Episode 76: Rhodes and Powers’ Anti-War Rebranding and the Moral Hazard of Faux Mea Culpas

Citations Needed | May 22, 2019 | Transcript

Former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power appears on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on January 18, 2017 (credit: Comedy Central)

[Music]

Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yeah, and your weekly reminder that there is of course a Patreon-only content that we do for patrons. There’s about forty-three, forty-four News Briefs, is what we call them, and you can listen to those in our backlog.

Nima: In the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, two of the Obama administration’s most consistently pro-war advisors, former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and former UN Ambassador Samantha Power have rebranded themselves as anti-war voices in a world turned upside down by Trump’s radical war-making agenda and what we’ve been told is an environment of rising “authoritarianism”.

Adam: With a perfunctory “we could have done more” gesture towards accountability for their role in an administration that further militarized Syria, turned Libya into a broken state and assisted the destruction of Yemen before they moved on to positioning themselves as truth tellers on behalf of a kinder, gentler machine gun hand in the run up to — perhaps — a Warren or Sanders administration, Ben Rhodes and Sam Power have tested the limits of liberal amnesia.

Nima: This week we’ll take a closer look at Rhodes and Power’s rebranding and what it says about the so-called “foreign policy” debate in the 2020 democratic primary and what actual accountability looks like beyond empty tweets and self-serving “I was trying to change things from the inside” revisionism. We’ll be joined later on today’s show by Michigan State Professor Shireen Al-Adeimi.

[Begin Clip]

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Blaming Trump and Mohammed bin Salman is not going to absolve Obama from being a partner in those war crimes. It’s not going to exonerate them from perpetuating these war crimes against Yemenis. And in one notable tweet, Samantha Power acknowledges even that the UN had warned that Yemen was going to have the worst outbreak of cholera on record. And she acknowledges that in a July 2017 tweet that the UN had warned of cholera becoming the worst outbreak, yet she still continued to help the Saudis. So it’s not an issue even about hindsight is 20/20. They knew what was happening as it was happening and they continued to support these war crimes in Yemen.

[End Clip]

Adam: Just for those who don’t know, Ben Rhodes was the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speech Writing from 2009 to 2017 for then President Barack Obama. He was one of, if not the most influential foreign policy voices within the administration. He is the co-host of Crooked Media’s foreign policy podcast Pod Save the World, Rhodes is also co-chair along with Hillary Clinton aide Jake Sullivan, of a new “national security” quote unquote group called National Security Action, which is basically sort of a warmed over Center for American Progress type liberal, imperialist outfit that criticizes Trump for being reckless and being in Putin’s pocket, but more or less just wants to keep the sort of imperial gravy train going with some tweaks around the, around the margins, which we’ll get into later vis-a-vis Yemen.

Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes (credit: Getty)

Nima: And Samantha Power served on Obama’s National Security Council before becoming the Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017. Now, Sam Power also came to prominence, uh, well before the Obama administration. She wrote a book in 2002 that won the Pulitzer Prize. It was called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and in it she addressed and effectively condemned what she described as the U.S. government’s persistent “toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view.”

Adam: The Rwanda narrative in her book specifically in 2002, A Problem From Hell, really sort of paved the way for post-Iraq and to some extent, which we’ll talk about — liberal imperialism — where the sin is not things America has done, although there’s some, there’s some vague gesturing towards that. It’s the things we don’t do. That the US is not intervening on behalf of humanitarianism. At the time she won the Pulitzer, this was during the run up to the war in Iraq. We discussed this earlier on our episode “How To Oppose War Without Really Opposing It,” she accepted all the basic premises of Bush’s war in Iraq and never opposed it. And even said that she thought Iraq would without a doubt be better off without Saddam Hussein. So she more or less just endorsed it. So this really sort of set the stage for this kind of right to protect framework around war because liberals generally are necessary to advance war traditionally from the Spanish American War on, but they can’t do it for the same reasons that a Republican or even a Trump does where you sort of say ‘might makes right,fuck them, this is America, rah rah.’ So she really provided the moral framework so people who read The New Yorker can bomb brown people and feel good about themselves.

Nima: In a magazine piece right around the time that she published her book, she also advocated for a “historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States.” Then, over a decade later, at her confirmation hearing, this is now in 2013, for her confirmation hearing for the UN Ambassador post, Samantha Power revealed how important career ambitions were to her as opposed to maybe personal principles or even those espoused in the book, which granted, as Adam just said, really did provide a fundamental framework for a responsibility to protect doctrine where intervention is the norm, but it’s done under the guise of humanitarianism. But really during this hearing, she revealed some rather interesting thoughts. During this hearing, Marco Rubio, good ol’ Marco Rubio, quoted back to her this magazine article where she called for a “reckoning” about US violence and war crimes and Sam Power effectively disavowed her own writing, claiming that she quote “probably very much overstated the case.” End quote. Remember she won a Pulitzer for this book and for these ideas, but then when she’s in a job interview for UN Ambassador, she declares back to Rubio that “This country [The United States] is the greatest country on earth. I would never apologize for America,” adding, “America is the light to the world.”

Adam: Right, of course we’re the light of the world. Why wouldn’t we be? So there’s this idea of like creeping authoritarianism, which again sounds superficially appealing, but this becomes neoconservatism or liberal imperialism pretty quickly in a very easy way, right?

Nima: Cause you need to do something about that rising authoritarianism.

Adam: Right.

Nima: And otherwise if you don’t, then you’re culpable for allowing it to persist and grow.

Adam: And if we paint China and Russia as the worst of the worst of this rising authoritarianism, which a lot of these people do, especially in the Bernie camp, even setting aside the merits of whether or not that’s true. Again, somehow the CIA is never authoritarian in this equation. But that’s a different topic. That’s basically the argument that John Podhoretz and William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz made for years, that there’s this America, you know, if you say, ‘oh well we’re going to be the enlightened left and we’re going to sort of use American empire for good.’ So Ben Rhodes started this organization called National Security Action, which if you go to its website is all about progressive foreign policy, which again, it sounds really good, but without really specifying within the website, there’s tons of language about confronting Russia, confronting China, Trump being a stooge for Russia. Which, whatever.

