The following interview with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power took place at the United States Mission to the United Nations, New York.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is about to be reinstated as prime minister for Israel. During the Israeli election there was some worrying rhetoric coming from him; he said essentially that he won’t support a future Palestinian state. What’s your response to that?
The United States has made clear over more than 20 years across Democratic and Republican administrations that we believe a two-state solution is the best way to get at the underlying needs of both the Israelis — who need durable security — and the Palestinians — who need security and dignity.
We believe that the negotiated settlement to the outstanding issues is the way to get at peace and to get at security, so our view has certainly not changed. We will have to re-evaluate the way forward toward peace in the Middle East, if in fact Netanyahu’s election comments reflect the new position of the new, and eventual Israeli government.
How well can you influence that? Some people might argue that that the U.S. is somewhat responsible for the fact that Netanyahu can say such things with clear abandonment. The U.S. is unconditionally supportive of Israel, not just in the areas of security — which everyone agrees is very important — but from a political perspective; often to the suffering of the Palestinians?
We have invested huge resources and continue to seek to do so in the Palestinian Authority and in prosperity for the Palestinian people, security, human rights. We are dedicated to that, and I think Secretary Kerry’s efforts at securing peace over the course of a long and bumpy year speak to our commitment to working through a negotiations process to try to ensure that the Palestinians get what they have long sought, which is a sovereign and independent Palestinian state.
That objective for us had been a loadstar for a long time. We are also cognizant of the threats that Israel faces, whether it be 4,000 rockets from Hamas last summer, or from lone wolf attacks that we’ve seen off and on in recent months.
This is why a two-state solution is so important. The security and welfare of neither side is going to be served by a protracted period in which the two sides are not talking and they’re not moving towards this necessary end state.
Former UN Ambassador Susan Rice said that supporting a Palestinian state at the UN was counter-productive, even though it is a non-violent route towards the future. Is that still the position of the U.S.?
The United States supports the future of a Palestinian state, the difference in opinion is how to get there. If anybody thinks that you can achieve a state that is secure, independent, that has the trappings of sovereignty that the Palestinians so crave, without engaging the Israelis — challenging though that has been — and so far the process has not produced results, and one can understand why the Palestinians are losing patience at this point. But nonetheless, there is no scenario in which you just raise your hand at the UN Security Council and “voila” a state exists that allows the Palestinians the rights and the security they covet. So that is the difference. There is no difference on whether or not through a negotiated process the United States stands behind the objective that the Palestinians have, but the terms of that have been the source of great difference over a very long time. The Israeli government is going to be central to ensuring that the Palestinian people can live with dignity and security over time, and you can’t avoid that hard fact.
Do you think the Israeli government has illustrated that it is serious about a Palestinian state, particularly if you look at Netanyahu’s comments during the election — even if they were just part of election rhetoric?
Because the United States position is very firm and long-standing about the importance of a two state solution — the necessity of a two state solution — we will need to re-evaluate our approach in light of those comments, if those comments reflect Israeli policy going forward.
In September 2013, there was a possibility that President Obama would engage in strikes against the Syrian regime. It was something that you supported at the time; the international community was divided, but there was this issue of a red line. And again we’re hearing of the use of chlorine gas in [in attacks on civilians] and many people killed in Syria’s Idlib province. Was it a mistake not to engage in strikes, given how things have deteriorated vastly in the last couple of years there?
The threat of strikes and the threat of military force at the time had one important positive effect, which is it brought a divided international community together around the cause of taking Assad’s chemical weapons away and destroying them. The operation that commenced in the fall of 2013 and lasted much of last year — where a number of countries including several European came together — was a very impressive operation and vast stores of chemical weapons had been removed from Syria, in a first of its kind operation. And so I don’t think we should minimize that, because God only knows what Syria would look like today if sarin were a routine weapon of war, which is what I think it would become.
That said, we not only have this week’s allegations of chlorine use as a weapon, but we have many, many allegations over the course of the last year, as documented by the OPCW. That’s why just two weeks ago we led the passage of a resolution here making it very clear to the international community that chlorine can be used as a chemical weapon.
The fact that there is now a real chance that chlorine was used again, within a fortnight of that vote, is outrageous if it is true. What we are trying to do today is try to get the facts, try to get as much evidence as we can — you don’t want to leap to conclusions. We need to get our facts straight and then we need to engage our partners in the Security Council and in The Hague in OPCW to see what the next steps are.
But one thing I will flag is that there is a hole in the international system: and that is that nobody right now has the authority to attribute blame in the wake of these attacks. That has given Syria’s backers a way out when attacks happen, and that is something that we need to shore up. We sought to shore it up a year ago by pursuing an ICC referral, believing that a court of law is a good place to establish criminal responsibility but of course the Russians vetoed that effort on our part. Certainly now that we see in effect recurrent chemical weapons’ use, we need to be able to point the finger and upon having a credible independent body establishing who has carried out an attack of this nature we need to able to pursue further consequences.
