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The Miseducation of Samantha Power

Samantha Power has staked her career on fighting for human rights. But her liberal interventionism undermines those very aims by propping up the world’s most powerful military.

Samantha Power testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on her nomination to be the US ambassador to the United Nations, on July 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Samantha Power’s new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, is an important and engaging work that should be widely read — especially by those of us who disagree with her. It deftly conveys the linkage between personal biography and political belief, showing Power not as a wily imperialist villain but a committed liberal whose consistent focus on human rights has nonetheless led her to embrace perpetual empire.

This distinction matters because Power’s political causes — atrocity prevention, support for subjugated minorities, international human rights — should be championed by all decent people. Yet her flawed prescriptions — particularly “humanitarian intervention” by the world’s most powerful military — help maintain US dominance in the world and often undermine the very principles they profess to defend.

With its adoration of the military and praise for the neutrality of “public service,” the memoir raises serious questions about contemporary liberalism’s ability to check antidemocratic trends. Power’s idealistic view of governmental bureaucracy sidesteps a necessary debate about complicity with Trumpian injustice — a striking blind spot for one of the world’s leading experts on genocide.

Despite the title, the book is less about education than affirmation. It tells a story of misdirected righteousness, in which Power’s youthful critique of American foreign policy is channeled into a personal and institutional comfort with hegemonic power. An unwitting parable, The Education of an Idealist shows what can happen when laudable values never find the radicalism that can truly give them flight.

The Critic

Throughout the book, which traces Power’s development from human rights activist and journalist to leading Obama administration figure, Power describes herself as a “critic” of US foreign policy.

In the abstract, this self-description rings true. During the Bosnian genocide, Power was a biting objector to US inaction, a stance that pushed her to cover the conflict as a reporter and later to research the United States’ troubling relationship to other twentieth-century genocides. The resulting project was A Problem From Hell, the Pulitzer Prize–winning monograph that helped furnish the intellectual justification for humanitarian intervention and established Power as a leading thinker in liberal foreign policy circles. Her involvement with Barack Obama, first in his senatorial office and later in his presidential administration, would have been unthinkable without the glowing reception A Problem From Hell received.

In this work and elsewhere, Power dredges up shameful histories that others would rather ignore, from American indifference to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust to the State Department’s continuing refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide. For Power, the United States must be ever-vigilant against potential slaughter. As a global superpower, it has no excuse not to use its unprecedented reach to protect the vulnerable — by military means, if necessary.

In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Power was disturbed to see A Problem From Hell trotted out to justify an invasion she did not support. She spends only a handful of pages on this episode in the memoir, mostly to declare it a “misinterpretation” partly due to “the coincidence of publishing the book in relative proximity to the start of the war.” Perhaps. But given her repeated endorsement of military intervention while in government, one wonders whether these Iraq War proponents were onto something.

Again and again, Power uses The Education of an Idealist to defend military action. In the case of Syria, she says she was so eager to order US strikes that she opposed asking Congress to authorize them, fearing permission would be refused. In the case of Libya, where intervention unquestionably deepened a humanitarian catastrophe, Power praises the United States for “[helping] orchestrate the fastest and broadest international response to an impending human rights crisis in history.” As for the barbarous results of this response, she essentially pleads ignorance: “Whatever our sincerity, we could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own.” The similarity to non-apologies from Iraq War defenders is striking, to say the least.

Syria and Libya are only the most prominent examples of Power pressing for military intervention during the Obama years. In the book, she also hails the decision to send advisers to Uganda to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army and three thousand troops to Liberia to help combat Ebola. As Power recalls, even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was skeptical of the latter deployment. “I keep hearing you all saying, our soldiers will ‘suit up’ and do this and that,” Hagel remarked. “Suit up? What does that even mean? My guys have never even seen those hazmat suits, apart from in horror movies.”

Hagel’s reaction is understandable. Preventing an epidemic should be a civilian affair. In the United States, however, everything has become war and war has become everything, and there is no humanitarian intervention that is not, by definition, a military operation. Power, whether she acknowledges it or not, has consistently conflated these two concepts in her work and deserves at least some of the blame for the militarization of US foreign policy. In a memoir that is genuinely thoughtful at times, it is disappointing and more than a bit suspicious that Power’s book contains so little self-critique. Her parting plea for more diplomacy and less war in the afterword is commendable, but in a book filled with celebrations of American military power, it rings remarkably hollow.

Which Public? Which Service?