Nima: And that everyone involved, almost everyone involved was, you know, a huge champion of, of increasing sanctions on Iran, of protecting Israel at all costs from any sort of scrutiny or accountability. I mean, this is like if Nicholas Burns and Howard Berman, former California congressman, Barbara Boxer, you know, there’s like all these people who are now part of this organization who, you know, are just part of the national security state that was operating under the Obama years and even, you know, long before then championing war, championing sanctions, championing intervention.

Adam: And it repeatedly uses quote unquote “open markets” interchangeably with “freedom” and “democracy.” So it’s, it’s very pro-capitalist foreign policy too. So anyway, Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power are in their own different ways attempting in the run up to 2020 to sort of rebrand themselves as the progressive foreign policy leaders. Ben Rhodes, especially is being more explicit about this, he’s now getting puffed pieces in The Nation and The New Republic and other places, sort of talking about how he’s taking the lessons of the Obama administration, now he’s trying to use those to create a new sort of progressive foreign policy. And what both of them are doing is they’re basically, you know, they want back in the beast, they want back in the action, whether it’s Warren, Sanders, Kamala Harris, they want to be in the next administration. They want to be a player. They understand that the sentiment of the party has moved and they’re trying to basically rebrand it. So, by way of example, every seven to eight years, the Republican Party rebrands the John Birch Society as something else or their opposition to deficits as something else. So in 1994 it was Newt Gingrich they’re going to come in and they’re going to cut deficits. Oh, they bloated the budget once they remained in power during the Bush years in 2000, 2002. That lost all credibility. So then they rebranded it the Tea Party, and then we said, ‘okay, well they’re the Tea Party now’ and The New York Times takes the bait and everyone takes the bait. Even though it’s the same funders, it’s the same players, it’s more or less the same politicians. And they of course oversee the largest bloating of deficits ever. They vote for Medicare Part D, they vote for the Iraq War, Afghanistan War, Trump’s tax cuts, which cost $1 trillion so forth. So then now they’re trying to rebrand it again in the run up to 2020/24 they’re creating all these sort of new freedom caucus type groups. So they just sort of try to rebrand the same scam over and over again. And just the same liberal imperialism sort of keeps trying to rebrand itself. It tries to sneak into these spaces and kind of occupy antiwar spaces. And so one way they’ve done that now is that Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power have come out against the war in Yemen. Something that Ben Rhodes didn’t tweet about or mention until November of 2017 after he’d been in office for 10 months. Samantha Power didn’t really tweet about it until after the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

Nima: And they were in the administration that allowed this to begin and get terrible. They were part of this. And then only from the outside when it can be pinned on Trump, when it can be pinned on now Saudi Arabia, um, doesn’t necessarily have to be our, you know, important ally in the region fighting terrorism because of the Khashoggi murder. You know, it’s the media was allowed to turn on Mohammed bin Salman because of that murder because they saw someone in their ranks bear the brunt of this tyrannical monarchy and you know, murderous dictatorship. And so therefore that then allowed the space for foreign policy hands to say, ‘oh yeah, yeah, yeah, Saudi Arabia, that’s a real, that’s a real problem. We really have to review how we consider them and we need to, you know, institute some checks and balances.’ And so in this way, you see on September 26 of last year, 2018, Samantha Power tweeted her support for a bill introduced by Representative Ro Khanna of California to invoke the War Powers Resolution and thereby end US backing of the Saudi led war. The War Powers Resolution of course, is the power of the purse — basically — the power held by Congress to actually declare war and fund those actions, which under our very powerful executive now for decades but then, you know, really in terms of Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump, the power of the executive is so huge that basically war can be engaged in without any sort of congressional approval.

So the War Powers Resolution, bring that back to the legislature. And so Sam Power tweets this in approval of this bill by Ro Khanna quote, “A similar effort in the Senate earlier this year came close to passing. There has only been more horrific, pointless bloodshed since. We in the Obama admin should have cut off aid. Trump shows no concern for loss of life, but Congress can act to end US involvement.”

Adam: Uh, then in October 4th, Ben Rhodes, about a week later, he called the War Powers Resolution quote, “a much-needed check on a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe in Yemen.” Neither Rhodes nor Power dissented from Obama when they were in office and both of them took several months even after they left office to critique the war. Rhodes told The Atlantic October 12th in another one of his new puff pieces, he said about the Yemen war, quote, “Looking back, I wonder what we might have done differently, particularly if we’d somehow known that Obama was going to be succeeded by a President Trump.”

Nima: Right.

Adam: So there’s this idea that like if Clinton would have won this somehow would have been a more humanitarian war.

Nima: Right. Exactly. And so therefore it would have been okay what you did in the Obama administration because it would have been succeeded by someone on your side.

Adam: Right. And so he, they do this, this good cop/bad cop routine, sorry, not to mix cop metaphors, but we’re actually going to call it the, uh, the, the Serpico routine where they’re both trying to change from the inside, it’s not that they’re venal careerists in that they’re wanton hypocrites, it’s that they can sorta change it from the inside.

Nima: Being on the inside is going to be more effective to their case of change than just kind of railing from the outside. You hear this all the time, people, you know, in these positions of power being able to say, ‘well look, if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else who wouldn’t try and change things so it’s better that it’s me here.’