Among other resolutions, Russia vetoed the referral to the International Criminal Court — does that exemplify how impotent the UN was then, at that maybe the U.S. should have intervened with strikes as President Obama said that he might?
Hindsight is 20/20, and you can hear a lot of different arguments about what strikes would have would or would not have yielded; at the time, the international community was hardly united on whether or not strikes would do more good than harm. Our own view was given that absolutely grotesque, ghastly attack that was carried out that killed hundreds of children as well as over a thousand adults that we had to enforce the international norm against using chemical weapons.
But the larger question is less about what could or could not have happened a year ago, or more than a year ago, and more about the Security Council and the functionality of an international order that depends on veto holders like Russia, which is busy lopping off part of its neighbor and gobbling up territory. The idea that Russia gets to dictate what is the appropriate response to chemical weapons use reveals a deep structural flaw in the system as it is.
The disunity on the UN Security Council on Syria has made it possible for the Assad regime to exhibit brutality of historic proportions, and that’s saying something given history. And yet, the Security Council is still blocked. We cannot get meaningful enforcement action through the Security Council because there have been 4 Russian vetoes and untold number of other forms of blockage. That’s a major problem and it does severely weaken the international system, when this body cannot be used to set up a sanctions regime, to cut off financing etc.
And the irony of this is that the stated reason that Russia has blocked resolutions is of course with the idea that they will support Assad in stomping out terrorism, but the effect of allowing Assad to stay in power for these years and allowing him to inflict such brutality on the civilians in this country is that that has served as a recruitment tool for ISIL, and now of course we are engaged in military action against a terrorist group. That, the Russians don’t seem to mind; but they have yet to embrace the logic of our position and our policy, which is that you can hit ISIL, but you need, in parallel, to bring about a political solution that removes Assad, who is the best recruiting tool that ISIL has had and can have. And until you deal with the political solution you are not going to be able to achieve what we need to achieve against ISIL across the region.
One of the interesting things about Daesh/IS/ISIS is that it is impacting everybody. Almost every single country has foreign fighters that have left to fight in Syria and Iraq. Even small countries like Ireland have around 70, which is a high proportion given the small population there. How do you see the international community responding to that? Ireland for its part is a neutral country, but it will expect to be protected [against the spread of ISIS] but yet is it going to bring anything to the table to stop ISIS. How do you see the wider response playing out?
If we, the United States, or we the coalition against ISIL were to rely only on military force, we would be far less successful than we need to be. So, there are a whole series of lines of effort that have to be pursued in parallel to the air campaign that the United States and others are carrying out in Iraq and Syria against this horrific movement. Some examples of this are providing humanitarian assistance to those that have been displaced. Ireland has spent around $40 million, which is not easy for a small country, and we are very appreciative of that. Border security arrangements and the tracking of people coming in and out of countries, I think frankly need to improve across the board. We passed a resolution here in September, President Obama chaired the UN Security Council and brought world leaders around a foreign terrorist fighter resolution calling for countries to strengthen their laws in terms of the flow of people moving in and out, and strengthening their ability to prosecute those who might recruit.
It’s no secret that ISIL also has been having field day with social media; our counter-messaging thus needs to be another line of effort here. This is something that Silicon Valley may be good at but governments are not necessarily so great. That has to change. We have to have partners prepared to contest the message; clerics and community organizers and others need to be involved in spotting alienated individuals, whether youths or others. These are just a few examples of the kind of efforts that are needed, and above all, governance is essential part of this. And here we’ve seen some progress in Iraq, with Prime Minister Abadi, bringing to bear a more inclusive form of leadership, trying to reach out to the Sunni, trying to allow them to create a sort of National Guard in their area. Not practicing the same kind of disenfranchisement and alienation that helped ISIL take root in those areas. But in Syria, that type of inclusive governing structure does not exist, and until alienated Sunni who have suffered so much in Syria have a place to go and invest themselves in local communities and local governing it’s going to be very hard to crack the code over time.
We would of course welcome any contributions from Ireland in the range of ways that one can contribute; the peace keeping contribution that Ireland makes in the Golan Heights is relevant here, because we’re also seeing radicalization around the Golan Heights and indeed some incursions by al-Nusra and other elements in to the Golan Heights — so that’s an important security contribution that’s explicitly anti-ISIL.
For us as an international community — to be able to contest and ultimately defeat this movement — it is going to require all hands on deck. Every country and every citizenry is going to have its own domestic debate about where they want to fit in but there cannot be free riding on the larger effort. Everyone has to dig deep and whatever they’re doing now, probably over time, more is going to have to be done. If they have laws on the books that deal with foreign terrorist financing, those laws probably need to be strengthened.
This is a global threat; every day we see new parts of Europe, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and even now in South Asia, and because of the lone wolf approach that ISIL has encouraged its followers to take, this can crop up anywhere. And as you point out, there are 20,000 or more foreign fighters traveling in to Syria and Iraq in the last 4 years from 90 different countries; that gives you a sense of how this diffuse this threat could be.
Everybody has got to step up, there are a lot of ways to do it not just through military force — we’re counting on Ireland and all our partners to join us in this.