Foreign Policy

The Corruptions of Power

Will former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power ever learn?


The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, by Samantha Power, Dey Street Books, 592 pages, $29.99

Less than 100 hours before 2008's critical Super Tuesday vote, Samantha Power, the Pulitzer-winning author of 'A Problem From Hell': America and the Age of Genocide, stared plaintively into the eyes of Armenian-American YouTube viewers and delivered a heartfelt testimonial to a "true friend of the Armenian people," Barack Obama.

Past presidents have shied away, she said, from the "sometimes hard truth telling" of calling the Armenian genocide a "genocide." But not the junior senator from Illinois, as evidenced by his "very forthright statement on the Armenian genocide, his support for the Senate resolution acknowledging the genocide all these years later, his willingness as president to commemorate it."

Fourteen months after Power's promise, Obama finally got his big chance to deliver. And he whiffed. "I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed," the new president said on April 24, the National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man. He did not elaborate further.

A promise broken that brazenly could be a teaching moment for the "humanitarian interventionists," of whom Power—Obama's first-term human rights honcho on the National Security Council and his second-term ambassador to the United Nations—is arguably the leading light. Did the woman who is as likely as anyone alive to be the next Democrat-appointed secretary of state ever consider that mobilizing U.S. force to halt genocide inevitably requires such grubby logistical concerns as making sure not to piss off the owners of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey? Might there be a corrupting paradox in protecting human rights at the point of a gun?

Power's new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, includes a whole chapter titled "April 24," complete with an O. Henry twist at the end. But whether it's the war of words she lost on that Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day or the far more consequential war in Libya that she successfully helped argue America into, the muddled track record of applied Powerism occasions little introspection from its intellectual architect.

"He was the President of the United States," Power exhaustedly concludes, after detailing her failed attempts to get Obama to utter the word genocide in 2009. "No matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to put myself in his shoes, or appreciate the variables he was weighing." So much for the self-styled "genocide chick."

As with most champions of the "just do something" approach to governance, what haunts the memoirist the most is not "What did we do wrong?" but "Why couldn't we do more?" Thus, the central dilemma in the book is Obama's refusal to enforce his "red line" against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in 2013, not the allegedly genocide-preventing overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi two years earlier.

Since Libya was the application of Power's ideas and Syria the unmet aspiration, you might think she would be interested in a comparative analysis of actions taken and not. After all, both countries plunged into an instability whose effects are still being felt today, including the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The disastrous intervention in Libya materially contributed to the public backlash against striking Syria, a fact Power tacitly acknowledged while trying to rally support at the liberal Center for American Progress: "This will not be Iraq, this will not be Afghanistan, this will not be Libya."

So what education did the idealist glean from a genocide prevention gone wrong? One strikingly similar to that learned by neoconservatives after Iraq: that we didn't try hard enough to win the peace.

"Once it became clear that European efforts to shore up the transition were falling short," she concludes, "the US government could have exerted more aggressive, high-level pressure on Libya's neighbors to back a unified political structure and cease their support for the competing opposition factions." Still, "neither at the time nor presently do I see how we could have rejected the [pro-intervention] appeals of our closest European allies, the Arab League, and a large number of Libyans." After all, "we had run out of further nonmilitary steps."

And Americans wonder why we're constantly at war.

I have some familiarity with the milieu from which Power sprang. Our life trajectories as sports-fanatic college newspaper reporters were both radically redirected by the same event: an anonymous Chinese man stopping a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. (Her recollection—"For the first time, I reacted as though current events had something to do with me"—mirrors my reaction precisely.) As a direct result of the ensuing revolutions of 1989, each of us wound up the next summer in both celebratory Prague and fracturing Yugoslavia. When Power returned to the latter region a few years later to try her hand at being a war stringer, one of the key figures helping her was my ex-girlfriend.

The Western Gen Xers who flooded into post-communist Europe tend to have a very different view of the exercise of U.S. power than do normies back home or even expats in other parts of the globe. We basked in the populations' idealized appreciation for American moral leadership against the "evil empire" of Soviet communism rather than encountering far more mixed verdicts in Africa or Central America. While most Americans were eyeing peace dividends and bickering over half-baked expeditions in Somalia and Haiti, we were horrified on a daily basis by Western inaction in the face of the slaughter in Sarajevo. "I found myself rooting for the first time in my life for the United States to use military force," Power recalls.

Many books are yet to be written about how America in the 1990s transformed so quickly from uncertain international actor to uncontested global cop, but Yugoslavia, as it has been so often in its unhappy history, was central to an empire's story arc. From the outbreak of hostilities in Slovenia in the spring of 1991 through the summer of 1995, Washington clearly wished that a rapidly integrating Western Europe would clean up the mess in its own backyard. Instead, Paris and Bonn and London took turns making diplomatic pratfalls. It was only when America fired up the fighter planes that the participants in the Yugoslav wars became motivated to negotiate a settlement.

The lesson was learned, or so many of us thought: America has to lead. Force can be effectively applied, with minimal U.S. casualties, to halt the organized mass murder of civilians. In a world otherwise getting more free, democratic, prosperous, and peaceful by the minute (hey, it was the '90s!), some well-timed interventions can nip potential catastrophes in the bud. Democratic internationalists and Republican neoconservatives were in basic agreement—if "never again" is to be taken seriously, America needs to draw some red lines and to punish those who cross them, national sovereignty be damned.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see where this road map leads: to one war after another, especially the disaster in Iraq. Power, to her credit, did not support the Iraq invasion, arguing correctly that it "would render the world a much more dangerous place." But she did fall prey to some of the same myopia as the Bush administration. "I actually think that it's going to be a relatively clean intervention," she said in February 2003. "I may be in the minority in the human rights community in feeling that way, but having seen the Kosovo and the Bosnia and the Afghanistan interventions, I have some sense of that."

Worse, Power spelled out a doctrine for being more, not less, promiscuously interventionist: "My feeling is that an intervention in Iraq, even a unilateral one, is undoubtedly going to make Iraq a more humane place," she said. "As somebody who has looked at the relationship between state power and sovereignty on the one hand, and individual rights on the other, I have to say to myself if the human rights movement meant anything it meant that sometimes sovereignty can't be a shield, a protection for regimes that forfeit their claim to that privilege."

Some realism has crept into the worldview of 2019 Samantha Power. In her new book's afterword, gazing into the confusion of populist uprisings at home and abroad, she bemoans the interventionist default of foreign policy.

"Military force is seen as the 'go-to' tool in the US toolbox," she laments. "Such a heavy reliance on our military is neither sustainable nor desirable. It is emblematic of a militarization of US foreign policy that concerns people across the political spectrum."

America's journey toward a more humble foreign policy has been thwarted time and again by the size of its toolbox. It's a lesson all of us idealists need to keep relearning.