Adam: Yeah and this, this good cop/bad cop routine is abstracted out even to the administration itself, which says ‘we have to help, we have to aid the Saudis.’ This is the argument that weapons contractor funded groups like CSIS even argued in a puff video they did, which by the way, prominently featured voices from Human Rights Watch. That said, we actually have to keep selling them weapons and supporting them because if we don’t, they’re not going to have precision weapons. So Saudi Arabia is, instead of being a client state of the US or being — the US can stop them overnight if they really want to — they’re actually the sort of beast we have to contain. And that the reason why we’re giving them targets to hit and weapon systems and supporting them at the United Nations is not because we support what they’re doing, it’s because if we don’t, they’ll do it more evilly. Despite there being actual evidence of this being true, uh, it’s a bit of a counterfactual of course, but this was what of generally the argument. This is the argument that Ben Rhodes has made several times. Ben Rhodes even said on October 21st of last year, said that the relationship with Obama had grown “chilly,” quote unquote “chilly” to Saudi Arabia. Uh, Sarah Lazare notes, who wrote an article about it, she noted that he had offered the kingdom and given the kingdom $115 billion in weapons. This is sort of like the chilliness with Israel. It’s always this abstract thing that maybe boils down to personality disputes.

Nima: The Obama Administration and the Netanyahu government were so at odds that the United States could only give them exactly the same amount of weapons, uh, as every other administration (laughs) and more!

Adam: And so officials within the administration who need to maintain their liberal bona fides for committing the most blatant and obvious and cartoonishly evil war crimes, there’s always these little snippets here in The Nation and The Atlantic and The New York Times magazine talking about how they dissented in person and they didn’t get along and Netanyahu, Obama. But if you objectively look back at the facts with the exception of one abstention in the, with one token abstention in the UN with Israeli settlements after the election and of the 22 months that Obama was in office, they pulled one missile guided weapon system in the last two months of administration. So for 20 out of 22 months that the war in Yemen was raging, Obama did nothing about Saudi Arabia. He did a little token slap on the wrist. Again, this is also because they knew they had to go on the, on the sort of liberal speaking circuit afterwards. So like there’s never any actual material change. It’s this, it’s this pure affect. It’s this pure sort of self-described state of mind that they’re sort of saying, ‘oh, trust me, they didn’t like us.’ Well then why did you give them $115 billion?

Nima: (Laughing.) Right.

Adam: Um, and liberals, liberals eat this shit up. They love this shit because they want to maintain the idea that somehow we don’t have basically a one party war state.

Nima: Right. So they also play up the idea that within the administration they were heroic, right? And that they made up, they constituted part of this team of rivals, which is now, you know, this lauded concept Doris Kearns Goodwin, you know, wrote the book Team of Rivals about, uh, Lincoln’s cabinet. And so every like liberal cabinet now tries to pretend that they are that even though it’s just lockstep. And so it’s the idea that it’s, you know, well, you know, we were really speaking out in the war room in the, you know, back channels, but then no public evidence demonstrates this. Samantha Power was UN Ambassador, right? US Ambassador to the United Nations for years. Had the power to literally help stop the war crimes and massacres in Yemen. Did not do any of that.

Adam: Either Rhodes or Power could have stopped at any minute.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And quit the administration and written an Op-Ed in New York Times saying, I’m quitting over Yemen. They could have done that. Imagine what that would’ve done. Imagine what that would’ve done to marshal this issue to the top of MSNBC. To the top of the liberal sort of discussion.

Nima: Right.

Adam: It would’ve been a huge shock to the national security establishment.

Nima: But that is not at all what they were thinking or believing or interested in doing. It’s only in retrospect that they get to, when liberal consensus has even moved a tiny bit and they see the writing on the wall and they see what the future may hold for them in their careers, that it’s at that point that they’re like, ‘you know, we were really trying back then’ and there’s just, ‘our hands were tied.’

Adam: And the point is not to like, the point is not to just dunk on them. It’s not to own them. The point is that we saw this with the leadership in the war in Iraq. We saw this with X Bush officials. We saw this with Jeffrey Goldberg, we saw this with Bill Keller, we saw this with everyone who gave us Iraq. They do these half-assed — well, not Bush officials, but a lot of the people in media —

Nima: Yeah. Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias.

Adam: They do these half-assed mea culpas and what we’re really getting at, the bigger issue we’re asking on this show is what does it mean to be accountable? What does it mean to do a mea culpa? What does it actually mean other than self serving, downplaying quotes to the friendly journalists and random tweets where you say ‘we ought to have done more.’ What does that mean? Samantha Power, journalist Sarah Lazare, who again, whose article is the basis for this show, reached out to both Rhodes and Power and asked them what did they do to make amends? Have they reached out to the Yemeni community? Have they reached out to anti-war activists who are in Yemen, who are the affected parties and sought some sort of accountability? Some sort of reparations. Anything at all. Did they volunteer their time? Do they give money to some charity? And there was no indication they did any of that. There is no real accountability.

Nima: No. It’s like, ‘Let me publish one op-ed, out of all the op-eds I’m gonna, you know, publish this year, it’ll be one of them so it will be on the record and I can refer back to that,’ but there’s no action beyond them. So then this ‘we could have done more’ posture is aided by journalists then covering these members of the Obama administration. For instance, there’s an article in Politico from July 2016, this is during the heart of the Clinton/Trump presidential election, Obama administration’s on its way out obviously, and you see this article in Politico and it’s headlined this: “As the Saudis Covered Up Abuses in Yemen, America Stood By.” The subhead is: “Washington let Saudi Arabia commit atrocities in Yemen, then strong-arm the UN into remaining silent.” This is written by Samuel Oakford, uh, July 30th, 2016. And what it does in the course of this article, it presents the United States, and we’ve discussed this on numerous episodes, it presents the United States almost like an idle observer. That it wasn’t necessarily the United States that was refueling Saudi jets or providing intel or providing complete diplomatic cover. No, no, no, no, no. America was just, was just idle. It was just standing by and in the course of this Oakford presents Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, as someone merely held captive by these outside forces, by the evil Saudis hostage to mysterious war makers, she could never quite, you know, oppose or buck. And so Oakford writes this in Politico quote:

“No one has become more familiar with this awkwardness than the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, the erstwhile human-rights icon (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell) who has been forced to look the other way as a powerful U.S. ally does as it pleases in Yemen with political, logistical and military cover from Washington.”

