The Current

Trump's withdrawal from Syria will mean 'long-term threats' to U.S. security: Obama's ambassador to UN

Samantha Power was a war correspondent in Bosnia in her 20s, and served as a key adviser to former president Barack Obama, becoming the U.S. Ambassador to the UN. She tells us about her memoirs, The Education of an Idealist.

Samantha Power says pulling out of Syria will alienate potential allies

Samantha Power served on the U.S. national security council during Barack Obama's presidency, and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2013-2017. (Martha Stewart)

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As the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, there is a sense of fatigue in the U.S. about "being the world's policeman," says a former adviser to Barack Obama.

"More and more, the view is ... that we're going to need to have local partners on the ground to help us manage threats," said Samantha Power, who served on the U.S. national security council during Obama's presidency, and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017.

But Power believes that U.S. President Donald Trump's recent withdrawal of troops from northern Syria has "made it extremely unlikely that others are likely to volunteer to perform that role."

Trump has faced criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for the Oct. 7 decision to pull troops out of northern Syria, which allowed Turkey to launch an offensive against Syrian Kurds in the region.

Power — whose new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, details her years working in U.S. foreign policy — said the move could have implications for U.S. national security.

"The Kurdish troops did what they did — going to areas like Raqqah, where they had no traditional presence — in order to fight ISIS, because they thought that that would buy them U.S. support in the long-term," she told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

"With Trump, there is no long-term. He breaks America's commitments left and right, whether on climate, or Iran, or this," she said.

"That's both an affront to our values, in terms of breaking our word, and it's going to produce long-term threats to our security."

But while there is fatigue about taking the lead on foreign soil, Power said there is greater support for "creating coalitions that can manage issues" like ISIS, and "getting other countries to step up as well."

The question is not "whether to lead, or not to lead. It's a question of how to lead," she said.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power discusses the situation currently unfolding in Syria as well as her new memoir. 10:17

'Exhilarated' by raising issues of injustice

In her 20s, Power was a war correspondent covering the conflict in Bosnia, but returned to the U.S. feeling her journalism "was ineffective at best" in helping the people suffering.

She went to Harvard Law School, and became interested in how the U.S. handles world affairs.

She said she quickly realized that "if the issue didn't have a nexus with vital national interests, it was very rare that it even rose within the U.S. government foreign policy machinery." 

That meant diplomatic tools often went untried, she said.

Power travelling to Bosnia as a young journalist in 1994, with Croatian journalist Hrvoje Hranjski. (Submitted by Samantha Power/HarperCollins)

Her appointment as the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave her the chance to correct that; in her memoirs she writes that she was "exhilarated by the seeming ease with which you could elevate the profile of an egregious injustice."

She said efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak in western Africa in the fall 2014 were an example of successful U.S. intervention.

"We were seeing predictions that 1.4 million people were going to be infected within four months," she said.

There were fears about the disease spreading to the U.S., leading to calls that American health workers who had gone to Africa should be prevented from coming home.

Rejecting those calls, Obama announced 3,000 troops and health workers to fight the outbreak. 

"It was really a reminder of how the international system can work at its best," Power said.

The U.S. move empowered the UN "to leverage that commitment to get China to build its ebola treatment units, to get Malaysia to donate tens of thousands of rubber gloves."

"Backed by this international coalition, we were able to prevent those scenarios from coming to pass."

Power's son Declan Power Sunstein was born in April of 2009, and two months later, he met Barack Obama for the first time. (Pete Souza/The Obama White House)

U.S. 'not so good at ... pulling back'

Lynch asked Power about U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen, which she does not discuss in her memoirs.

The conflict in Yemen started when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa and much of the north in 2015, pushing the internationally recognized government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition of regional powers has been fighting the rebels for three years, with millions of Yemeni civilians caught in the middle.

Power said that the U.S. offered to help Saudi Arabia with intelligence to target the rebels, "with an eye to avoiding collateral damage."

Power with former U.S. President Barack Obama in Sept. 2013, following a cabinet meeting. (Pete Souza/The Obama White House)

"The initial response to try to restore that government makes some sense — but within a matter of just a couple months, it was very clear that the Saudis were not taking our advice," she said.

She said she believes "it's an example in American foreign policy where what starts sometimes for defensible reasons, very quickly becomes deeply problematic."

The United States "is not so good in those moments at pulling back, and just saying: 'Okay, the original circumstances are no longer valid, we're out.'"


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson.

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