Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist:
By almost any measure, Samantha Power should be considered an extraordinary American success story. An immigrant from Ireland who fled the Emerald Isle with her mother and brother at a young age to escape a turbulent family situation, Power earned degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, rose to prominence in her mid-20s as a journalist covering civil wars and ethnic cleaning in Bosnia and the Balkans, won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on 20th century genocides, and helped found the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she served as its executive director — all before age 35. Then she met an ambitious junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and her career really took off.
Between 2009 and 2017, Power served in the Obama administration almost continually, first on the National Security Council and subsequently as Ambassador to the United Nations. In both capacities, she became the administration’s most outspoken and influential voice for prioritizing human rights, arguing regularly for targeted United States and multi-lateral interventions to protect individuals from human rights abuses and mass atrocities, perpetrated in most cases by their own governments. In what amounts to an autobiography, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, Power guides her readers through the major foreign policy crises of the Obama administration.
Her life story, Power tells her readers at the outset, is one of idealism, “where it comes from, how it gets challenged, and why it must endure” (p.xii). She is quick to emphasize that hers is not a story of how a person with “lofty dreams” about making a difference in the world came to be “’educated’ by the “brutish forces” (p.xii) she encountered throughout her professional career. So what then is the nature of the idealist’s “education” that provides the title to her memoir? The short answer probably lies in how Power learned to make her idealistic message on human rights both heard and effective within the complex bureaucratic structures of the United States government and the United Nations.
But Power almost invariably couples this idealistic message with the view that the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe is in the United States’ own national security interests; and that the United States can often advance those interests most effectively by working multi-laterally, through international organizations and with like-minded states. The United States, by virtue of its multi-faceted strengths – economic, military and cultural – is in a unique position to influence the actions of other states, from its traditional allies all the way to those that inflict atrocities upon their citizens.
Power acknowledges that the United States has not always used its strength as a positive force for human rights and human betterment – one immediate example is the 2003 Iraq invasion, which she opposed. Nevertheless, the United States retains a reservoir of credibility sufficient to be effective on human rights matters when it choses to do so. Although Power is sometimes labeled a foreign policy “hawk,” she recoils from that adjective. To Power, the military is among the last of the tools that should be considered to advance America’s interests around the world.
Into this policy-rich discussion, Power weaves much detail about her personal life, beginning with her early years in Ireland, the incompatibilities between her parents that prompted her mother to take her and her brother to the United States when she was nine, and her efforts as a schoolgirl to become American in the full sense of the term. After numerous failed romances, she finally met Mr. Right, her husband, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein (who also served briefly in the Obama administration). The marriage gave rise to a boy and a girl with lovely Irish names, Declan and Rían, both born while Power was in government. With much emphasis upon her parents, husband, children and family life, the memoir is also a case study of how professional women balance the exacting demands of high-level jobs with the formidable responsibilities attached to being a parent and spouse. It’s a tough balancing act for any parent, but especially for women, and Power admits that she did not always strike the right balance.
Memoirs by political and public figures are frequently attempts to write one’s biography before someone else does, and Power’s whopping 550-page work seems to fit this rule. But Power provides much candor – a willingness to admit to mistakes and share vulnerabilities – that is often missing in political memoirs. Refreshingly, she also abstains from serious score settling. Most striking for me is the nostalgia that pervades the memoir. Power takes her readers down memory lane, depicting a now by-gone time when the United States cared about human rights and believed in bi- and multi-lateral cooperation to accomplish its goals in its dealings with the rest of the world – a time that sure seems long ago.
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Samantha Jane Power was born in 1970 to Irish parents, Vera Delaney, a doctor, and Jim Power, a part-time dentist. She spent her early years in Dublin, in a tense family environment where, she can see now, her parents’ marriage was coming unraveled. Her father put in far more time at Hartigan’s, a local pub in the neighborhood where he was known for his musical skills and “holding court,” than he did at his dentist’s office. Although young Samantha didn’t recognize it at the time, her father had a serious alcohol problem, serious enough to lead her mother to escape by immigrating to the United States with the couple’s two children, Samantha, then age nine, and her brother Stephen, two years younger. They settled in Pittsburgh, where Samantha at a young age set about to become American, as she dropped her Irish accent, tried to learn the intricacies of American sports, and became a fervent Pittsburgh Pirates fan.