Adam: So Samantha Power is actually means well but is forced, by whom not clear, some nebulous circumstance cause she has no, she has no agency or moral autonomy, she’s just forced to look the other way.

Nima: The article goes on:

“As Saudi behavior grew more careless publicly, both on the ground in Yemen and in the halls of the U.N., the silence from Washington, and at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in New York , continued. Ambassador Power even found herself defending an intervention in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, coincided with the spread of Al Qaeda, and undercut her own passionate work to draw attention to the crimes of the Assad regime in Syria.”

Adam: Yeah. So here she finds herself defending, she’s forced to look the other way. So this is very common in American media when we talk about these liberal insiders is that they’re always, it’s always assumed, right? The entire premise of this is that she means well, she has good intentions, right? And to be clear, this is never, this is why this human rights framework is so self serving and so arbitrary and so frankly chauvinist, right? Cause it assumes Americans are always well-intentioned despite any empirical basis to believe that and that it’s never, it’s always assumed that she means well, but there’s always these forces that are outside of this. Now note that this is never, the double standard is rather obvious. This is never said about Russian or Syrian diplomats or officials. They’re never said to be forced to carry out work crimes.

Nima: Our enemies are never reluctant to engage in exactly the way that they engage.

Adam: Yeah. This Serpico framing has never permitted for officials in Syria, Russia or China. They’re always said to be one monolith evil. That’s largely due to the fact that they don’t really need this human rights pretense to engage in violence. They just say, ‘well, yeah, we’re violent. We’re looking out for our best interests. Like so the fuck what?’ But America, because of the nature of its war machine requires liberal buy in from these liberal institutions who need this moral framework. We constantly have to believe that if people commit war crimes at the highest level, which make no mistake, Samantha Power was aiding and abetting work crimes, Ben Rhodes was aiding and abetting war crimes, not just in Yemen, but also in Libya, that they were actually well-intentioned and that they, that they sort of meant well, but there’s no, this is a very sort of childlike view of politics. It doesn’t, doesn’t matter what they believe or whether or not they believe this shit. Everyone believes they’re good. What does that mean? Right? This is like well-intentioned. Every war ever is well-intentioned. That doesn’t, that’s not falsifiable. It doesn’t mean anything.

Nima: Right. Who is like, ‘I’m an evil person. I’m doing these things because I am literally evil.’

Adam: Other than Donald Trump. Maybe.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: Um, who literally will tell you ‘I’m evil’ because he’s a cartoon character.

Nima: Because he thinks that’s really cool.

Adam: Samantha Power with a straight face went on ABC News and even defended America’s support of Saudi Arabia to join the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

[Begin Clip]

Martha Raddatz: I want to move to Saudi Arabia. The UN has just appointed Saudi Arabia to head a UN Human Rights Council panel. Given Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, a hundred beheadings last year, is this really appropriate?

Samantha Power: Well, Martha, this is my daily bread. Unfortunately in the UN system you have all kinds of bodies, uh, often regions put forward, countries for particular positions. They’re voted by people within their own regions. In this case, this is a procedural position. It’s not going to have bearing on, uh, you know, what the UN is doing on any particular human rights issue. Uh, but fundamentally the United Nations is a body of 193 countries. 154 heads of state are descending on New York right now. And we see the heterogeneity not only in terms of culture and religion and race and geography, but also in terms of whether, how the countries fair on human rights.

Martha Raddatz: And is this something you welcome? The State Department said this week they welcome the Saudi Arabian appointment.

Samantha Power: I think we, we welcome moves that are going to strengthen human rights. This is not going to have bearing on human rights one way or the other. Again, it’s a procedural position that won’t put a thumb on the scale one way or the other.

[End Clip]

Adam: And Ben Rhodes just the same is entering these spaces. He’s done conference calls with groups like Win Without War, which is, you know, a good group, they’re trying to end the war in yemen but they’re also very liberal. Like they support sanctions, they support arming opposition in Syria. So they’re like the sort of good, they’re like the good liberal, they don’t want to militarize. They claim they’re patriots. It’s sorta like this moveon.org-y type thing.

Nima: Well right, because it’s the real sort of Obama administration playbook of, you know, let’s say, um, take Iran for example and the Iran deal. The reason the Iran deal is so important from that narrative perspective is because it prevents Iran from building nuclear weapons. So it’s, you know, granting the narrative frame that Iran desperately wants nukes and we have to stop them. We just want to stop them without war and never actually investigating the fact that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program and didn’t. And so it’s basically agreeing with the warmongering framework except achieving, you know, achieving the same ends, but quote unquote, “without war.” And yet, what does that mean? That still means sanctioning economies to death, which is an act of war.

Adam: So I want to be clear here. So those that are working to end the war in Yemen, which is a broad coalition, it’s far left. It’s liberals, it’s you know, hardcore. It’s anti imperialist it is just sort of lukewarm anti-war. And it’s increasingly ex-Obama officials. They don’t have the luxury of being particular about who their allies are and I want to be very sensitive to that, that they’ll sort of take people where they can get them. Even Joe Biden’s saying he wants to end the war in Yemen. People like at Just Foreign Policy like Robert Naiman or any of those, any of these people who have been working for many years to end this war.

Nima: Right.

Adam: I get that they —

Nima: Which is really important to do.

