Report

How Michael Jackson's Rabbi Made Samantha Power Kosher

America's next U.N. ambassador was once under fire from Jewish groups. Then she met Shmuley.

There's a chance -- just a chance -- that Samantha Power might not today be on the verge of becoming America's ambassador to the U.N. if she hadn't played nice with Michael Jackson's rabbi.

No, seriously.

More than two years ago, influential rabbi-to-the-stars Shmuley Boteach sharply criticized Power for "troubling statements" she had made nearly a decade earlier that "maligned the American pro-Israel lobby." Worse, in the Rabbi's eyes, Power implied that billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel might be better spent on investments in the "state of Palestine."

Power had been sharply criticized by conservative supporters of Israel before. But Boteach was different. He was seen as not strictly political (even though he later ran as a Republican for a New Jersey Congressional seat). And he had a rather large soapbox, thanks to his best-selling books and his daily radio show.

So Power decided to nip her Shmuley problem in the bud.

Days after the column appeared, Power placed a midnight call to the Rabbi and invited him to the White House to hear her side of the story. "She said, ‘if I've lost you then I must have lost many in the Jewish community,'" Boteach recalled in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. In their White House meeting, Power "regretted" that her comments may have made Israel look bad but that she felt that her remarks had also been distorted by her critics.  

The two met again at the White House to debate the biblical roots of humanitarian intervention, a favorite topic of Power's. Boteach, who had long admired her writings on the morality of confronting genocidal regimes - including her Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide -- compiled a five page document with relevant biblical writings. It included a passage from Leviticus 19 which instructed the faithful, "You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood." 

The meetings represented a turning point for Boteach, and converted the celebrity rabbi into a champion of Power's cause in Jewish-American circles. "I became intent on transforming the Jewish community's opinion of her," said Boteach, who has been invited to attend Power's Senate confirmation hearing as a personal guest.

Boteach organized a gathering of some 40 influential Jewish leaders at the Manhattan office of Michael Steinhart, an American hedge fund manager, and founder of the Birthright Israel program, which organizes visits by young Jews to Israel. Power delivered a "moving representation" of American multilateral affairs and the president's effort to prevent atrocities around the globe, Boteach said. "When we got to questions, she began...well, there's no other word for this...she just began to cry. For her, these allegations of anti-Semitism...were the most painful of her entire life."

Those charges date back to 2002, when Power -- at the time head of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy --  appeared on a public access television program in Berkeley, California. The host, University of California Berkeley professor Harry Kreisler, asked her how she would respond if she were in a position to advise an American president if, hypothetically speaking, one of the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were on the verge of committing genocide. Power answered that a credible response would require the imposition of "a mammoth protection force -- not of the old Srebrenica kind or of the Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence."

"What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in the service of helping the situation," she said, "And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import," an obvious reference to the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States.

Power's critics have also cited a 2003 New Republic article, in which Power faults the United States for applying double standards (what she termed "a la cartism") in the conduct of its foreign policy. The United States, she noted, complains about the "shortage of democracy in Palestine, but not in Pakistan."

In the meeting orchestrated by Boteach, Power said those comments in no way made her some sort of Israel-hater. In fact, she added, she had a strong "affinity for the Jewish people." Not only is her husband, Cass Sunstein, Jewish, she added; he's a direct descendant of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, a revered 18th century Jewish scholar and leader of the non-Hasidic Jewish community.

"I think a lot of people were persuaded they had the wrong opinion of her," Boteach recalled

The outreach was part of a broader courtship by Power to assure leaders in the American Jewish community that she was not out of step with their commitment to Israel. "She aggressively reached out" to American Jewish leaders, said Abraham Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended several meetings between Power and the heads of pro-Israel groups, including the meeting hosted by Boteach and  Steinhart.