But the two children were required under the terms of their parents’ custody agreement to spend time with her father back in Ireland. On her trip back at Christmas 1979, Samantha’s father informed the nine-year old that he intended to keep her and her brother with him. When her mother, who was staying nearby, showed up to object and collect her children to return to the United States, a parental confrontation ensued which would traumatize Samantha for decades. The nine year old found herself caught between the conflicting commands of her two parents and, in a split second decision, left with her mother and returned to the Pittsburgh. She never again saw her father.
When her father died unexpectedly five years later, at age 47 of alcohol-related complications, Samantha, then in high school, blamed herself for her father’s death and carried a sense of guilt with her well into her adult years. It was not until she was thirty-five, after many therapy sessions, that she came to accept that she had not been responsible for her father’s death. Then, a few years later, she made the mistake of returning to Hartigan’s, where she encountered the bar lady who had worked there in her father’s time. Mostly out of curiosity, Power asked her why, given that so many people drank so much at Hartigan’s, her father had been the only one who died. The bar lady’s answer was matter-of-fact: “Because you left” (p.192) — not what Power needed to hear.
Power had by then already acquired a public persona as a human rights advocate through her work as a journalist in the 1990s in Bosnia, where she called attention to the ethnic cleansing that was sweeping the country in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Power ended up writing for a number of major publications, including The Economist, the New Republic and the Washington Post. She was among the first to report on the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, the largest single massacre in Europe since World War II, in which around 10,000 Muslim men and boy were taken prisoner and “seemed to have simply vanished” (p.102). Although the United States and its NATO allies had imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia, Power hoped the Clinton administration would commit to employing ground troops to prevent further atrocities. But she did not yet enjoy the clout to have a real chance at making her case directly with the administration.
Power wrote a chronology of the conflict, Breakdown in the Balkans, which was later put into book form and attracted attention from think tanks, and the diplomatic, policy and media communities. Attracting even more attention was A Problem for Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, her book exploring American reluctance to take action in the face of 20th century mass atrocities and genocides. The book appeared in 2002, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. It also provided Power with her inroad to Senator Barack Obama.
At the recommendation of a politically well-connected friend, in late 2004 Power sent a copy of the book to the recently elected Illinois Senator who had inspired the Democratic National Convention that summer with an electrifying keynote address. Obama’s office scheduled a dinner for her with the Senator which was supposed to last 45 minutes. The dinner went on for four hours as the two exchanged ideas about America’s place in the world and how, why and when it should advance human rights as a component of its foreign policy. Although Obama considered Power to be primarily an academic, he offered her a position on his Senate staff, where she started working late in 2005.
Obama and Power would then be linked professionally more or less continually until the end of the Obama presidency in January 2017. Once Obama enters the memoir, at about the one-third point, it becomes as much his story as hers. The two did not always see the world and specific world problems in the same way, but it’s clear that Obama had great appreciation both for Power’s intelligence and her intensity. He was a man who enjoyed being challenged intellectually, and plainly valued the human rights perspective that Power brought to their policy discussions even if he wasn’t prepared to push as far as Power advocated.
After Obama threw his hat in the ring for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination, Power became one of his primary foreign policy advisors and, more generally, a political operative. It was not a role that fit Power comfortably and it threatened to be short-lived. In the heat of the primary campaign, with Obama and Hilary Clinton facing off in a vigorously contested battle for their party’s nomination, Power was quoted in an obscure British publication, the Scotsman, as describing Clinton as a “monster.” The right-wing Drudge Report picked up the quotation, whose accuracy Power does not contest, and suddenly Power found herself on the front page of major newspapers, the subject of a story she did not want. Obama’s closest advisors were of the view that she would have to resign from the campaign. But the candidate himself, who loved sports metaphors, told Power only that she would have to spend some time in the “penalty box” (p.187). Obama’s relatively soft reaction was an indication of the potential he saw in her and his assessment of her prospective value to him if successful in the primaries and the general election.