Adam: Yeah, that’s a political thing. They can’t be as selective as you and I can Nima. But as people who are not in that world who are supposed to be telling it and calling it as we see it, I do think this question of what it looks like to have a mea culpa is actually important. And the reason it’s important, and this is, this is key because I want to make sure that we’re not just, we’re not just finger wagging or trying to sort of own people for hypocrisy. The reason why it’s important is because we’re just going to keep doing this over and over again. Because if a mea culpa is some half-assed article and a tweet, then there’s no incentive for the next guys in charge to not destroy another country. You know, I know we’re sort of running out of countries to destroy, but there’s a perverse incentive here. It’s creating a moral hazard where you can militarize the conflict in Syria. You can redo regime change in Libya, creating open air slave markets, destroying the, this, the simple infrastructure. Uh, you can completely back a one sided, you know, Yemen is not even like other conflicts where maybe there’s some debate. There really is no debate. It’s a total moral chip shot. You can support that for years. You can support that for two years and then come out of it and say, ‘Oh, you know what? #jk #sorry, #saveYemen’ um, you know, I just want to do over. And it’s like, well, what does that mean? This is just like what Republicans do when they rebrand John Bircherism, you’re just rebranding the same thing by, by saying, ‘oh, that’s not me now I’m this other thing,’ and it’s the same goddamn people. It’s the same people who are in the Obama administration. They’ll say, ‘oh, well I didn’t, you know, I didn’t work directly with Yemen.’ Again, imagine what they could have done had they said something. Imagine what they could have done if they, if Samantha Power had gone up to the UN and instead of saying, you know, ‘Saudi Arabia should join the Human Rights Council,’ she could have condemned them on the floor. Like she condemned critics of Israel and like she condemned, you know, Russia and Syria, like she condemned all the official bad guys who she has this bold, courageous stand against these governments who everyone already hates anyway, but she can’t criticize the, you know, war crimes of her own country and this is not this, again, this is not even just about hypocrisy. It’s about what it looks like to allow people to come back in those spaces. If you’re an anti-war activist to say, okay, you know, you want to support ending the war in Yemen, I get that. We need all the support we can get, but should you be allowed to go to the proverbial cocktail party? Should you be allowed back into those spaces without some sort of sanction or some sort of accountability? And there isn’t any, there’s no mechanism for that. There was no real discussion about that. It’s just, oh well, okay. Ben Rhodes is on Pod Save The World and I guess he’s good now. It’s like, well no, like pump the brakes here. Like let’s talk about what accountability really looks like.

Nima: Right. Let’s talk about the fact that Samantha Power literally disavowed her calling America an empire in her book when she was asked about it during her confirmation hearing to be UN Ambassador. So basically she said this, “I believe that we are a great — a great and strong and powerful country, and the most powerful country in the history of the world. Also, the most inspirational.” “Empire,” Samantha Power added, “is probably not a word choice that I would use today, having served. Serving in the executive branch is very different than sounding off from an academic perch.” End Quote. And it was this, “difference between being a professor and being a policy maker,” said by Henry Kissinger, that Henry Kissinger praised her for knowing that difference and adding that “when she analyzed contemporary problems, she and I didn’t differ all that much.”

Adam: Yeah. And so what does it mean to be sorry and what does it mean to be held accountable?

Nima: To discuss this further we’ll be joined by Shireen Al-Adeimi, professor at Michigan State University. Stay with us.

[Music]

Nima: We are joined now by Shireen Al-Adeimi, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed Shireen. It’s great to have you back.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Thanks for having me.

Adam: So we haven’t covered this topic in a while. Can we get an update for our listeners? We did a little bit in the intro, but what is the current status of the efforts to end the war? The veto of the bill that passed in Congress was overridden by President Trump last month. Can we get a, a current status as to the efforts to end the war to the extent to which through, I guess the bombing campaign, to the extent to which they’re, um, they’re still going.

Shireen Al-Adeimi

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Right. So well, it took two years for this bill to finally be passed in the Senate and the House, of course there were several attempts to derail it, but we finally had this pass, which was a historic moment of course, and then Trump vetoed it. There was an attempt to override the veto in the Senate, but that didn’t go through. It didn’t receive the two thirds majority that it needed for an override. So unfortunately that bill is dead. But the War Powers Bill can be re-invoked over and over and over again by any member of Congress so we could try going that route or some movements right now are to try to get at the Appropriations Bill. So when the defense budget is being allocated to try to defund the war, the US support for the war through that is one option that people may be pursuing soon.

Nima: Shireen, in this episode, as you know, we’ve been discussing the idea of accountability and of the kind of, uh, obfuscation of people’s roles in really consequential world events. To use kind of salient examples we’ve been talking notably about Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power and coming out of the Obama and how now those are two voices that are attempting to effectively rewrite the history of these war crimes in Yemen, of the siege of Yemen and to basically reboot their own brands now in this era of Trump as anti-war voices. Now obviously any converts to an anti-war cause I think are welcome, but at the same time I, you know, would you say that maybe there’s a risk in the albeit understandable rush to marshal support to get Congress to stop the bombing using these high profile Obama administration officials to kind of do that? Does that whitewash their own roles in the bloodshed?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I think it absolutely does. And if they were real converts, then maybe I would be less critical of their, um, new found role as anti-war activists or voices, whatever they want to call themselves. But there’s not really a clear understanding from those of us who’ve been following them exactly what the shift has been. There’s no acknowledgement, real acknowledgement that their role has been essentially to drum up the, you know, support for the war in Yemen to provide cover for the Saudis and the UAE at the United Nations, to allow them to continue to investigate their own crimes, to prevent the UN from taking any sorts of measures against them, even appointing independent investigators and after all of this, for them to not acknowledge the incredibly important role that they’ve played and to all of a sudden present themselves as firefighters, as you know, after igniting this fire, so to speak, is really problematic. It does no justice for the cause and it ignores their role in creating this world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Nima: Right. So, I mean, I think we can maybe agree that if say Hillary Clinton had become president instead of Trump, Ben Rhodes in Sam Power wouldn’t necessarily now be, you know, really gung-ho about calling out war crimes in Yemen. Is that, is that maybe safe to say?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Right. What concerns me is that now they’re pointing the finger at Trump and Mohammed bin Salman, if you just review the tweets that they’ve, you know, if you review their name with the word Yemen, they didn’t start tweeting about it until they were out of office. The war had been going on for two years under Obama’s administration and there was no mention of it. There was active support from these people and others like them in the Obama administration. He alone did not orchestrate this war, it was in partnership with of course, the people who supported him here at home, as well as the Saudis, the Emiratis, Qatar at the time and blaming Trump and Mohammed bin Salman is not going to absolve Obama from being a partner in those war crimes. It’s not going to exonerate them from perpetuating these war crimes against Yemenis. And in one a notable tweet Samantha Power acknowledges even that the UN had warned that Yemen was going to have the worst outbreak of cholera on record and she acknowledges that in an July 2017 tweet that the UN had warned of cholera becoming the worst outbreak, yet she still continued to help the Saudis. And so it’s not an issue even about hindsight is 20/20. They knew what was happening as it was happening and they continued to support these war crimes in Yemen.

