The Word Power of Samantha

A Review of “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power




Samantha Power’s new book, “The Education of an Idealist,” is an engaging personal memoir telling how she was formed by Ireland, acculturated by America and educated by a dangerous world. It begins with her love of her pub-dwelling father in Dublin and ends with her professional friendship with Barack Obama in Chicago and Washington. 

There are entertaining anecdotes along the way about everything from jogging under fire in Sarajevo to breast feeding while UN ambassador. But this true testament, in her own un-ghosted words, is shadowed by the same dark theme as her first book, “A Problem From Hell,” which won a Pulitzer prize in 2003 when she was just 32. 

“We have been bystanders to genocide. The crucial problem is why,” she wrote then. Sixteen years later, informed by a remarkable career as an “upstander,” (her coined word), her question is refined: “How do the moral and religious traditions of nonviolence coexist with the moral imperative not to stand idly by in the face of suffering?” 

But wait. Samantha Power is. . .who? 

Born in 1970 of Irish parents, who separated when she was eight. Mother and her new partner, both medical doctors, immigrated with her to the United States. Schooled in Georgia, graduate of Yale. Became an American citizen in 1993. Freelance war correspondent, Bosnia, 1993-96. Joined Obama’s Senate staff in Chicago, 2005. Married Cass Sunstein, a former Chicago law school colleague of Obama. Two children with Sunstein, a boy and a girl. Served with the National Security Council, 2009-13. United Nations ambassador, 2013-2017. 

But if you know nothing else about Power you might recognize she was the Obama campaign staffer in 2007 who called Hillary Clinton “a monster.” She had blurted the word in the presence of a reporter in Ireland, and it was published despite her immediate “that’s off the record” disclaimer. It was exemplary word-police journalism — fast, simple, affordable. Her arrest by the media for using a word like that (despite the lack of a political definition of monster or speculation whether Hillary was one) caused David Axelrod to ask for Power’s resignation from the campaign.

Her mistake only involved one word, but that was no defense. She knew the importance of words. In fact, a hero in her first book was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who brought his knowledge of Hitler’s intentions to the United States in 1941. Spurred by a speech about Nazi violence in which Churchill said, “We are in the presence of a crime without a name,” Lemkin found a name. It was. . . genocide. He devoted the rest of his life to moving “genocide,” as Power puts it, “from Websters to the law books.”

Earlier in the protracted Democratic primary campaign, in a TV debate with Hillary, Obama had said in answer to a viewer question that, yes, as president he would meet with leaders of adverse nations like Iran or Cuba. Hillary rebutted that this was “irresponsible and frankly naive.” Obama responded, “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them is. . . ridiculous.” 

Samantha,  senior advisor for foreign affairs on the campaign staff, was assigned the task of writing an op-ed piece in defense of Obama’s much reviled position. “‘It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy,’ I began. Those who were attacking Obama’s foreign policy ideas, I wrote, were using the same labels—“weak, inexperienced, and even naive”—that they had used against those who had the good sense to oppose invading Iraq.” Hillary had voted for the war as a senator.

When Obama became president and surprisingly chose her as his secretary of state, Power was referred to her for a possible position with the State Department. Clinton had nothing for her and politely showed her the door. Obama instead placed Power in the National Security Council, among professionals with long resumes in public service. “Because of my journalistic career, and my resignation from the Obama campaign, I had a modest public profile before I went to work for the NSC,” Power writes. 

But Obama had read her book.

She came to write “A Problem from Hell” after two years in Bosnia and five years of genocide study beginning extracurricularly in law school. There were the millions of hate-generated deaths before she was born: Ottoman Turkey’s slaughter of Armenians during the war in 1915-16 and, of course, the Holocaust. When she was still a child in Dublin, Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia took 2 million lives. When she was in high school in America, Saddam Hussein eradicated of some 4,000 Kurdish rural villages in Iraq, taking thousands of lives with his chemical rain.  As an adult, she writes in her new book, “I was struck that, fifty years after the Holocaust, the world had stood by during both the Bosnian and the Rwandan genocides.” In both cases, the unsupported UN peacekeepers had to leave when violence escalated.