"I would say she succeeded in the sense of explaining and apologizing" for past statements she had made outside of the government, said Foxman who endorsed Power's nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Most of us who met with her felt she was sincere, that this was all part of her past; that this is not where she is at today. The overwhelming majority that attended that meeting tended to walk away saying, "OK, accept, move on."

The effort has helped to blunt far-right critics, including former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney, who have mounted a campaign to derail Power's nomination, citing her criticism of America and Israel's human rights records. Gaffney and 57 other Power critics -- including a retired U.S. congressman, Allen West and Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America -- wrote a letter urging lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to oppose her nomination.

"Samantha Power's record suggests that she is better suited to represent the virulently anti-American UN to the United States, rather than the other way around," Gaffney said in a statement today.

But the campaign to block Power's ascent to the top U.S. diplomatic post at the United Nations seems to have lost steam -- if it ever had any to begin with. She has the support of influential pro-Israeli voices, including the lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a key Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who last year opposed Susan Rice's secretary of state candidacy, has endorsed Power's nomination. Other Republican committee members have made favorable remarks about Power's efforts to assure them she is the right person for the job.

Israel's outgoing ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, even took the unusual step of registering support for Power. 

Israel "will welcome whomever the president nominates and the Senate confirms as ambassador to the United Nations," the Israeli envoy told the New York Times last month. "Samantha Power and I have worked closely over the last four years on issues vital to Israel's security. She thoroughly understands those issues and cares deeply about them."  

"Samantha Power has made it clear going certainly as far as back as 2008 what her views are with respect to Israel: they are mainstream views, they are supportive of having the Israelis and the Palestinians negotiate an agreement between themselves," said Menachem Rosensaft, the general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. "If ambassador Michael Oren and Joe Lieberman endorse her that means those who express any reservations are outside the mainstream." 

"But more importantly, we have to see Samantha Power in a multifaceted way, not through the skewed lens of a few comments she made," he added. "The issue that Samantha represents is whether or not prevention of genocide, prevention of atrocities should be a priority for the United States government. Sending her to the United Nations makes the strongest statement that preventing genocide is a priority of the U.S. government."

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Has the Pentagon's Strategy Shop Gone MIA?

At the cash-strapped Defense Department, the bean counters now have the upper hand.

When then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates began a series of meetings in 2009 on overhauling the Pentagon's budget, he made sure that Michèle Flournoy, his powerful policy chief, was a key player in the negotiations. After all, strategy is supposed to drive financial choices in the Pentagon. And the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy has long been seen as the Pentagon's strategy house.

Four years later, current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called for a strategic review of the Pentagon's budget. But Flournoy's successor, James Miller, isn't in control.

Instead, Christine Fox, director of cost assessment and program evaluation at the Pentagon -- who's known for her budgetary and programmatic acumen -- is in charge of this so-called "Strategic Choices and Management Review." Within the Defense Department, that has been taken as a signal that the set of financial options for the Pentagon has been driven by resources, not policy. In cash-strapped 2013, the budget appears to determine the strategy, and not vice versa. The Pentagon's spending is in the ditch, the thinking seems to be, and the strategic review process is about how to get the Pentagon out of it.

That may make some sense as the Defense Department is forced to trim its budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years under the Budget Control Act, plus do another 10-year $500 billion cut under sequestration -- if Congress doesn't help the Pentagon by paring those cuts back.

But it has left some observers of the budget process concerned.  

"My view is that policy has taken a back seat," said one well-placed observer. "It is also my personal view that the back-seat role they're in is maybe not the wrong role for them to be in right now."

The sense that the Pentagon's policy shop hasn't played as much a role in the strategic review feeds the perception that has plagued the review: that it has been an exclusive process whose objectives are unclear and that the players who've been sitting at the table operate with unknown biases and disproportionate power. Loren Thompson, a consultant to a number of large defense firms, thinks the Pentagon is just in a different time and place.

"This seems to have been a budget-driven process, probably because threats are receding, but the demands of deficit reduction are pressing hard on the department," Thompson said.

