6:14: It’s questionable that Reagan knew his right hand from his left, let alone whether a mic was on. He made countless similar gaffes while president, btw. He couldn’t keep his fly zipped before he became president, and he couldn’t keep his mouth shut after. That’s some role model you picked.

  15. Neil

    Power was impressive in interviews with Emily Rooney but the “monster” comment reveals carelessness. In the Atlantic article at least she (rightly) doesn’t connect Hillary Clinton with the Rwanda inaction.I’m trying to square Power’s complaint about our lack of intervention in Rwanda, with our intervention in Iraq. Was she against the invasion of Iraq? If so apparently she’s not anti-interventionist per se, she just has different criteria than Bill Clinton or Bush. That is, it’s apparently monstrous not to intervene when genocide looms in a part of the world of no strategic value to us (policy=Team America, World Police good!), but also abhorrent to intervene when a tyrant poses a possibly (not, as it turns out) genocidal (WMD) threat in a part of the world of strategic importance to us (policy=Team America, World Police bad!)In other words according to the same interventionist policy she wished for Rwanda, if Saddam really had WMD, and at the time we thought he did, she should likewise have been in favor of intervention in Iraq, to prevent an inevitable genocide.In hindsight of course we could have done more in Rwanda and should have done less in Iraq but Power has little standing to criticize Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy ideas based on Rwanda or anywhere else unless Powers presents consistent criteria for intervention herself. The same would go for Obama, but he at least hasn’t associated foreign policy decisions made by Bill Clinton with Hillary, or called her “monstrous”. If Obama was going to rely on Power to present a consistent rationale for intervention maybe it’s just as well for him that she is gone.(Sorry–Deleted and re-entered to fix country mixup.)

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