Samantha Power has refused to give interviews of late, and the White House seems to be downplaying her influence on the intervention in Libya, and on the president generally. Yet numerous press reports indicate that Power “has Obama’s ear” and was in fact critical to his decision on Libya. Liberal foreign-policy expert Steve Clemons actually calls Power “the primary architect” of our Libyan intervention. The New York Times has gone so far as to characterize our humanitarian action as “something of a personal triumph” for Power.
If anything, these reports may underplay Power’s influence on Obama. The two met in 2005, when Obama contacted Power after reading her Pulitzer Prize–winning book on genocide, A Problem from Hell. Power quickly became then-senator Obama’s senior foreign-policy adviser, and so has a longer history with the president than do many others on his foreign-policy team.
A survey of Power’s writings indicates her long preoccupation with a series of issues now associated with Obama’s most controversial foreign-policy moves. In a 2003 piece for the New York Times
, for example, Power bemoaned
the reluctance of American policymakers to apologize to other countries for our supposed past mistakes. While Obama’s controversial (and so far unproductive) willingness to engage with the leaders of rogue states was initially attributed to a novice error during a 2007 debate with Hillary Clinton, the need to deal directly with even the worst rogue states is a major theme of Power’s second book, Chasing the Flame
. That book was written in 2007, while Power was advising Obama’s presidential campaign. A 2007 piece by Power in The New York Times Book Review attacked
the phrase “War on Terror,” which of course the Obama administration has since dropped.
In an appearance at Columbia University, just hours before the president’s Libya address, Power herself identified the protection of the citizens of Benghazi as the core purpose of our current intervention. Yet it should not be thought that Power’s shaping of Obama’s reasons and actions ends there. Almost a decade ago, Power laid out a series of secondary, interest-based justifications for humanitarian interventions — e.g., avoiding the creation of militarized refugees who might undermine regional stability, and flashing a discouraging signal to regional dictators — all of which were featured in Obama’s speech to the nation. To be sure, these “interest-based” justifications were largely rationalizations for an intervention driven overwhelmingly by humanitarian considerations. Yet Power’s broader and longstanding framing of the issue has been adopted wholesale by Obama.
In Power’s view, to be credible, humanitarian interventions must respond to immediate danger (thus Obama’s waiting until the militarily unpropitious moment when Benghazi itself was under imminent threat), must be supported by multilateral bodies (thus the resort to the U.N., NATO, and the Arab League in preference to the U.S. Congress), “must forswear up front . . . commercial or strategic interests in the region” (thus the disavowal of regime change as a goal of our multilateral action), and must “commit to remaining for a finite period” (as Obama has pledged to do in Libya). Even NATO’s threat to bomb the rebels if they kill civilians (which struck many as unrealistic, and at cross-purposes with our supposed military goals) is foreshadowed in Power’s writings, which highlight the need to police both sides in any humanitarian action.
The evident tension here is between Power’s desire to act, and to be seen to act, on strictly disinterested humanitarian grounds, and her need to sell humanitarian intervention to the public on grounds of national interest, conventionally defined. This leads to continual contradiction and dissembling in Power’s writings, as the ideology driving the action can neither fully disguise itself, nor fully announce itself either. So, too, with Barack Obama’s policies (and not just on Libya).
Nowhere is this pattern of disguise and contradiction more evident than on the topic of “American exceptionalism.” Supposedly, Obama’s address on Libya, with its invocation of America’s distinctive tradition of shouldering moral burdens throughout the world, gave the lie to those who have described the president as a critic of the concept. And Power’s work is filled with invocations of America’s unique leadership role in the world. But read carefully, her hymns of praise to American leadership all turn out to be calls for the United States to slowly devolve its power to international bodies. After all, the world’s foremost state would have to assume leadership of any process whereby its own power was gradually dismantled and handed off to others. This is essentially what Power is calling for, even as she frames the diminishment of America in superficially patriotic terms. Is Obama doing the same? I believe he is.