The fact that Miller, the undersecretary for policy, recently floated the notion of major cuts to his staff doesn't exactly feed the sense that the policy team is ascendant.

But some officials think that the policy shop had its say already, devising the rebalance-to-Asia strategy that has figured so strongly in Pentagon strategy over the last year. Others say they think Miller may not have enough sway with the White House, or even with Hagel, and that helped sideline the policy shop's contributions. Still others claim this current process isn't all that important, even if it does amount to a precursor to next year's congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review.

But a senior defense official said that policy is playing a key role in the strategic review. "Miller and his team have been instrumental in working on the hard choices that may come down the pike," the official said.

Indeed, representatives from the policy shop have attended the meetings and even co-chaired some of the subgroup meetings, and Miller and other civilian military leaders reportedly attend at least the high-level meetings. "Every undersecretary, service secretary, service chief, every combatant commander," the official said, referring to the wide representation across the building in the meetings.

Yet the tension inside the building over the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) is palpable. Each of the services is attempting to protect its "rice bowl," fighting for its programs and resources, but they say privately that they're doing so in the dark. They say they don't have a sense of what the Pentagon's overarching strategy will be.

And the process has moved forward without them, they also believe. More than a dozen "working groups" were formed on a variety of issues. The results of each group's efforts were then fed into a central office headed by Fox. There, top-level staffers assembled a final product. That contributed to a perception that once the program analysis had been completed, it was left to a small, powerful group of individuals to frame the product for Hagel. One military officer familiar with the process, but outside Fox's office, described it as an undertaking that was far from transparent.

"It's a mysterious process," the military officer said. "The real decisions are being made in a smoke-filled room." That officer said that if Miller and his people have been sidelined, it means budget thinking has trumped strategic thinking. "It is like letting the accountants write the business plan," he said. "They're not bad people, but they do not have a strategic perspective on anything but the bottom line. Our national security should be measured in more than just dollar signs."

But, he added, both the bean counters and the strategy folks need the practical perspective of each armed service. Without the heavy input of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, the military can become overly focused on an issue such as China, say, and potentially ignore the need for capabilities in places like Somalia, Mali, or Syria, the officer said.

"Unrealistic understanding of the true cost-effectiveness/practicality of proposed courses of action can lead you to really bad strategic and budgetary conclusions," he added.

The SCMR, or "SCAMMER" as it's not so lovingly come to be called in the Pentagon, was first briefed to Hagel on June 6 and 7, with Fox, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and others. The SCMR is supposed to be a comprehensive, top-to-bottom review of the Pentagon budget, looking at operations, strategy, compensation for military and Defense Department civilians, health-care costs, DOD education, and other costly programs. The Army is seen as the lowest-hanging budgetary fruit because of the wind-down of the land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. The service will likely see the biggest cuts in what one defense official has characterized as the "biggest and most emotional and bureaucratically contentious" area in which to find cuts.

Fox was expected to leave the Pentagon at the end of June. Hagel spent nearly half of last week reviewing the strategic review, asking for tweaks and looking at the options he confronts. Hagel tried to explain that the SCMR would not be the genesis for a future budget strategy. "This is not a plan," Hagel told reporters in the Pentagon on Wednesday, June 26. "It was exactly what the title implies: Strategic Choices and Management Review. Review all the components of our budget, our responsibilities. Prioritize those based on these different scenarios so that -- so that we could be as prepared as we could be to make sure that the president is assured that he's got the options and -- and this country is capable to carry out the requirements to assure our national security."

Hagel also sought to manage expectations from Capitol Hill, academia, industry, and the media that there would not be a dramatic unveiling of the results of the review. In fact, he said, there may not be any such endpoint. "There will be no rollout of any grand plan on this." And for his part, Hagel said it has been an inclusive process, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as well as "all of our uniformed and civilian leadership was involved, top to bottom, which I wanted that. We looked at everything."

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