Adam: On the issue of accountability, earlier in the show we tried to establish that this is not really an issue of purity or kind of dunking on people for being hypocrites. It’s really about establishing a political culture where one can’t just kind of issue a half-assed mea culpa and move on. The idea of it being this creates a moral hazard whereby those committing or assisting in war crimes of a future, let’s say Kamala Harris or Beto or Bernie Sanders administration, they know they can sort of just do the Rhodes/Samantha Power shuffle once they’re out of office. This raises the central question, which is what does real accountability look like? And I’m not sure, I know it’s a big question to ask of you and I know that you don’t speak for all Yemeni Americans, or all Americans. I know that no one person can speak for a whole community, but, but if you had to sort of guess or what you would view as being real accountability look like other than some veiled tweets, which again don’t even really address their own role. What does real accountability look like in your opinion?

Former senior Obama advisor Ben Rhodes on MSNBC, speaking to Willie Geist.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: It’s a very difficult question. Like you said, I think at the very least truth, you know, Yemenis deserve truth and even that, you know, they’re not providing that in the current role as trying to reframe this as Trump’s war. And how horrible is it for Yemeni lives to be lost? For what reason? Samantha Power calls it “pointless bloodshed,” but there still is no even, you know, an attempt to present this war for what it is. They’re still pushing the narrative, both of them, that this is Iran’s proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example. They’re still obfuscating the reality of the situation, they’re still pushing this false narrative, denying Yemenis of not only justice, but the truth of what’s happening. And so I think at the very least, people who know them, who follow them, you know, if they’re going to have positions in these future administrations, they should at least come out and say what exactly their role was when they were part of this administration. We know, for example, that the US under Obama’s administration supported the Saudis from day one. Of course this was planned. I would assume that it was planned. I mean the US moved its embassy from Sana’a in February 2015, which was a month before the war began. And so the kind of planning that took place, the kind of, you know, support that went on despite the mass starvation, despite the blockade, despite the hunger, despite the bombing, just to have some kind of acknowledgement of what their role was so that, and to apologize for that role first and foremost I think is the main step. But you know, of course, ideally justice is what Yemenis need, an end to the war but then justice for what they’ve been through at not only the hands of the Saudis, Emirates and all those people who joined in, but here in the US, Americans who supported them and you know, allowed this humanitarian crisis to get so bad.

Nima: You know, something that will not really be a shock to many of our listeners, but you know, still bears mention is that Obama administration officials doing this sort of, you know, post administration rebrand, you know, the old like, I’m going to go to MSNBC two step or you know, have, uh, now like woke podcast or whatever. Like this is nothing new. We see architects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq walking freely rather than in prison or at bare minimum, at bare minimum being persona non grata in any sort of reasonable circles, political or media. You know you have Bill Kristol or David Frum, major, major advocates played a huge role in the destruction of an entire nation of a, of a people. And the implications are obviously more broad than that. To what extent does this just show what the US political culture is and their kind of politics to media, back to politics, you know, revolving door effectively where everything is just a game and as long as no one’s career really suffers over here, I guess there will never be justice and they’ll just keep getting new jobs and like somehow that is seen as normal.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Yeah. This is what’s really concerning. Somehow we end up treating these war criminals like heroes. I think it matters who the victims are and when the victims are Yemenis or Iraqis, the victims don’t have sway over the US economy or the price of oil, then it’s fine, I guess. And people can pretend to move on. But if it’s some dictator that we all of a sudden don’t like committing war crimes against his own people, god forbid he’s committing war crimes against his own people and we have to intervene and we have to stop that. And so I think there’s this amnesia. There is a lack of responsibility toward human life. This isn’t about the morals. This isn’t about anything but their own careers, like you said, this isn’t about the issues. This is just people playing politics. It’s easy to point the finger at another administration, but unfortunately US foreign policy, to many black and brown people around the world looks the same. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, the bombs are still being dropped. The hunger is still there, the blockades are still there. And so I think until we have a moment of realization that this, you know, this country really needs a revamping where we look at our politicians seriously and question them and hold them accountable for their votes in the Senate, you know, their positions in the past, everything they’ve done so that we make sure that this doesn’t keep on happening to other people somewhere far away.

Adam: To what extent do you think that the kind of glibness with which we can all forgive the Iraq War, like we mentioned George Bush now has a net approval rating, a net positive approval rating amongst Democrats, to what extent is this animated by this quote unquote “amnesia?” To what extent is it animated by racism? That Arab lives are sort of a Mulligan and you move on, but they’re sort of not as important as other lives?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I think certainly racism plays a role. Of course, these are not our allies culturally speaking, right? The US aligns itself with Europe much more closely. Um, you know, if something happens in France people are much more likely to react than if it happens in Pakistan for example, but I also think that when it comes to administration’s relationship with these governments in the Middle East, they tend to favor the despotic Arab oil rich governments and rulers like Mohammed bin Salman or the Qatari prince or the UAE, uh, administration. And so there’s something to be said there about this mutually beneficial partnership that supersedes anything else. Right? And so the countries that don’t have as much economic power are not going to be our friends. Those who have a lot of economic power, even if 15 out of the 19 bombers or you know, hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, we’re going to ignore that and we’re going to invade Afghanistan and Iraq instead. And so I think sure racism can play a part of this and it does, but at the level of the administration and foreign policy it’s dictated I think much more by this, uh, economic power or lack thereof.