Why would a privileged young Irish woman with long auburn hair become obsessed with the dark world of genocide? This was her own problem from hell, and she sought psychotherapy. “The therapist questioned why I had gone to live in a war zone and why I was so drawn to other people’s suffering, speculating that this focus allowed me to continue minimizing my own pain, which naturally ‘paled in comparison’ to genocide.”

Her pain was something every child caught in the rift between warring parents must know. Little Samantha adored her father. But her mother did not. The parents fought at home. He went to a local pub almost every night and came home drunk. Her mother was a medical doctor, often absent. When he was responsible for watching Samantha he took her to the pub, where he was an eloquent regular. It was an adventure for her, even when she had to wait in the pub basement. 

Divorce was legally impossible then in Ireland, but in a bitter court hearing her mother was given custody. She and her new partner, also a doctor, took Samantha to America. She was all but barred from visiting her father, and when he withered and died, she was not allowed to accompany her mother to the funeral.

In therapy, she writes, “I learned how deeply responsible I felt for my father’s death, and realized I was scared of making myself vulnerable to a loss so large again. And the only way to avoid such pain had been to choose men who themselves resisted closeness.”

But there is a less profound interpretation. Power grew up in Dublin in the time of  “the troubles” and though her family was never in actual danger, the constant bombings in Northern Ireland were sometimes reciprocated closer to home. “My early years in Dublin meant that I never saw civil strife as something that happened ‘over there’ or to ‘those people.’”

Never again, a skull-filled monument in Cambodia (photo by me)

In her obsessive studies she was impressed with two words, “never again,” that have been used by most U.S.presidents in remembrance of past genocides. (Similar words in Japanese are on the cenotaph at ground zero in Hiroshima.) Yet the words were not a commitment, she says. “No U.S. president. has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is no coincidence that genocide rages on.”

The rationale for inaction usually begins with the rejoinder: What can a government do when people who have hated each other for centuries start killing each other? It’s  “a problem from hell” — words originating with Warren Christopher, secretary of state during the Bill Clinton administration, that she adopted as her book title.  She describes other rationalizations: that intervention can only make things worse; that it can actually harm U.S. national interests; and, most frequently, that these unfortunate events are entirely internal affairs, not our business. 

And don’t use the word genocide, warned a memo from the office of Clinton’s defense secretary regarding the situation in Rwanda (Tutus slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis with machetes). The memo said Defense Department lawyers had advised that a genocide finding could commit the U.S. to “do something.” Reflecting on this admission, Power writes, “I wanted to end up in a position to ‘do something’ when people rose up against their repressive governments.”

A remarkable set of synchronicities let her realize this vow. Obama began inviting her to express her contrary views in NSC discussions, even though she was a lower level staffer. During one meeting when she remained quiet he even said, “Sam, are you sick?”

An example of their dialectical relationship was when she seized an opportunity to lobby him about putting the U.S. on record recognizing the Armenian genocide for what it was and Turkey denies. Obama said, “I am worried about the living Armenians. Not the ones we can’t bring back. I am living in the present, Samantha, trying to help the Armenians of today.” In other words, it was in the interest of the U.S. to avoid disrupting peaceful relations between Turkey and the surviving Armenian minority. 

Her attitude was always consistent with the thinking of journalists (not the word-police kind) who went to the scene (as opposed to clicking words from news sites). They took risks, as she had, in order to know what was actually going on. She liked the critique by her friend Richard Holbrooke, a former UN ambassador:  “U.S. officials wearing badges around their necks run around the world trying to find foreign officials who wear badges around their necks.” 