According to Power, diplomats and civil servants are the unsung heroes of humanitarianism — paragons of public service who are above ideology and worthy of reverence regardless of party.

But “public service” is an ideology, too, one that binds liberals and conservatives together in blind dedication to the continued functioning of US empire. George W. Bush, Sam Brownback, Condoleezza Rice, and Jeane Kirkpatrick aren’t apolitical notables for Power to name-drop — they’re detestable figures who should be roundly denounced.

Kirkpatrick pops up several times. Power met her while interning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she impressed the young advocate with “her bluntness, which seemed to puncture the otherwise clubby, polite atmosphere.” In the abstract, of course, Kirkpatrick was a trailblazing figure — the United States’ first woman ambassador to the UN. But she also infamously justified US support for murderous right-wing dictatorships in the name of anticommunism. Whether Power, a lifelong human rights activist, is bothered by this history is unclear. The closest she comes is an oblique reference to the “vast policy differences” she had with Kirkpatrick, although these differences remain undefined.

While removing a ball that one of their children lodged in the ambassadorial residence’s glass chandelier, Power jokes to husband Cass Sunstein: “I just can’t see Adlai Stevenson or Jeane Kirkpatrick doing this.” It is a funny but telling moment. She sees her two predecessors as a unit, despite one being a famous liberal and the other a Reaganite conservative. They both held her job — and it is the job that matters. Perhaps they had some “policy differences,” but ultimately they were all patriots united by a tireless dedication to their country and its “interests” (an apparently uniform and objective set of compulsions, instead of politically contested ideals).

Power’s deep respect for the diplomatic bureaucracy began early in her political life. In the book, she recounts the 1993 resignation of four US diplomats over Bosnia policy as a formative experience. In her later parlance, she regarded these diplomats as “upstanders” — individuals who refused to be complicit in ongoing atrocities. With righteous anger, Power declared in her journal at the time: “My only regret is that I don’t work at the State Department so I can quit to protest policy.” Yet nearly three decades later, after serving in government herself, Power has completely given up on such lofty ambitions. In The Education of an Idealist, she praises the mere act of remaining in government as a quiet form of heroism.

While Power writes of being horrified by Trump’s election, she does not even consider that serving as a “neutral” functionary in his government might involve complicity with it. She describes giving a postelection speech to her staff on the need to “show the world what it means to respect the rule of law, and to put one’s country over one’s particular political preferences.” Afterward, a foreign service officer speaks up to second her appeal: “Look, I don’t agree with a lot of the things Trump has said. But he doesn’t seem to have a lot of people experienced in foreign policy in his inner circle. He and his team will need us.” Power is inspired by the exchange. “One after another,” she writes, “the US officials in the town hall expressed their determination to serve the next president. Having gathered my staff thinking I was going to need to comfort them, they ended up consoling me, with their professionalism and patriotism.”

One might think that after violating the Iran deal, withdrawing from arms control treaties, underwriting the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, opening literal concentration camps, and numerous other appalling and egregiously stupid acts, Power would reconsider the quiet dignity of serving a country regardless of its leader. She shows no such inclination. In the afterword, she writes: “I see among young people a fresh surge of interest in public service, born of the recognition that each of us has a responsibility — and an opportunity — to make the changes we seek. President Trump may have destabilized and weakened our institutions, but thus far his actions have not broken them.”

That these institutions might themselves be part of the problem, or that true public service might require refusing to serve a destructive and racist regime, apparently never crosses Power’s mind. It is a strange conclusion for someone who was once inclined to praise the “upstanders” of contemporary life.

A Humanitarian Intervention

At her core, Samantha Power is a mainstream American liberal who came of age during the fall of Communism and the era of absolute US hegemony. She developed an undying faith in the benevolent power of the US state as a result, moving seamlessly from human rights advocate to preeminent liberal interventionist. The path, her memoir shows, was remarkably linear.

Yet one closes the book oddly nostalgic for the fire of Power’s activist youth, as flawed and vulgar as all politics are at that age. While the tale ends tragically, it begins with a utopian spark that could be fed by a very different bellows.

The word “solidarity” shows up several times in The Education of an Idealist. We don’t get a sense of what Power means by it, but the word practically jumps off the page. It signals to us that an alternate history bleeds through Power’s life, one in which human rights activism leads to a deep skepticism of military power, not an endorsement of it. Read against the grain, her memoir urges us to rescue this counterfactual and bring it into being. Human rights are too important to be left to the interventionists.