Education of an Idealist: Book Review

November 2, 2019

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir (2019), Samantha Power. Detailed memoir of her life, parts of it relevant to a MVG perspective. She proved to be a risk taker, even when in government surrounded by a risk-averse culture. She talks about (US) core values, including individual dignity, American diversity, and global cooperation, with the frustration of government cultures that could not accomplish actions most consistent with these core values. The most critical event was the chemical warfare of Syria's Asad gassing his own people and not being stopped by the US.

 

She migrated with her mother and brother to the US from Ireland; her mother was fleeing an abusive marriage and getting advanced training as an MD. She states that it was Tank Man in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 that got her into humanitarian issues. Then the Berlin Wall and so on. Fukuyama claimed the "end of history" and the winning by the west, which proved to be a bit premature, but Power's interest in foreign affairs was confirmed. The breakup of Yugoslavia really got her attention. After college (Yale), she took an internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "government can do either harm or do good. ... People had values, and people made choices" (p. 52).  At the time (1993) Bosnia was the hot spot with ethnic wars with Serbs, Croats, Bosnia Muslims and others (Tito, who held Yugoslavia together, died in 1980). Serb president Milosevic seemed to be the biggest villain, including the brutality of ethnic cleansing; he supported Bosnian Serb against Muslims. Key fighting was in Sarajevo. Power was told to "see the war up close," which she did as a freelance reporter finding her way to Sarajevo while the Serbs were attacking--killing about 10,000 people in the city. Clinton lost 18 soldiers in Somalia and was hesitant to get involved in Bornia. [Mark Twain's line: "A cat who sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again, But he won't sit on a cold stove either" (p. 78).] Journalism: "If I did not make the stakes of the issue clear and compelling, most people would not read past the first paragraph. ... Experience helped refine my own sense of what animated Americans" (p. 86). In 1995 Mladic attacked Srebrenica (a UN safe area), largest massacre in Europe since World War II. Probing as far as possible without provoking US intervention. Eventually US air action stopped the attacks.

 

Power went to Harvard Law, attempting to move from reporting to action. She took a class on holocaust-related literature. Key questions: when is military force justified? What about moral traditions for nonviolence versus extreme brutality? Who should write the rules? That included Bosnia and later Rwanda (and a long list from earlier periods). She taught at the Kennedy school at Harvard.

After law school, she ended up writing about the Bosnian conflict in "A Problem fro Hell." She had extreme difficulty getting it published, but ended up getting a Pulitzer Prize. What is individual responsibility when injustice occurs? Power compares bystanders to upstanders (standing up against genocide and other forms of injustice). US has large toolbox to prevent injustice (diplomacy, public shaming, deploying intelligence and technical resources, international peacekeeping, asset freezes, arms embargoes). She opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. "Governments will do the right thing if people make clear they care" (p. 136). 

 

Obama: "I listen well, I synthesize ideas, and I can generally figure out how to communicate what we need to do" (p. 148). He criticized Bush for neglecting to think about the consequences of the Iraq invasion. Power served as a foreign policy fellow on his Senate staff. Committee members focused more on self-serving parodies than public service, "scoring points"; fading bipartisanship. Obama as a recluse. Problem of only considering binary choices, e.g., staying the course versus cutting and running. Obama wanted disparate perspectives and listening as they debated. Johnson: problem not doing what's right, but knowing what's right (p. 154). Eleanor Roosevelt: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people" (p. 157). US problem of being unprepared for unconventional threats (e.g., global warming; need for coalitions, global credibility). 

 

Power became a fellow in Obama's Senate office. After a great speech he ran for president, focusing on winning in Iowa (his specialty was grassroots organizing). Power was caught criticizing Hillary and forced to resign from Obama's campaign. When he won the residency, he was reserved, presumably feeling the responsibility. She got a job with the National Security Council related to the UN and other international organizations and as Senior Director for Human Rights. With government workers risk averse and protecting their territory, getting things done was difficult. The top meeting were for Principals, heads of agencies and deputies meetings. Country specialists might write the first draft, then it would circulate for rewrites. [Michelle Obama needed the National Park Service to sign-off for her to plant a vegetable garden.] Values were important, realistic views downplayed. Ingrained viewed and internally conflicted bureaucrats were related problems.  

