'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.

ONE OF the curiosities of A Problem from Hell was that there was virtually no discussion of whether the United States should intervene to prevent or halt genocide where and as it can. Power simply takes it as read that it should. Completely absent from her account, even if only to refute it, is any recognition of the American anti-interventionist tradition that dates back to John Quincy Adams—and that is unpersuaded that the United States has the capacity to do good abroad, whether by military or by other means. After all, when Adams in his famous oration of July 4, 1821, insisted that America had rightly “abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings,” and warned the new republic must not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” he was not denying that those monsters were, well, truly monstrous, just as the génocidaires in Rwanda or the Assad regime in Syria are truly monstrous. Rather, Adams was saying that with the very best of intentions—and it is important to remember that Adams believed wholeheartedly in American exceptionalism, just not in its modern corollary, American interventionism—the United States would “insensibly change from liberty to force” and find itself “dictatress to the world.”

A recent biographer of Adams, James Traub, has argued that such “realism” is “too chastened a doctrine—perhaps too selfish a doctrine—for a nation of idealists.” Like Power, Traub is a liberal interventionist, and it is presumably in Traub’s sense of an idealism that, as he puts it, “summons [Americans] to great global commitments” with which she identifies herself. But there is another name for this and it is imperialism, which is just what Adams meant when he spoke of America as dictatress. To be sure, Power’s vision is more mundane. She speaks of the necessity of American leadership and, doubtless reflecting her love of sports and tropism towards sports metaphors, of the United States as the captain of the global “team.” But delve beneath Power’s folksy rhetoric and you find that Power’s justifications for U.S. hegemony are almost identical to those John Stuart Mill used in his defense of the British empire. For like Mill’s justification of imperial legitimacy, Power’s justification of America’s global hegemony, or “leadership” as she tends to call it, is the project of global improvement. It is at these moments where The Education of an Imperialist would have been a more appropriate title than the one Power elected to use.

It is not clear whether or not Power is it all troubled or has even noticed the similarities between her views and the more moderate and lucid defenses of the Pax Britannica, though as an Irish immigrant one might reasonably have expected her to be particularly sensitive to them. And yet just as Mill believed that nobly-intended interventions, provided they had a good chance of being successful, were entirely justifiable, so Power argues that without the leadership of the United States, though of course preferably in concert with allies, and not necessarily using military force, such improvement is rarely if ever possible. For example, looking back on her time at the un, Power writes that “On issue after issue, either the United States brought a game plan to the table or else the problem worsened.” At times, her rhetoric grows so sanctimonious that it can seem as if her vision of the United States is that of a vastly powerful humanitarian NGO if it had an army, or what Human Rights Watch would be if it were a state.

And in this, she has been largely but not wholly consistent. When President Obama nominated her to be U.S. permanent representative to the un, her Senate critics, notably Florida senator Marco Rubio, unearthed an essay Power had written in The New Republic in 2003 in which she had argued that, “We need a historical reckoning with crime committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States,” and that “instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.” Then, more radically still, she used an analogy to Nazi Germany, writing that, “When [German Chancellor] Willy Brandt went down on one knee in the Warsaw ghetto, his gesture was gratifying to World War II survivors, but it was also ennobling and cathartic for Germany.” And she concluded: “Would such an approach be futile for the United States?”

Power writes of how in advance of her confirmation hearings she was coached on how to avoid entering into a debate with Senator Rubio and her other critics on the substance of what she had written in that essay. Asked by one of her tutors whether or not she wanted to be confirmed, she replied in the affirmative, but not, she added, “at the expense of becoming a Washington asshole.” But anyone reading the transcript of her exchange with Rubio or even her account of it in her memoir will see that this is exactly what happened. America, she repeated over and over again, is “the greatest country on Earth,” “the leader in human rights,” and “the leader in human dignity,” adding that not only would she “not apologize for America,” but “we have nothing to apologize for.” Unlike during the confirmation hearing, or in the New Yorker profile of her that appeared in 2014 after she had assumed her UN post, now that she is out of government, she was under no obligation in her memoir to prevaricate in the name of the greater good of getting confirmed. But instead, she seems to have gone out of her way to reiterate in the book what she told the New Yorker’s reporter, Evan Osnos, in the profile, that everything she said during the hearing felt “deeply true to me.” If that is really the case, and she is not just staying in full “Paris is worth a mass” mode, perhaps in the hope of serving in a future Democratic administration, then she will believe anything.

In fairness, her New Republic piece was an anomaly for her even at the time. Power may have conceded that the United States had committed crimes in the past, but nothing in either her subsequent writing suggests that she understands, that in many parts of the world and on many issues, the United States remains a perpetrator of crimes, or an accessory to them, rather than being their vindicator.

Willy Brandt or no Willy Brandt, Power’s portrait of the United States is as lopsided as those who view Washington as responsible for all the world’s ills. Looking back at her time in government, she offers what she doubtless views as a courageously balanced view of its successes and failures. “Sometimes, we moved the needle positively,” she writes. “Sometimes, we believed we had no effect whatsoever, and only months or years later learned that our actions offered encouragement to those deciding whether their struggles were worth enduring.” And, she concludes, “Sometimes, we saved lives.”

But a genuinely balanced view would have offered some obvious counter-examples. Surely, Power’s steadfast support of Israel at the un, despite one abstention in a Security Council vote condemning the Jewish state, which was daring only in the context of Washington’s history of absolute support for Israel, amounted to moving the needle negatively. And if U.S. involvement in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya doesn’t call for concluding after the fact how destructive American actions had been, it is difficult to know what would, as Power flirts with admitting in the book before shrinking back from doing so. As for American actions costing lives, although once out of government Power has condemned the Saudi/uae war in Yemen, she ran interference in the Security Council for America’s material support for the Saudi air war as U.S. permanent representative to the UN. It would be one thing had Power adduced these as examples of the “brutish realities” of the world to which she had been forced to bend, but her stated premise in her memoir is that this is not what she experienced.

GIVEN THE fact that Power is a policy insider, writing as she does of the United States would seem to be the height of disingenuousness. The alternative explanation, which is that she has never been willing or able to think rigorously rather than romantically about her adopted country, is hardly an improvement either intellectually or morally. This kind of moral squinting, reminiscent as it is of nothing so much as the attempt to keep one’s eye on a beautiful building that is situated in a largely polluted landscape, tempts one to retort with a line uttered by one of the characters in Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Wild Duck, “Don’t use that foreign word: ideals. We have the excellent native word: lies.”

And even where Power should find herself on solid ground, as in the critique of the Trump administration that she offers toward the end of her memoir, it turns out to be at least partly an exercise in denial. “We need to show the rest of the world,” she writes, “what it means to respect the rule of law, and put one’s country over one’s particular political preferences.” Is Power serious? Does she truly not recognize the myriad occasions in which the United States has defied international law, from the cia’s covert and ultimately successful attempts to influence the French and Italian elections in the late-1940s, through the Washington-sponsored coups in Latin America, from Guatemala to Chile, to America’s repeated vetoing of UN resolutions condemning Israel’s countless violations of international law?