“Calibrating” HOPE in the Effort to “Patrol the Commons”: Samantha Power and the Hidden Imperial Reality of Barack Obama *


Expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.


- Harvard Professor and Barack Obama Foreign Policy Advisor Samantha Power, February 21, 2008




A small part of the dark and hidden imperial reality behind the supposedly peace-oriented Barack Obama phenomenon showed itself to those willing to see when leading Obama foreign policy advisor and celebrated Harvard Professor Samantha Power appeared on the Public Broadcasting System’s “Charlie Rose Show” last Thursday. 




Dr. Power had curious words of praise for her good friend the junior Senator from Illinois, the likely Democratic presidential nominee after a remarkable string of primary victories over the more openly militaristic Hillary Clinton. During the primary campaign, Power told Charlie Rose, Obama “could have said” that “the best thing..is …we’re going to get out [of Iraq] on day one” of his presidency.


But that, she said, would have been “irresponsible” pandering to U.S. voters. It would have violated Obama’s supposed overriding concern that “we consider the fate of the Iraqis,” many of whom have “depended on us in this debacle.”  Thus, Obama restricted his promises to “sa[ying] I’m going to try to have all the combat brigades out within 16 to 18 months” and is emphasizing that the United States will "have to be more careful getting out of Iraq than it was getting in.” This is because “he cares about the Iraqi people,” seeking to make them a focus of policy intention, not just “a political slogan” (1). 




There are highly flawed reflections. Since most Americans have long supported a rapid and complete U.S. withdrawal from illegally occupied Iraq (as Power certainly knows), Power’s comments violate the basic democratic principle that the popular majority is supposed to determine policy inside a “democracy.”


Power deleted the interesting fact that most Iraqis support an immediate removal of U.S. troops and see the end of the arch-criminal U.S. occupation as the key to healing their internal strife. “According to Iraqis,’” Noam Chomsky notes, citing a December 2007 Iraq opinion survey conducted by U.S. occupation authorities, “there is hope of national reconciliation if the invaders, who are responsible for the internal violence, withdraw and leave Iraq to Iraqis.” 


“The conclusions are credible,” Chomsky adds, “consistent with other polls, and also with the apparent reduction in violence when the British finally withdrew from Basra a few months ago” (2).





Power neglected to add other key facts:


·         “Combat brigades" make up no more than half of the U.S. force structure in Iraq.


·         Iraq’s possession of massive, super—strategic oil resources and an Obama presidency’s certain sensitivity to Republican charges of “defeatism” and “losing Iraq” would guarantee a continuing U.S. occupation of that country – against the wishes of the citizens in both Iraq and the U.S. – throughout the life of an Obama White House.


“I’m going to try to have all the combat brigades out within 16 to 18 months” has a real-life policy translation Power would never provide on air: “I am going to continue the occupation of Iraq like John McCain or Hillary Clinton.”





Noting that President Bush was recently swamped by cries of “O-ba-ma” during a recent state visit to Africa, Rose asked Power if she was concerned about the “sky-high expectations” much of the world seems to have for an Obama presidency. There is “some danger” in this, Rose worried.


“Right,” Power said, noting that Obama is “acutely aware of this.” And “that,” Power said, “is why expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.”


Behind this disturbing application of elitist and technocratic language to the “management” of domestic and global opinion and hopes is an obvious (for those willing to detect it) admission: Obama is as attached to the U.S. imperial project as Bush and this will dangerously disappoint hopeful masses at home and abroad in the event of an Obama ascendancy.  Unenlightened humanity’s naïve faith in “change we can believe in” needs to be downwardly “calibrated” as we cross into the post-Bush era of U.S. global dominance. 





Power’s language got creepier still. “Part of having a credible American leader again who is unimplicated with the war in Iraq who is very attractive to people around the world,” Power told Rose, “is to somehow use that early wind at his back to try to extract commitments to patrol the commons, to actually deal with these broken people and broken places."  By this she meant that an Obama presidency, unlike the wildly and dangerously unpopular Bush administration – primarily guilty of fanning “anti-Americanism” abroad in the view of Power and other members of the bipartisan U.S-imperial foreign policy establishment – would be able to rally other leading world capitalist states to take up the burden of intervening in such places Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Iran, Pakistan, Serbia/Kosovo, East Timor, the Sudan, and (the list goes on).  


Harvard’s celebrated Dr. Power deleted the fact that Obama is in fact deeply “implicated” in the Iraq “war” (3). And it would be too much to expect her to note that western and primarily U.S. foreign policy – what is generally understood as “imperialism” across most of the morally and politically cognizant world – have played critical roles in the “breaking” of such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, East Timor, and (the list goes on). “As is standard operating procedure for Samantha Power,” the Left U.S. foreign policy critic David Peterson notes, “there isn’t the slightest hint that the ‘commons’ needs to be protected against the predatory military power(s) headquartered in places such as Washington, London, Brussels (i.e., NATO), and similar capitals.  Much less in New York, Cambridge, MA, and so on”(4). 


People with Marxist and other “fringe” radical backgrounds are left to cringe at Power’s use of the phrase “patrol the commons.” A good part of the capitalist-imperialist nightmare being acted out in such imperially “broken places” as Iraq began, Left analysts have long noted, with the breaking [-up], enclosure, and subsequent state-capitalist "patrolling" of the people’s pre-capitalist commons (common land, air, water, and hunting, growing, and recreational grounds) in 14th-16th century England (5).



*Special thanks to David Peterson for bringing to my attention the Samantha Power interview discussed in this essay.


Paul Street ([email protected]) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007).  Street is currently completing a book on U.S. political culture and the Barack Obama phenomenon.






1. The Charlie Rose Show, PBS, February 21, 2008. See www.charlierose.com/shows/2008/02/21/2/a-conversation-with-samantha-power.


2. Noam Chomsky, “‘Good News’: Iraq and Beyond,” ZNet (February 16, 2008), read at www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/16522.


3. For some elementary facts, please see Paul Street, “The Audacity of Deception: Reflections on the Manufacture of Progressive Illusion,” ZNet (December 6, 2007) read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/15765.


4.  David Peterson, e-mail commentary, circulated February 25, 2008. “By this stage in her career (though already evident before the publication her ‘A Problem from Hell’ in 2002),” Peterson adds, “it is clear that Samantha Power’s contribution to American Power is her systematic attempt to establish that the ‘commons,’ understood as any theater threatened or attacked by Washington and its allies, either needs to be ‘protected’ or simply deserves to be attacked, with Washington et al.’s moral and legal culpability restricted to the charge that it failed to threaten or to attack early enough or with sufficient violence to do the job as effectively as a protector of the commons should.”


5.  See David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford, 2003), p. 145 and passim.


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