Obama’s official reaction to the Arab Spring was in part the doing of Power and NSC colleagues who shared her attitude. “Many of the U.S. government’s Middle East experts who attended our meetings argued that the political status quo in the region served US interests,” she writes. “They tended to over-rely on governmental and elite sources to inform their thinking. As a result, the US government heard little from citizens who were growing angry with the inequality, corruption, and repressiveness of life in outwardly stable countries like Tunisia and Egypt. . . . We made the case for building US policy in the region on a foundation of principles rather than continuing to rely on particular leaders.” Thus came the president’s Cairo “New Beginning” speech to Muslims.

Intervention in Libya became a test of the policy, with an ironic feminist spin-off and a tragic sidebar exploited by Republicans in their extended “Benghazi” hearings. 

Power related how she, Secretary Clinton and UN ambassador Susan Rice in a high level discussion favored military intervention in Libya — in opposition to the Pentagon generals and others, including Vice President Joe Biden. This led to a media interpretation that the three women were hawks. With happy literary references to Valkyries, Amazon warriors, and Durkas, columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times praised the three women for showing “the way to war.” Rush Limbaugh called the men in the room “sissies.”

Power counters that it was never that simple. “I had favored the use of American air power when I lived in Bosnia, and opposed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.” She knew “the history of the Vietnam and Iraq wars and was familiar with how little US government officials (namely the men opposing intervention) sometimes knew about the foreign places and peoples whose fates their decisions would impact.”

The compromise decision, which eventually prevailed, was American enforcement of a no-fly zone. Power objects that Libyan dictator Muamar Gadaffi was taking back rebel territory with forces on the ground, not in the air. After his assassination, Libya broke apart into violent factions, resulting in the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. One was assistant ambassador Chris Stevens, a friend of Power’s. He was her kind of diplomat:  “A native Californian and former Peace Corps volunteer with a toothy smile, he gave off the feeling of someone who knew that he could learn more from backpacking through an area than meeting with dignitaries,” she recalls sadly.

 Some others of her exemplary friends:. 

—Peter Galbraith, who went to northern Iraq to collect testimony from Kurds who had survived the gassing by Hussein’s helicopters, including the attack on March 16, 1988, on the town of Halabja that killed at least 5,000.

—Mort Abramowitz, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former ambassador to Turkey, who aided the Iraqi Kurd refugees there. In retirement, he was a strident critic of Turkey President Erdogan.

—Fred Cuny, a peace-maker Texan, who worked for Abramowitz helping the Kurds. He was drawn to Chechnya during the warfare waged by Putin. He was taken hostage and executed. 

—David Rohde, a journalist who went out and found the mass grave sites in Srebrenica where Gen. Ratko Mladic had executed 7,000 Muslim men and boys. Rohde was arrested and held by the Serb military. Convinced that, like Cuny, he was marked for execution, Power immediately wrote an op ed piece that she got the Washington Post to publish. It may have saved him. He was released after five days. 

In all their field work these reporters and peacemakers would always be approached by survivors wanting to talk — Cambodian refugees in Thailand, Muslim survivors of Serb concentration camps, Kurds in U.S.-occupied Iraq. They all had “an intense desire to let people know what had happened to them,” as Power puts it.

And this was true of her own experience in Bosnia interviewing survivors of the  murderous artillery attacks on Sarajevo from the former Olympic ski hills above town. Twice the Serbs fired on the central market place, killing dozens of civilians including children. There were snipers who fired on school grounds. 

“‘Tell Clinton,’ one bereaved father said as he ushered me to the door after describing the loss of his son. That was a phrase I heard often,” she writes. It is the heading of one of her most engaging chapters. She ends the “Tell Clinton” chapter with a note that while he did nothing, “The heart of the country refused to stop beating.” 

Relief from the Bosnian atrocities did not arrive until four years later, when NATO bombed the artillery positions. It is instructive that the bombing stopped the war.

Power had no access to tell truth to presidents then. But nearly 20 years later, she was in a position to “tell Obama.” They were friends. One evening she and her husband went to dinner at the White House. Obama had something to tell her. 