Adam: Well, yeah, I guess, I suppose I meant the degree to which liberal media can laugh about woke Bill Kristol as if it’s sort of, yeah, he just kind of, different opinion about flavors of ice cream versus helped orchestrate a war that killed half a million to a million people.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: It’s really disgusting. It’s shocking. And unfortunately it keeps happening. You know, the, when the victims are not like us, then I guess that’s fine. We can pretend that these war criminals are our heroes and we continue to provide them with platforms. But I mean it’s unfortunate. It’s really unfortunate that this is the country we’ve become, maybe this is who we’ve always been, but it’s, uh, it’s much more transparent now I suppose.

Adam: The grossest to me is Ben Rhodes because I think he really has kind of inserted himself as an anti-war voice and he has really given no count, he in fact told an interviewer that one of the reasons they didn’t try to stop the war is that because they thought Clinton was going to win and that had they known how much Trump would’ve backed MBS they would have stopped it. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the sort of gist.

Nima: Like it was okay up to a point.

Adam: Right. And so this is kind of like Trump’s problem is that he’s doing the bad thing badly, incompetently. Not that he’s doing the bad thing. And now he’s launched this National Security Action, which has really kind of, you know, they’ve had calls with Win Without War and these other kind of liberal anti-war groups. And there’s something that strikes me as being extremely vulgar that we’re not only rewriting history we’re sort of pushing aside real anti-war voices to work on one’s branding, which after the death of Jamal Khashoggi has become, it’s become sort of hip now to, to criticize Saudi Arabia, which wasn’t the case prior to October of 2018. Again, I think it’s easy to say that, you know, the United States of Amnesia as the cliche goes right? That we all have the memory of a fruit fly, but Ben Rhodes has given no real account of, of why he didn’t say anything or do anything when he had the opportunity to do so. And I guess I’m curious how you feel about this rebranding and him shoving people aside and pushing himself to the forefront of this Yemen dialogue in a way that strikes me as deeply bizarre and bizarro.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Yeah. I think Samantha Power has made a little more effort in acknowledging that it was wrong. I mean, she says it was wrong to keep supporting the Saudi led coalition as it kills civilians with impunity and blocks medicines as a quote. But there is no such accountability or acknowledgement from Ben Rhodes. For him it just feels like a purely, you know, like a career move. And I don’t think anybody should be giving him a platform. I mean, he himself is not going to step back and give anti-war activists, you know, the space that they rightly own. But I don’t think, you know, anti-war activists should give him that platform at all. And he deserves to be called out. I’ve called him out on Twitter for saying that Obama wanted to curtail the AUMF. Well, Obama had no problem using the AUMF when he was bombing Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia or any of those other countries. And so for me, it’s really easy to see right through it that this is just a career move. This isn’t some quaint kind of, you know, conversion to the cause. And, for example, Senator Sanders wasn’t really vocal against the war in Yemen, but when he took on, he wasn’t supporting it either and when he took on the cause, he took it on, you know, saw it through this historic moment and is still trying to end the US involvement in the war. And I respect that. Sure. He wasn’t there from the beginning. But this isn’t, Ben Rhodes cannot fill that position, right? It’s not the position he deserves or you know, this, this, uh, what he’s pretending to be right now, we should see right through it.

Nima: Right. And I think because of his position and because of the liberal nostalgia for the Obama administration, it just absolves everyone from any sort of responsibility at the time. There’s a new abnormal under Trump now. Now, people can say, ‘Oh my god, this is so terrible.’ And if, you know, even Obama administration officials are coming out against this and that now tells us what Trump is doing so badly because they’ve seen it on the inside and they now know just how bad Trump is. And it’s like, no, they were doing this.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: The exact same thing.

Nima: They were literally doing this.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Exactly. They were doing the exact same thing. They were blockading. They were bombing. They were starving Yemenis to death. They were doing the exact same thing. They weren’t doing anything different. It wasn’t like, you know, “genocide lite.” It was genocide. And so for people to ignore that, I think what Trump has done is that, I mean his demeanor and he’s not as eloquent as Obama. He doesn’t know how to obfuscate the truth like Obama did. You know, he cannot tweet properly, let alone speak eloquently, but in a sense he’s made this transparent, he’s made the truth, the ugly truth, very visible. But that shouldn’t fool us from seeing that the ugly truth was there even when it was covered by nice politics and manners in a, you know, in a very eloquent speaker.

Nima: Yeah. There’s just such a, there’s such a parallel between the tracks of former Bush administration officials, former Trump officials and Obama [officials] and the idea that there’s a difference here. You know, I mean, just recently, Abe Greenwald, a senior editor at Commentary Magazine, tweets, “‘The forever war’ is how unserious people describe the efforts that have created the longest stretch of (U.S.-backed) global peace in human history. I’ll take it.” So, the idea that the complete rewriting of history can happen both on the right and the left is just laid out because no one is ever fundamentally held accountable for the decisions that are made at the highest level of empire.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Right. Imperialism is the goal here. And when the British were an empire, they came and told people, ‘well, we like your resources and we’re going to take it from you and we’re going to occupy you.’ Now imperialism is much more to do with, ‘well, uh, we think you are suffering and we want to bring democracy to you’ or whatever it is, you know, like, but it is in the end the same exact thing. These people perpetuate these wars because it benefits them and it doesn’t matter at whose expense. When these people cannot fight back, they have no choice in the matter. Like what choice do Yemenis have, right? They don’t even have an air force and they’ve been enduring this, uh, you know, they can’t grow their own vegetables and they’d been enduring this war for four years now. And so they’re being completely subjugated by these people and here in the US, well so long as it serves US interests, so long as the cars are still running and the US is still the richest country or the most powerful country than it does not matter. And, and this is really a serious issue for us to tackle in US politics. This should not keep going on. Trump has given us an opportunity by making all of this transparent and by making the ugly truth transparent and I think it’s time for us to take that on and to make serious changes in this country that stop these war crimes from happening at the expense of other people.

