'Powered' Out: Samantha Power Misunderstood Her Role


'Powered' Out: Samantha Power Misunderstood Her Role

Samantha Power is well aware of the dangers of imperial overreach, but she writes as though she remains insensible to the dangers of imperialism itself.


IN THE closing paragraph of her forward to her memoir, The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power warns that “Some may interpret this book’s title as suggesting that I began with lofty dreams about how one person could make a difference, only to be ‘educated’ by the brutish forces that I encountered.” However, she writes, “that is not the story that follows.”

Of that, there can be no doubt. From the beginning to the end of this self-aggrandizing book, what is most striking is how little Power’s views have changed from her early days as a freelance journalist in besieged Sarajevo in the early 1990s to her tenure as the United States’ permanent representative to the United Nations during most of President Barack Obama’s second term. She set them out early, when she was barely out of law school, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. It established her reputation in policy circles, transforming her into a favorite of mainstream human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch. It also led to her securing an academic post at Harvard running an institute at the Kennedy School that focused on human rights policy. That post, in turn, would eventually lead to President Obama inviting her to serve in his administration.


In her book, Power argued that throughout the twentieth century, from Ottoman Turkey in 1915 to Rwanda in 1994, the United States had failed, time and again, to prevent genocide. But this was not because of “a lack of knowledge or influence,” Power insisted, “but a lack of will.” Had Washington only chosen to intervene, as it should have both out of moral responsibility and enlightened self-interest, countless lives could have been saved, though unsurprisingly she does not discuss the depredations of the Cultural Revolution in China or the Ukrainian famine since these cases would profoundly complicate the picture of the twentieth century she draws in her book.

Power clearly believes the same can be said of the so-called humanitarian crises—the term itself is so amorphous and sanctimonious as to be a prophylactic against thought—particularly those in Libya and Syria, which occurred during the time she served in the Obama administration.

Power was careful to emphasize that she was not suggesting that military intervention was always the right course, though she complains in The Education of an Idealist that too many readers of A Problem from Hell believed that to be her position, to the point of assuming that she had supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq when in fact she had been one of the few liberal internationalist policy intellectuals to oppose it. But this was where Power’s dissent from the interventionist consensus ends. What she shares with her fellow liberal interventionists, and, doubtless less comfortably, with many if not most neoconservative interventionists, remains far more important: the belief that the betterment of the world is within the grace and favor of the United States—that is to say, a matter of American will or the lack of it. As Michael Massing pointed out in a review of Power’s second book, Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World, her biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat who was murdered in Baghdad in 2003, the Power credo is that the United States and only the United States combines the liberal internationalist ideals and the hard and soft power needed to serve as “the guardian of moral behavior in the world.”

WHAT POWER was arguing for in A Problem from Hell was for Washington to make stopping genocide one of the core tenets of its foreign policy. The Education of an Idealist is essentially an account of how she made campaigning to push U.S. foreign policy in that direction the organizing principle of her life, beginning with a trip to Europe after her sophomore year at Yale when she visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and later the Dachau Concentration Camp. It was then, Power recounts, that she first asked herself the question that she would go on to address in A Problem from Hell—namely, why the United States had not done more to try to rescue European Jewry.

The specificity of this question—and its corollaries embedded in counterfactuals, such as what might have happened in World War II had the United States not entered the conflict, soon gave way in Power’s mind to the broader question of how genocide in our own time could be confronted and either prevented or stopped. For Power, the answer was clear: only the United States had both the means and the ideals to take on this gravest of moral responsibilities. In fairness to Power, she came of age and developed her positions during the 1990s—an era that in retrospect appears to have been completely anomalous in its seeming unipolarity. As the sole remaining superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States fought what were presented as being wars of moral necessity, and which were in fact wars of choice in the sense that Washington now had the freedom to act on America’s self-proclaimed moral principles confident going in that it could do so without too much cost to itself. This, at any rate, was the worldview propagated by neocons such as Charles Krauthammer, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, not to mention more than a few liberal hawks. 

That is probably why the most interesting part of The Education of an Idealist is Power’s account of how she made herself heard and maintained, whether as a journalist, human rights campaigner, writer, or academic, or later, as a senior U.S. policymaker, her belief that when all is said and done she has used these various positions to “help a lot of people out there” in the “broken places” of the world. Such angelism is at once breathtaking and standard within the ranks of the liberal policy establishment. For as Jacob Heilbrunn put it in a brilliant 2011 essay on Power, “Transforming the United States into a knight-errant … is at the heart of liberal internationalism.” And Power’s arguments are best viewed as elaborations of the thesis of the United States as the world’s “indispensable nation” that was coined by the Clinton aide and Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal and popularized by Madeleine Albright, then Bill Clinton’s UN ambassador and later his secretary of state. As President Clinton himself put it in a 1996 speech at George Washington University, “There are times when America, and only America, can make the difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, [and] between hope and fear”—thus amplifying  George W. Bush’s second inaugural address in which he had promised nothing less than an end to evil in the world.

THERE IS no reason to doubt that Power truly believes herself to be a leading “upstander”—to use a term she herself coined for those who “[try] to prevent or otherwise ‘stand up’” when faced with some horror in the world—rather than the ‘bystanders’ whom she excoriated in A Problem from Hell. But even by her own account in The Education of an Idealist, there was a wide gap between what Power hoped to accomplish and what she actually achieved. The horrors about which Power has been most concerned in her life have been Bosnia, Darfur, the depredations of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s refusal to assume responsibility for it, Libya, Syria, the Ebola crisis in West Africa, LGBTQ rights, and the Russian annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. Power is an avid baseball fan, and at the end of her book, she refers to what she calls “the real-world ‘scoreboard’” of what she accomplished. And in doing so, she is forced to admit that while she might catch herself “feeling satisfied by a powerful speech I had made at the un, or a compelling argument I had put before [President Obama],” she was “measuring the wrong thing. ‘It’s not the inputs that matter,’” she writes, “it’s outcomes.”

Well, yes. But what, exactly, were these outcomes? Before entering government, Power worked as a journalist in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War and reported courageously from the city. Later, she became one of the leading voices campaigning for an end to the slaughter in Darfur, her activism rendered more compelling by the investigative work she and her colleague John Prendergast did on the ground in Sudan. It was as a member of the Obama administration that she worked on the remaining issues. And the stark fact is that only in the cases of the Ebola epidemic and the decision to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army can the outcomes be regarded as an unmitigated successes. With regard to LGBTQ, the “scoreboard” is mixed. But concerning the rest, an objective observer would surely conclude that Power was either unsuccessful or that the results of the policies she advocated for have been disastrous. Over her objections, President Obama decided not to provoke a crisis with Turkey over the Armenian Genocide. He declined to intervene in Syria, a decision Power writes left her with a lasting “sense of guilt and frustration at being unable to make a convincing case to do more.” And although Power still considers U.S. military intervention to bring down the Gaddafi regime in Libya a success, even she concedes the aftermath has been a disaster. Finally, despite Power’s rhetorical successes at the un—at least as she relates them—the Russian annexation of Crimea is a fait accompli, while the Russian-backed separatist regime in eastern Ukraine shows no signs of faltering.