There is nothing either new or unusual about a person seeking high office betraying or, if one wishes to be charitable, drastically modifying at least some of his or her most cherished principles. The classic formulation of this necessity was offered by the sixteenth-century Protestant king of Navarre, who is said to have remarked when offered the crown of France on condition he convert to Catholicism that “Paris is well worth a mass.” Nonetheless, such a transformation was once again on display as Samantha Power danced and dodged her way through the Senate confirmation hearing on her nomination to become U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.
As she piled bromide on evasion and offered what Senator Rand Paul called one “non-responsive response” after another, it was hard not to wonder what the young Power who wrote about American political cowardice in the face of genocide with such confident, not to say self-righteous anger, would have had to say about the early middle-aged apparatchik whose willingness to pander to her interrogators seemed to know no bounds.
Hers was, to put it mildly, a supremely chameleon-like performance. In addressing Wyoming senator John Barrasso’s anxieties about recent UN efforts to forge a treaty on the international trade in small arms and the effect it might have on the virtually unfettered right of U.S. citizens to own rifles and pistols, Power was quick to concur that the Second Amendment was sacrosanct. On Israel, about which in some of her earlier journalism she had been somewhat critical, Power’s testimony was, to the senators’ evident satisfaction, so stridently one-sided as to be almost wholly indistinguishable from the talking points of Israeli diplomats.
Her prepared statement emphasized the United States had “no greater friend in the world than the State of Israel,” when a more clear-eyed assessment surely would be that it is the other way around. And she went on to say that addressing the “disproportionate” critical focus on Israel would be a central priority for her. Later, in an answer to a question, Power opined that the real reason Israel is so often singled out for such criticism at the UN is because “50 percent of the countries [there] are not democratic.”
None of this should have been surprising. Today, confirmation hearings are increasingly run like political campaigns. And as in any political campaign, Power and her handlers had clearly identified some of her previous statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a vulnerability and moved to neutralize. To do this, Power had secured the support of the New Jersey rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a former confidante of the singer Michael Jackson and one-time Republican congressional candidate. Boteach in turn had been instrumental in winning over influential members of the American Jewish community such as the financier Michael Steinhardt. By the time the hearing took place, Power had even secured the all but explicit endorsement of the outgoing Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.
Between that and the fact that Power was warmly introduced at the beginning of the hearing by Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, the two Republican senators from her home state of Georgia (Power was born in Ireland, but grew up in Atlanta), men whose conservative credentials are hardly open to question, it was clear from the start that her confirmation was a foregone conclusion.
Still, if the tightly scripted character of the event left a sour taste, it should by now be one that has grown tediously familiar. For in fairness to Power, refusing to be drawn on previous controversial positions one has taken—even, in many cases, when confronted with written or electronic evidence of them—has become the depressing norm among presidential nominees both to the executive and judicial branches of the U.S. government. And with reason: the last nominee to have been completely forthright was the conservative jurist Robert Bork who, during the hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court, made the mistake of actually answering the senators’ questions honestly. It is more than a generation since that nomination went down in flames, and ever since, almost without exception, subsequent nominees have tended to follow the line taken by adulterers caught in flagrante delicto, in effect fending off all potentially troubling or dangerous inquiries with the Capitol Hill equivalent of “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
Power conceded at the hearing that her “perspective” on a number of important questions had been changed by “serving in the executive branch.” But whatever her real views now are, they were nowhere in evidence either in her prepared statement or in her responses to senators’ questions. This is now apparently considered perfectly acceptable in Washington, even a sign of maturity. As Power’s old friend Peter Galbraith put it in an interview with Hannah Allam of the McClatchy Newspapers, with really quite stunning complacency, “the sole purpose of a confirmation hearing for a nominee is to get confirmed. It is not a forum to present your worldview.” Before such superior wisdom, what can one say? Not much except, in the British critic Kenneth Tynan’s wonderful twist on Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power delights. And absolute power is absolutely delightful.”
During the hearing, senator after senator complimented Power’s “blunt” and “outspoken” side. Whether or not one agrees with the positions she took as a writer and activist in favor of interventions on humanitarian and human rights grounds in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur (and after she joined the Obama administration, in Libya), they were lucid and coherent stances delivered with passion, energy and verve. At the hearings, however, when she didn’t avoid the question—she could not comment on whether or not the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt had been a coup because the administration was still “studying” the matter—Power was treading lightly on subjects like Syria while delivering the red meat of American triumphalism and self-love the senators clearly expected from her. “American leadership,” she said at one point, “is the light to the world.” And at another, she claimed to have spent her whole life defending her country, adding as if it were self-evident and undeniable that “the United States is the greatest country on earth.”
Ronald Reagan could scarcely have said it better, and indeed, in her prepared statement, Power lavishly praised two Reagan-era neoconservative icons, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, both of whom served as U.S. permanent representatives to the UN. Noticeably absent from her pantheon of illustrious predecessors were such figures as Andrew Young, a fellow Georgian (though not one of the political stripe likely to appeal to Senators Chambliss and Isakson) and leading figure in the early international human-rights movement who was President Jimmy Carter’s UN envoy.
To be sure, times change. But it would have been nice if Power had not changed quite so comprehensively with them.
David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis and At the Point Of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention. He is currently completing a book on the global food crisis.