But an urgent call on her mobile phone interrupted. It was her stepfather, who was home watching the grandchildren. He could not find the pumped and stored breast milk for the baby girl and was panicking. Suddenly Obama said, “Let me talk to him,” and grabbed the phone.

“Listen,” he said, “this is the president of the United States. You can do this. You just need to stay calm and focus.” 

With everything under control Obama called her aside and offered her the appointment as UN ambassador succeeding Rice, whom he was elevating to national security advisor.

Power’s Senate confirmation was an unforgettable lesson in her continuing education as an idealist. As the hearing date approached, Fox News began a campaign against her confirmation. White House experts on congressional hearings coached her in how to survive by, among other things, avoiding direct answers, steering to safe harbors, and using standard cliches.

In the hearing, she recalls, “Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was one of the first out of the gate, calling my selection ‘deeply troubling’ and charging that I ‘strongly supported the expansion of international institutions and international law . . . at the expense of US sovereignty.’” She answered that she valued sovereignty.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida confronted her with something she had written in 2003 in The New Republic about exercising diplomacy: “We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States.” Rubio asked what crimes she had in mind. She answered that America is the greatest nation on earth. He repeated his question and she repeated her answer, then delayed until his time ran out. 

But she had the support of two senior Republicans — John McCain and Lindsay Graham. She was confirmed by a vote of 87-10.

In her nearly four years at the United Nations, Power did a lot of work in accordance with her principle of local engagement. One trip was to Burma (she does not call it Myanmar) to see Aung San Suu Kyi, the protest leader long confined by the military government and recently released and elected to parliament. It turned out that Suu Kyi was not compassionate about the fate of Rohingya Muslims, victims of what Power now calls genocide. When she returned home she told her husband, “What’s weird is that her whole life has supposedly been about human rights, but it is not clear she cares that much about humans.”

She went to the Nigerian area being terrorized by Boco Haram, calming fears and encouraging resistance.

And when the world was in a panic over the outbreak of fatal ebola in west Africa and American governors were threatening to prevent anyone who had been in the area of the contagion from setting foot in their states, Power went there with U.S. medical workers.

The major issue during her tenure probably was the “red line” drama that began soon after she became leader of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. She was taking a short vacation in Ireland with her family when Bashar al Assad attacked a Damascus suburb with chemical weapons, killing 1,400 people including at least 400 children. This crossed the “red line” that Obama had declared a year earlier when Assad’s possession of these internationally outlawed weapons was determined.

She returned quickly to New York, but not soon enough for Fox News, which ridiculed her absence at the emergency UN Security Council meeting that she had quickly ordered from Ireland. In meetings by secure video link from New York she perceived that the president was ready to order immediate missile strikes against Syrian military bases. 

But he “shrank,” in her word. The long debate about his alternative of seeking congressional authorization for the use of force ensued. In the process she was assigned to phone John McCain for support. He was angry at the pullback of  bombing and, resenting the administration’s “complete indifference to human life,” hung up. 

Putin got involved, there was a diplomatic solution, and 1,300 tons of Assad’s chemical weapons were destroyed. 

Without fear or favor, Power writes: “I believe that the United States should have followed through on Obama’s threats and bombed the Syrian military targets designated by the Pentagon. Even having not taken this step, before Russia intervened militarily two years later, we should at least have attempted to mobilize a group of countries to enforce a no-fly zone.”

In her opinion the whole “red line” saga damaged Obama’s credibility and U.S. influence abroad.

Which brings us to Trump, a subject she limits to only a few comments. 

In the preface to “The Education of an Idealist,” she expresses her shock at the result of the 2016 election. “I had long taken for granted the importance of individual dignity, the richness of American diversity, and the practical necessity of global cooperation. Yet suddenly these core values were under assault.”

And in the end of the book she returns to the subject. “On its face, Trump’s victory—and the 63 million votes that made it possible—seemed a repudiation of many of the central tenets of my life. I was an immigrant, someone who 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.”

Samantha Power’s first book was published by Basic Books after rejection by Random House and other major publishers. Her new book was released in September by Harper-Collins.