Adam: You know, it’s interesting, I’ve heard similar sentiments from people in the Palestinian movement about how Trump now he basically exposes liberal Zionism for what it is, which is sort of a marketing gimmick and that all he’s doing is sort of expediting what was happening anyway under Obama and that maybe there is a, there’s an opportunity to take that, when you take the mask off it becomes more clear what we’re really talking about. And in a sense becomes easier to negotiate amongst center and left spaces where you say, okay, well on a fundamental basis what Trump’s doing to Yemen is not that much different. It is, it is ramped up, but it is fundamentally the same thing Obama did. So that goes a long way telling you what we’re really dealing with, which is a national security state that supersedes whoever the hell we bother to elect every four years or a policy that we, you know, we’ve had for 67 years with regard to Israel and that raises much bigger questions that people just don’t want to deal with.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I think the mistake now would be to run toward what’s familiar, which is, you know, somebody like Biden comes along and we’re like, ‘oh well he’s not so bad.’ And the question really is, well he’s not so bad for whom? And so if we really want real change, then we need a revamping of the system, not just a, you know, going back to something that’s a little bit better. That sounds a bit better. That looks a little bit better, but it’s still essentially the same.

Adam: I know there are lots of groups trying to end this war, some of which we’ve been critical of today. But can you give us a recap of what the current status is and what groups are out there trying to actually finish this thing cause they keep, it just seems like we keep almost finishing it, but it never quite finishes. It’s kind of like Israeli apartheid. It’s almost apartheid but never quite apartheid. Can you give us a sense of what the status is on that and what the prospects are looking like and what our listeners can check out on the Internet to sort of figure out more?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: I think we’ve come a long way. I mean this fight was such as lonely fight four years ago, three years ago when it seemed like nobody was listening. Uh, unfortunately it took the killing of Jamal Khashoggi to finally have some kind of backing against this war and against the Saudis in particular. Our fight doesn’t end here. You know, we still have groups like Just Foreign Policy and um, Win Without War and all these groups here in the US who are trying to end this through political means. Congress has the right to authorize war, not the president. The president is now in clear violation of the Constitution by vetoing this bill. I mean the fact that he even got to veto this bill is criminal because Congress was telling him that you don’t have the authority to wage this war and he just vetoed that decision. And so he is against the Constitution now. And um, what we’re trying to do now is trying to defund the war, defund the US’ support for the Saudis by the refueling, the training, the support, the bombs, everything that they sell them and all the services that they provide. I don’t know exactly what that would look like, but I’ve been writing for In These Times and I plan on writing a piece about what next. And so I hope that people could stay abreast of the upcoming fight. It’s still kind of uncertain right now what that might look like.

Nima: Well, that is great. We will leave it on that note, everyone should certainly check out Shireen’s work and writing on Yemen and other topics. It is essential reading. Shireen Al-Adeimi, thank you so much for joining us, professor at Michigan State University. It has been amazing to have you back on Citations Needed.

Shireen Al-Adeimi: Great to be talking to you again. Thanks so much for having me.

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Adam: Yeah, it’s difficult to parse what accountability is exactly, but it’s, to me it’s very clear what it’s not and thinly veiled half-assed quotes to friendly reporters at The Nation and half-baked tweets are not that. That’s not accountability, so it’s, you know, what does it look like? It’s a question I think we can, we can debate, but I got to think that it’s very clear that what Rhodes and what Power have done, is not even remotely close to any kind of accountability for a war which they very well could have at any point publicly opposed. And they decided not to because I’m sure they convinced themselves that they were, they were Serpico that there were deep, deep double agents. Uh, but you know, the thing about this is that everyone involved in that administration says the same thing, including the president himself. So nobody’s responsible. It’s a game of moral hot potato. In that situation then no one’s accountable, then the US support of the bombing of Yemen is, it’s just this thing that happened. This is why I find it interesting that Rhodes fixates on this idea of the blob because the blob it kind of abstracts it out to where no one’s responsible without acknowledging that he very well is the blob. Again cause he never really says who is responsible. And if you sit down at the table and the first 30 minutes you can’t figure out who the blob is, you are the blob. It seems like a pretty good life lesson here.

Nima: Right. And then these same people who were part of this, who were part of really very powerful decision making are given whatever platform they want to then speak out against exactly what they were doing. I mean it just goes around and around and um, and then they are seen as, you know, champions who have seen it from the inside. I mean, Ben Rhodes has a new book out and I saw someone reading on the subway, literally today, the day that we happen to be recording this episode, someone was reading his new book on the subway and I was like, there’s no fucking end to this. Somehow that kind of responsibility for that level of war making and death and destruction, which is really real, like people truly have been killed. That seems obvious, but it’s really, really true. And then these people go on radio and TV and they speak out against something that they, you know, ‘really just care so deeply about.’ And they ‘tried to do something about it,’ but you know, ‘they just couldn’t when they were in that position’ and ‘now they can really just speak out about it. ‘Cause they really, really, really care about Yemen’ and it’s just fucking horseshit.

Adam: At the very least they could just step aside and let people who are actual grassroots activists, that don’t have slick websites to kind of, you know, rebranding Obama era war criminals as somehow the woke opposition to Trump. This is all, this is all marketing and they’re taking it, you know, they’re taking up oxygen. It’s like, look, you want to tweet out support, fine, but like don’t like don’t try to commandeer the conversation and get a bunch of puff pieces in The Nation about how you’re the new liberal foreign policy. It’s like shut the fuck up. There’s, there’s plenty of people who’ve been waiting their turn who can now take the reins of power. We don’t need all these washed-up Obama war criminals trying to act like they’re the vanguard of leftist opposition to Saudi war crimes.

Nima: So, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and of course if you would like to support our work, and I encourage you to do so because it really does help, you can become a supporter of our show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, an extra special shout-out goes to our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.

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This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.