 

Albert Hirschman (The Rhetoric of Reaction) argued: "those who didn't want to pursue a particular course of action tended to argue that a given policy would be futile ("futility"), that it would likely make matters worse ("perversity"), or that it would imperil some other goal ("jeopardy") (p. 226). Power related this to the Sudanese governments actions in South Sudan. To understand a place hop on a plane and analyze. At NSC she was generally not allowed to travel, because approvals were denied. Spontaneous visits by Obama: "The bear is loose." Learning how foreign policy was made; substantial expertise. The Armenian genocide happened in 1915. Power could not get Obama to call it genocide, because of Turkish pressure. Obama also had other delicate issues like healthcare and global warming. Power with Holbrooke's urging went to places "where they ain't." ... "Revelation: I love my job" (p. 256). Obama: "Peace requires responsibility" ... "America has never fought a war against a democracy" (p. 263). No deliberations about how to prevent mass atrocities at upper levels; lower levels had no power. Toolkit: benefits outweigh costs. David Pressman became a lawyer because law was a "language of power" (p. 267). Issues in Africa: Sudan, Ivory Coast, Uganda.

 

Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death to protest against corruption and humiliation, setting off protests across repressive Middle East governments. It worked in Tunisia; took out Qaddafi in Libya (with US support) but created chaos; and failed in Egypt and Syria. US involvement was less than brilliant. Benghazi became a big incident, mainly for political reasons (the US NSC views were mixed about Libya--NYT blamed three women, Clinton, Susan Rice, and Power for bombing Libya; conservatives had a field day). Because of Fox News, more Americans were seeing the UN as a threat.

 

Power was selected by Obama to be UN Ambassador, but Senate hearing were rocky. Because she had written a lot, any quote could be used, especially those that sounded objectionable. "The senators are note there to listen to you. They are there to listen to themselves. They want to be on television. They want to play to their base" (p. 333). "Murder boards" (preparations by colleagues asking expected questions) should she was not ready. Mainly, she had to answer in such a way that it was true but did not offend (e.g., my views have changed; we need to focus on accountability). She did not want to supply the next scandal soundbite on Fox News. She was confirmed in August 2013 87-10. 

 

A basic role of the UN was to mitigate hardship ("save humanity from hell"); food aid, resettlement, healthcare. The UN did not stop war or prevent countries acting in their own self interest. Powerful countries made the UN particularly dysfunctional, especially Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council. She spend considerable time meeting with all the ambassadors and those personal connections helped in a number of cases; she also got to see other perspectives.

 

A big problem was Assad's use of chemical weapons against hi own people. Obama asked for congressional approval to respond ("why did the president come to us?"); approval was not forthcoming. Obama became viewed as a flip-flopper. Other problem areas were Central African Republic (Muslim-versus-Christian terror). David Remnick: "Obama is basically a realist--but he feels bad about it" (p. 511). 

 

Power had a relatively friendly relationship with the Russian ambassador Vitaly Cherkin, who consistently voiced the Russian party line when speaking at the UN. In private his views were different. The biggest issue was Russia's takeover of Crimea and attack on Ukraine in 2014. Russia worked hard to provide disinformation and worse to all the Eastern European states, especially the small Baltic countries. After that, the Malaysian airline plane shot down over Ukraine by Russian militia. Russian government weaponized disinformation through social media using trolls and bots. NGOs in Russia were declared "foreign agents" to be monitored. Putin saw the world as us versus them, especially the US as an enemy. 

 

When Ebola broke out in Africa, Power was part of the effort to provide massive aid or public health professionals, money, supplies and labs from around the world. A few Ebola patients ended up in the US, freaking out the public (even though the flu was a much greater threat). Even US troops were part of the logistics effort. Power went in person to Africa to access the situation. The pandemic subsided in 2015, after killing some 11,000. The other major African problem was Boko Haram, which kidnapped 10,000 children, the boys to be suicide bombers. 

 

Effectiveness trap": "US officials unhappy with policy typically deceive themselves into believing that they are doing more good by staying in the government than they could by leaving" (p. 514). "Big problems are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions," (p. 517). Paris Agreement signed in 2015. After Trump was elected the foreign service kept working, assuming they would be needed because of their expertise and the concept they were working for the country. About the Syrian conflict: "Are you truly incapable of shame?" (p. 541). "President Trump's contempt and bigotry, his rage and dishonesty, and his attacks on judges, journalists, minorities, and opposition voices are doing untold damage to the moral and political foundation of American democracy" (p. 547).  

 

 

 

 

 

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© 2016 Gary Giroux

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