A member of the president’s National Security Council who shares Noam Chomsky’s foreign-policy goals? An influential presidential adviser whom 1960s revolutionary Tom Hayden treats as a fellow radical? A White House official who wrote a book aiming to turn an anti-American, anti-Israel, Marxist-inspired, world-government-loving United Nations bureaucrat into a popular hero? Samantha Power, senior director of multilateral affairs for the National Security Council and perhaps the principal architect of our current intervention in Libya, is all of these things.
These scary-sounding tidbits might be dismissed as isolated “gotchas.” Unfortunately, when we view these radical outcroppings in the full sweep of her life’s work, Samantha Power emerges as a patriot’s nightmare — a woman determined to subordinate America’s national sovereignty to an international order largely controlled by leftist bureaucrats. Superficially, Power’s chief concern is to put a stop to genocide and “crimes against humanity.” More deeply, her goal is to use our shared horror at the worst that human beings can do in order to institute an ever-broadening regime of redistributive transnational governance.
Knowing what Samantha Power wants reveals a great deal about Barack Obama’s own ideological commitments. It’s not just a question of whether he shares Power’s long-term internationalist goals, although it’s highly likely that he does. Power’s thinking also represents a bridge of sorts between Obama’s domestic- and foreign-policy aspirations. Beyond that, Power embodies a style of pragmatic radicalism that Obama shares. Both Obama and Power are skilled at placing their ultimate ideological goals just out of sight, behind a screen of practical problem-solving.
THE MOTIVES BEHIND THE INTERVENTION
Critics of President Obama’s intervention in Libya — and there are many all across the political spectrum — have taken a variety of approaches to the novel characteristics of this military action. Some have lamented the president’s failure to establish a clear path to victory (i.e., the overthrow of Qaddafi), or indeed any unambiguous goal beyond the protection of civilian lives. By traditional war-fighting standards, the rationale given for Obama’s Libyan intervention amounts to incoherence and weakness.
Viewing the glass as half full, however, others have declared that the president secretly does want to oust Qaddafi and establish a democratic regime, or at least that the logic of events will inevitably force Obama in that direction. Still others have suggested that a quick overthrow of Qaddafi followed by withdrawal would establish a positive model for punitive expeditions, without the costly aftermath of nation-building. And some have simply christened Obama’s seemingly directionless strategy as an intentional program of pragmatic flexibility.
While there’s much to be said for each of these responses, more attention needs to be given to analyzing Obama’s intervention from the standpoint of his administration’s actual motives — which in this case, I believe, are largely coincidental with Samantha Power’s motives. Obama has told us that the action in Libya is a multilateral intervention, under United Nations auspices; that it is for fundamentally humanitarian purposes, but has strategic side benefits; and that it represents an opening for the United States to pursue its own goal of ousting Qaddafi, although via strictly non-military means. While Obama has in fact taken covert military steps against Qaddafi, and while our bombing campaign has been structured in such a way as to undermine Qaddafi when possible, we have indeed inhibited ourselves to a significant degree from pursuing regime change by military means.
Obama may not have been completely frank about the broader ideological goals behind this intervention, and yet the president’s address to the nation, as far as it went, was largely accurate. Fundamentally, our Libyan operation is a humanitarian action, with no clear or inevitable military-strategic purpose beyond that. There is enormous risk here, and no endgame. We might take strategic advantage of our restricted humanitarian action. But we might not, and, in any case, we are under no obligation to do so. For all we know, many of those we’re defending with American aircraft and missiles could be our dedicated terrorist enemies. From the standpoint of traditional calculations of national interest, this war is something akin to madness. Yet without fully articulating it (and that reticence is intentional), Obama and Power are attempting to accustom us to a whole new way of thinking about war, and about America’s place in the world.