Speaking power to truth
Patrick Porter reviews The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
The writer Teju Cole once described a “white saviour complex”. Its symptoms are vain sentimentality about oneself and one’s nation being a force for good and the hunt for a big emotional experience, publicly undergone, that salves the conscience. It serves to entrench the status quo by deflecting attention away from hard questions about the sources of violent disorder. “The white saviour supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” He might have been writing of Samantha Power.
Power is a celebrated liberal conscience. The Harvard scholar, human rights champion, National Security Council official and US Ambassador to the United Nations is garlanded with prizes, feted by Forbes as “the moral compass of American diplomacy” and lauded by Marie Clare as “the smartest woman in America”. Despite this billing, her 592-page memoir, The Education of an Idealist, is just a bad book. And the applause polite society confers on its author says something unsettling about American public life.
From early on, Power’s urge to be a saviour was strong, as was her demand for moral clarity in projecting American power abroad. Power grew outraged that genocides raged unthwarted as Washington dithered over the crimes of the 1990s, especially Bosnia and Rwanda. Power wanted to “do something” when people rose up against their repressive governments.
“I had never been without opinions, but my certitude previously had to do with seemingly trivial issues like an umpire’s bad call in a baseball game. Now, as I researched and reflected on real-world events, I seemed unable to contain my emotions or modulate my judgments. If the subject of Bosnia came up and someone innocently described the conflict as a civil war, I would erupt: It is genocide!”
The Pulitzer prize-winner reports that as a young intern she forged a letter from the editor of Foreign Policy to get media access in Bosnia. Career advancement coincided with the greater good: she had a “guilty conscience” but also got what she “needed”.
Already, we see the shape of a worldview Power would bring to government. Note: the unguarded impulse that “something” must be done; a certainty about perpetrator and victim under the fog of wars raging far away, a righteous exaltation that trumps forensic analysis and an unawareness that people rising up in rebellion might also contain repressive forces, bent on inflicting counter-terror. Above all, she generalises from one historical model of genocide, where predators attack prey, and must be rescued by American power.
This she separates from “war”, a condition often of mutual atrocity and a frequent context for genocide. All of which encourages an urge to romanticise revolt, a determination to be centre-stage as saviour, and a reluctance to admit intervention equals war, with all its hazards.
The author presents herself as an “idealist”, educated by her time in government to prosecute idealism by pursuing modest, achievable change. Power identifies smaller-scale, benign wins where resistance is minimal: releasing imprisoned feminists, advancing LGBT rights and coordinating international efforts against Ebola, all the way down to visiting all the embassies and hosting an election-night party for female ambassadors in her Waldorf Astoria apartment. This pragmatic mini-idealism must not, though, disturb America’s ambition. Her faith that the US should remain a globe-straddling colossus, using its military might to rescue others and spread liberal light, is undimmed.
Power joined Barack Obama’s presidency from 2009. Facing the difficulties of government, her metier is a tortured inner monologue. The first person singular is wanton, as Power becomes the living embodiment of America abroad (“Then it hit me: Wait! That’s me. I’m America here.”).
We are left in no doubt about her virtuous intent. Proud flashbacks recall her denunciations of Putin’s and Assad’s “diabolical atrocities” and violations of international law. Power cares in personalised fashion. As a mother, she risked “losing her composure” when speaking about “harm done to children”. She agonised about whether to resign over insufficient US warmaking in Syria. In defeat, her response is self-soothing inner withdrawal: “I reminded myself of my good fortune.”
Even by the genre’s standards, the author is boringly self-obsessed. Mundane everyday life over-intrudes.
The interventions Power agitated for were disappointing experiments that inflicted foreseeable harms. In Libya, a quintet of military humanist (Power, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes and Anne-Marie Slaughter) urged on Nato airstrikes, first to prevent a feared massacre in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, then to overthrow the tyrant Gaddafi, lest it encourage other regimes into “excessive brutality”.
Sceptics such as Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned them the US was already at war elsewhere, that war for “regime change” was not a video game and was hard to stop. Gaddafi had given up his nuclear programme with US assurances, so toppling him might signal that disarmament means death. But the Arab Spring was at hand and it was time to make history.
So it was. The “model intervention” triggered a meltdown: Libya’s economy plummeted, Islamist militias thrived, torturing black Africans and holding open-air slave markets. Isis seized a foothold; warlords and criminal gangs proliferated; rival parliaments formed; and the chaos drove a mass flight across the Mediterranean. The rebels refused to allow international forces to cooperate in reconstruction.
Persuaded by émigré lobbies that the rebellion was agreeable and civic-minded, the intervenors overlooked the makeup of their armed proxies, including Islamist fighters armed by Qatar and Turkey, and Libya’s recent history of producing international jihadists. Power, who built a career pronouncing that intervention in distressed societies could work, now soothes herself. Things would have been bad anyway, and she could “hardly expect to have a crystal ball” about other cultures. Now she tells us.
Power’s public response to Libya’s implosion lurched from the euphemistic (the aftermath was “very challenging”) to the naive (they didn’t anticipate “how anti-foreigner” the opposition would be. Only once the scenery collapsed did it occur to this Foreign Policy Global Top 100 Thinker that the interests of Americans and ungrateful foreigners may be misaligned.