Power’s time in the penalty box had expired when Obama, having defeated Clinton for his party’s nomination, won a resounding victory in the general election in November 2008. Obama badly wanted Power on his team in some capacity, and the transition team placed her on the President’s National Security Council as principal deputy for international organizations, especially the United Nations. But she was also able to carve out a concurrent position for herself as the President’s Senior Director for Human Rights. In this portion of the memoir, Power describes learning the jargon and often-arcane skills needed to be effective on the council and within the vast foreign policy bureaucracy of the United States government. Being solely responsibility for human rights, Power found that she had some leeway in deciding which issues to concentrate on and bring to the attention of the full Council. Her mentor Richard Holbrook advised her that she could be most effective on subjects for which there was limited United States interest – pick “small fights,” Holbrook advised.
Power had a hand in a string of “small victories” while on the National Security Council: coaxing the United States to rejoin a number of UN agencies from which the Bush Administration had walked away; convincing President Obama to raise his voice over atrocities perpetrated by governments in Sri Lanka and Sudan against their own citizens; being appointed White House coordinator for Iraqi refugees; helping create an inter-agency board to coordinate the United States government’s response to war crimes and atrocities; and encouraging increased emphasis upon lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender issues (LGBT) overseas. In pursuit of the latter, Obama delivered an address at the UN General Assembly on LGBT rights, and thereafter issued a Presidential Memorandum directing all US agencies to consider LGBT issues explicitly in crafting overseas assistance (disclosure: while with the Department of Justice, I served on the department’s portion of the inter-agency Atrocity Prevention Board, and represented the department in inter-agency coordination on the President’s LGBT memorandum; I never met Power in either capacity).
But the Arab Spring that erupted in late 2010 and early 2011 presented anything but small issues and resulted in few victories for the Obama administration. A “cascade of revolts that would reorder huge swaths of the Arab world,” the Arab Spring ended up “impacting the course of Obama’s presidency more than any other geopolitical development during his eight years in office” (p.288), Power writes, and the same could be said for Power’s time in government. Power was among those at the National Security Council who pushed successfully for United States military intervention in Libya to protect Libyan citizens from the predations of their leader, Muammar Qaddafi.
The intervention, backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and led jointly by the United States, France and Jordan, saved civilian lives and contributed to Qaddafi’s ouster and death. ButPresident Obama was determined to avoid a longer-term and more open-ended United States commitment, and the mission stopped short of the follow-up needed to bring stability to the country. With civil war in various guises continuing to this day, Power suggests that the outcome might have been different had the United States continued its engagement in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s death.
Shortly after Power became US Ambassador to the United Nations, the volatile issue of an American military commitment arose again, this time in Syria in August 2013, when proof came irrefutably to light that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons in his effort to suppress uprisings within the country. The revelations came 13 months after Obama had asserted that use of such weapons would constitute a “red line” that would move him to intervene militarily in Syria. Power favored targeted US air strikes within Syria.
Obama came excruciatingly close to approving such strikes. He not only concluded that the “costs of not responding forcefully were greater than the risks of taking military action” (p.369), but was prepared to act without UN Security Council authorization, given the certainty of a Russian veto of any Security Council resolution for concerted action. With elevated stakes for “upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons” Power writes, Obama was “prepared to operate with what White House lawyers called a ‘traditionally recognized legal basis under international law’” (p.369).
But almost overnight, Obama decided that he needed prior Congressional authorization for a military strike in Syria, a decision taken seemingly with little effort to ascertain whether there was sufficient support in Congress for such a strike. With neither the Congress nor the American public supporting military action within Syria to save civilian lives, Obama backed down. On no other issue did Power see Obama as torn as he was on Syria, “convinced that even limited military action would mire the United States in another open-ended conflict, yet wracked by the human toll of the slaughter. I don’t believe he ever stopped interrogating his choices” (p.508).
Looking back at that decision with the passage of more than five years, Power’s disappointment remains palpable. The consequences of inaction in Syria, she maintains, went:
beyond unfathomable levels of death, destruction, and displacement. The spillover of the conflict into neighboring countries through massive refugee flows and the spread of ISIS’s ideology has created dangers for people in many parts of the world. . . [T]hose of us involved in helping devise Syria policy will forever carry regret over our inability to do more to stem the crisis. And we know the consequences of the policies we did choose. For generations to come, the Syrian people and the wide world will be living with the horrific aftermath of the most diabolical atrocities carried out since the Rwanda genocide (p.513-14).
But if incomplete action in Libya and inaction in Syria constitute major disappointments for Power, she considers exemplary the response of both the United States and the United Nations to the July 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus that occurred in three West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. United States experts initially foresaw more than one million infections of the deadly and contagious disease by the end of 2015. The United States devised its own plan to send supplies, doctors and nurses to the region to facilitate the training of local health workers to care for Ebola patients, along with 3,000 military personnel to assist with on-the-ground logistics. Power was able to talk President Obama out of a travel ban to the United States from the three impacted countries, a measure favored not only by Donald Trump, then contemplating an improbable run for the presidency, but also by many members of the President’s own party.
At the United Nations, Power was charged with marshaling global assistance. She convinced 134 fellow Ambassadors to co-sponsor a Security Council resolution declaring the Ebola outbreak a public health threat to international peace and security, the largest number of co-sponsors for any Security Council resolution in UN history and the first ever directed to a public health crisis. Thereafter, UN Member States committed $4 billion in supplies, facilities and medical treatments. The surge of international resources that followed meant that the three West African countries “got what they needed to conquer Ebola” (p.455). At different times in 2015, each of the countries was declared Ebola-free.
The most deadly and dangerous Ebola outbreak in history was contained, Power observes, above all because of the “heroic efforts of the people and governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone” (p.456). But America’s involvement was also crucial. President Obama provided what she describes as an “awesome demonstration of US leadership and capability – and a vivid example of how a country advances its values and interests at once” (p.438). But the multi-national, collective success further illustrated “why the world needed the United Nations, because no one country – even one as powerful as the United States – could have slayed the epidemic on its own” (p.457).
Although Russia supported the UN Ebola intervention, Power more often found herself in an adversarial posture with Russia on both geo-political and UN administrative issues. Yet, she used creative diplomatic skills to develop a more nuanced relationship with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin. Cherkin, a talented negotiator and master of the art of strategically storming out of meetings, valued US-Russia cooperation and often “pushed for compromises that Moscow was disinclined to make” (p.405). Over time, Power writes, she and Churkin “developed something resembling genuine friendship” (p.406). But “I also spent much of my time at the UN in pitched, public battle with him” (p.408).
The most heated of these battles ensued after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014, a flagrant violation of international law. Later that year, troops associated with Russia shot down a Malaysian passenger jet, killing all passengers aboard. In the UN debates on Ukraine, Power found her Russian counterpart “defending the indefensible, repeating lines sent by Moscow that he was too intelligent to believe and speaking in binary terms that belied his nuanced grasp of what was actually happening” (p.426). Yet, Power and Churkin continued to meet privately to seek solutions to the Ukraine crisis, none of which bore fruit.
While at the UN, Power went out of her way to visit the offices of the ambassadors of the smaller countries represented in the General Assembly, many of whom had never received a United States Ambassador. During her UN tenure, she managed to meet personally with the ambassadors from every country except North Korea. Power also started a group that gathered the UN’s 37 female Ambassadors together one day a week for coffee and discussion of common issues. Some involved substantive matters that the UN had to deal with, but just as often the group focused on workplace matters that affected the women ambassadors as women, matters that their male colleagues did not have to deal with.
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Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016 left Power stunned. His nativist campaign to “Make America Great Again” seemed to her like a “repudiation of many of the central tenets of my life” (p.534). As an immigrant, a category Trump seemed to relish denigrating, she “felt fortunate to have experienced many countries and cultures. I saw the fate of the American people as intertwined with that of individuals elsewhere on the planet. And I knew that if the United States retreated from the world, global crises would fester, harming US interests” (p.534-35). As Obama passed the baton to Trump in January 2017, Power left government.
Not long after, her husband suffered a near-fatal automobile accident, from which he recovered. Today, the pair team-teach courses at Harvard, while Power seems to have found the time for her family that proved so elusive when she was in government. She is coaching her son’s baseball team and helping her daughter survey rocks and leaves in their backyard. No one would begrudge Power’s quality time with her family. But her memoir will likely leave many readers wistful, daring to hope that there may someday be room again for her and her energetic idealism in the formulation of United States foreign policy.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 26, 2020