UN Ambassador Power warns against ‘historical amnesia’ in future Russian relations

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JUDY WOODRUFF: President-elect Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the U.N., South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, plans to question why the U.S. contributes 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget.

In prepared remarks for her confirmation hearing tomorrow, we also learned that she will criticize the recent vote condemning Israeli settlements.

Earlier today, I sat down with Samantha Power. She’s the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the U.N. We spoke at the State Department.

And I began by asking why, in her final speech, she focused on Russia as a major threat to the U.S.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: There is a fair amount of competition, obviously, with ISIL and the terrorist networks around the world, China also posing a different kind of threat to the rules-based order.

But I thought it was very important before leaving to draw on my eight years, our eight years here in these jobs of privilege that we have had, to take note of the pattern that has developed, particularly in the last few years, starting with the decision by President Putin to go into Ukraine, to lie about it, to take Crimea, to try to annex it, and then in Syria to back a regime that gasses its people, then to get militarily involved with that regime, itself resorting to tactics that were outlawed 100 years ago, and then systematically, in Europe, backing these illiberal parties whose world view is closer to this kind of populist authoritarian, anti-Muslim, anti-diversity kind of line that has been pursued in Moscow.

All of that plus, of course, the most recent and most egregious example that hits close to home for us, which is interfering in our elections through hacking, through fake news, and with an eye to trying to help one candidate win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, when the president-elect speaks, as he has often, about wanting a better relationship with Russia — and, in fact, one of his advisers has just said in the last day or so, he said, the U.S. needs to find a way to get along better with Russia. He said, we need to focus less on combating communism and more on rejecting radical Islam.

How do you react to that?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, let me raise my hand and say at no point have I been fighting the last war and seeking at the U.N. to combat communism.

I think we do have an interest in combating states that try to cross borders and steal parts of other people’s country. We have an interest in combating tactics in war that are abhorrent and that only fuel terrorism because they incite people on the ground.

And we, as Americans, have an interest in ensuring that the only people who get to vote for our elected leaders are our citizens, and not some foreign people who think that they have an interest in skewing our election in one direction or another.

Look, I think the point that we all agree upon is that we have to engage with Russia. I have spent, you know, as much time with my Russian counterpart as I have probably with anybody else, including close family members, over the course of the last fur years. And we have done really important work together.

At the same time we’re at each other on Aleppo, on Ukraine, we’re authorizing peacekeeping missions, putting sanctions in place on North Korea for its nuclear tests. We need to find means for cooperation.

I think the potential difference or the issue that is going to need to be adjudicated is, on what terms? Are we going to bring historical amnesia and pretend as though history is just starting on January 21, or are we going to take into account egregious violations of the rules of the road that may have — in the first instance have predated the administration, but that are inevitably going to continue if Russia believes that there are no costs to its actions, as if all it has to do is just wait out the United States, and then eventually we will soften our positions and forget about what happened?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it sounds like you’re worried the next administration may be prepared to do that.

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, I think the signals are very mixed.

And I think that the only time we will really know what then-President Trump is going to do about the set of challenges that confront him is after he has sat down with his advisers as the commander in chief, when he’s looking at the threats and the intelligence from the standpoint of being the number one decider, when he’s hearing from his secretary of defense, his chairman, who was the same chairman President Obama had, Chairman Joe Dunford, who is an outstanding public servant, who has led our anti-ISIL effort, on which we’re making great progress.

And the president, when he is the president, will be also developing close relations with a series of other world leaders. So he will be hearing from some of our closest European friends and partners about just how real the threat feels to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You used as one of your examples of Russian aggression the fact that they stood by as Syria repeatedly used — the Syrian regime repeatedly used chemical weapons in the civil war.

If that’s the case, then how does that square with the decision by the Obama administration in 2013 not to have a military response, the red line, when President Obama was seriously considering doing so and then didn’t?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, the regime — when chemical weapons were used in 2013, Russia was absolutely backing the Syrian regime at that time.

And we were denouncing the — of course, the gassing of more than 1,000 innocent civilians. And we denounced Russia’s support for that regime.

When President Obama came out and said he was going to use military force, that, as you know, was what brought Russia forward to say, hey, hey, hey, wait, maybe not that quite — why don’t we try something else? Maybe we can work together. Maybe we can take advantage of the fact we’re, in effect, the benefactor or the sponsor of this regime, where, if you don’t use military force, we will work with you to destroy the chemical weapons program.

Now, interestingly, to this day, even though Russia took away the chemical weapons program, declared chemical weapons program by the regime, Russia, to this day, denies that it was the regime that used chemical weapons. And it just shows you again how loose they are with the truth and how absurd sometimes their argument can be.

But I mentioned the sequence specifically because I think there is a misconception, as we look back at that moment and the red line. You know, I know people have very strong views about it. But it wasn’t the case that we had before us a set of targets that would have eliminated the chemical weapons program.

In fact, we had to stay miles away when we struck from the chemical weapons storage, for fear of causing terrible collateral damage to civilians and so forth.

So, I think reasonable people, you know, can look back and say, look, had we bombed, maybe things would have turned, and the opposition would have started to make gains on the ground. But you could say they would have just used their chemical weapons. And the weapon itself was not something that our bombing was in a position to do much about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Syria is such a big question.

SAMANTHA POWER: And a big mess, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still a big mess.

The president and the vice president and others have been talking about it in the last few days. In a book that you wrote before coming into the administration, you talked about how the U.S. historically lacked the will to intervene to stop mass atrocities, often because of political expediency.

Some people are certainly looking at what the Obama administration didn’t do in the early days of the Syrian situation to stop the killing of civilians.

How do you square those two things?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, first, I can tell you that, in Syria, the president did everything he could, short of intervening militarily.

And so people say, oh, he should create a safe haven. I think those are reasonable arguments, and we will debate this. Historians will debate it.

But there is a very real question about, in creating a safe haven, that means taking out Syrian air force, because they’re bombing civilians. What would then have unfolded, right? There are thousands of armed groups on the ground.

There’s a sectarian, you know, heterogeneity that’s very hard for us to track from outside. Is the case that we can say with any confidence that that would have turned the tide or even protected the people that we would have set out to protect?

So, again, I think people can argue that that is a tool that we could have employed that we didn’t employ. But I don’t think that you can argue with any certainty that we would be in a different place in Syria right now had we done that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As you walk away from serving in government, is that the toughest thing as you look back?

SAMANTHA POWER: By far.

I think about Syria when I go to bed at night. When I wake up in the middle of the night when I hear one of my kids coughing or crying, I think about Syria. When I wake up in the morning, I think about Syria.

But thinking about it a lot and ending the war are not the same thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States ambassador to the U.N., Samantha…

SAMANTHA POWER: For three more days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For three more days.

Samantha Power, thank you very much.

SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you.

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