Undaunted, Power urged intervention in Syria, where Assad’s butchery was undeterred by Power’s Libya effort. Obama’s maximalist demands and intermediate measures, financing and arming rebels, fanned the civil war while failing to dislodge its target. Intervening to punish the wicked and rescue the innocent, yet unable to control the flow of its assistance, Washington acted unwittingly as the armourer and air force of battle-hardened Islamists. Power relocates her crystal ball, claiming counterfactually that America should have intervened earlier (though airstrikes in Libya were punctual enough), that “no-fly zones” would have eased suffering and facilitated a political settlement. Washington would have strengthened the good rebels, distinguishing them from the bad.
Then, despite the flow of money and guns to Islamist proxies from Washington’s Gulf partners, US-backed mild revolutionaries would have prevailed and created a compliant, pro-American order. Regime change without catalysing worse conflict? Idealist, certainly.
It is Power’s silences, however, that speak loudest. There is not a word about the diplomatic cover her office provided a Saudi-led coalition in the UN, helping to dilute an independent inquiry into one controlled by the Yemeni authorities. The atrocious bombing and blockade of Yemen enjoyed US support, with mid-air refuelling, targeting assistance, arms sales and intelligence support. Al-Qaeda fought in the open with Saudi and US-supplied American weapons.
Human Rights Watch observed that under assault, thousands of innocent deaths, maimings and starvations resulted, including infants who lacked a champion in the Waldorf-Astoria. All unmentioned. “I believe in oversharing,” Power recently told an interviewer. Not always.
Also missing is the word “drone”, and signature strikes, a crowd-killing form of bombardment that rose on her boss’s watch, whereby the assailant knowingly targets group gatherings because of their suspicious behaviour and association, rather than through verified identification of individuals. While Power denounces sins of omission and supports US hegemony, she averts her eyes from brutal actions that expend lives and resources.
Though she finds space for basketball (22 mentions), the Boston Red Sox (12), and George Clooney (four), one name is absent: Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state. At one time, Kissinger was a target of Power’s critique, one of the “bystanders to genocide”, who had “bloodied Cambodia”, winked at Indonesia’s East Timor massacre and abandoned the Kurds. America’s “moral compass” ought to say something about the doyen of American realpolitik. Yet the author who has “never been without opinions” falls silent. In 2014, Power and Kissinger shared the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium. In 2016 she accepted the “Henry Kissinger Prize”. Is not this rapid chumminess and mutual congratulation what Teju Cole spoke of? It is now evening, or perhaps late afternoon, and time for trophies.
What does it mean to be an “idealist”? In Power’s incrementalist language, it is merely to move the dial, or “shrink the change”. This comports with Obama’s evolving outlook, to espouse modest reform under primacy and market liberalism, instead of the transformational change he promised, while rhapsodising about the arc of the moral universe. This is a technocratic outlook, elevating tactical tinkering above all else, precluding any reassessment of the fundamentals, which are fixed and sound, presupposing the status quo and history’s direction. Under questioning in her confirmation hearing, Power disowned her earlier essay about America’s historical “crimes”, replying with pieties about America being “the greatest country on earth”. When in power, she dropped the demand she made before entering government, for a “historical reckoning” with a “broken” foreign policy. Now she takes up the hymn of the established order. In a shrinking world, the only failures worth worrying about are policy overhaul and American “retreat”. This doctrine led to the era of the Panama Papers, the Afghanistan Papers and a spiral of war and debt. To Power’s shock, it led to Trump.
One can take up the mantle of moral tutor. Alternatively, one can accept and justify brutal deeds and betrayals dictated by reason of state. Power does neither. Rather than a proper reckoning, she practises evasion. By turns, she indignantly denounces atrocities by other states, ignores US facilitation of the same behaviour, absolves botched crusades she supported, affirms the supreme value of human rights, and forgets things. Such incoherence discredited her humanitarian advocacy at the UN. At times, it is oblivious. Standing up for liberal values, she says, does not mean America should pursue “regime change”. What did she think was afoot in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria?
Even by the genre’s standards, the author is boringly self-obsessed. Mundane everyday life over-intrudes. She even commends herself for reproaching herself for her self-absorption. “I would catch myself feeling satisfied by a powerful speech I had made at the UN, or a compelling argument I had put before the President. I would then excoriate myself for measuring the wrong thing. “It’s not inputs that matter,” I would hear in my head. “It’s outcomes.”’ Aren’t you glad you didn’t write this?
The main effect of this cry of the heart, from an exhausted progressive centrism, is to demonstrate a shortcoming of American public life. Most troubling is not Power’s silences or affectations but the unwarranted applause elite society gives her. There are few bad reputational consequences for profound errors of judgment and for analytical negligence. To the contrary, ex-policymakers who are complicit in disasters that waste blood and treasure, and harm the national interest, still enjoy a cosy existence in their sunset.
There is little ethos of shame. Washington’s national security state — its bureaucracy, media and institutions — ushers them into a rewarding afterlife of acclamation and baubles, op-eds and softball interviews, university posts, think-tank sinecures, consultancies, lectures and book contracts. Government service is monetised and converted into portfolio careers. At the very least, the well-meaning war party’s persistent failures would suggest the need for some private contemplation after leaving office. American democracy won’t emulate societies such as classical Athens that would regularly ostracise public officials for a decade in exile. Short of that, if only Washington would become a little more Greek.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe