Samantha Power’s Power
On the ideology of an Obama adviser


Stanley Kurtz

Power once promised that the stringent conditions she set out for intervention would make humanitarian military actions exceedingly rare. She has long admitted that, given that rarity, precisely what such interventions might achieve, as well as what they might cost, remains unclear. Now each day teaches us something new about the costs of her policies.

Arguments that Power developed to support past interventions are proving a poor fit for our Libyan operation. She dismissed claims that the Rwandan genocide was merely a case of “civil war” or “tribal violence.” Now her critics argue that Libya is not a Rwanda-style genocide, and that Power’s eagerness for a humanitarian showcase has led us to intervene in what really is a tribal civil war.

And what of her stringent conditions? In practice, she seems to have stretched her own standards of “large-scale crimes against humanity” to produce a specimen case, in an effort to entrench her favored doctrines in international law. Who knows if more people will now be casualties in the extended civil war enabled by our intervention than would have been killed in Benghazi last month?

Power worried just after 9/11 that an America soon to be militarily overstretched might give up on humanitarian interventions. Now she has helped to entangle us in an expensive and open-ended adventure at a time when we truly are at our limits — and at a time when dangers continue to spread in countries far more strategically significant than Libya. Power has long warned us that policies that alienate the rest of the world, such as detention at Guantanamo, make it tougher to assemble the multilateral coalitions that ultimately lighten our own security burdens. Yet now we find ourselves prevented from attacking our enemy Qaddafi, so as not to alienate our coalition partners (while Obama admits in practice that Guantanamo was in our interest all along).

Power might best be characterized as a pragmatic radical. Her outlook is “post-American,” an excellent example of what John Fonte has called “transnational progressivism.” Power means to slowly dismantle American sovereignty in favor of a constraining and ultimately redistributive regime of international law. It’s an odd position for a member of the president’s National Security Council, but then Power is no ordinary NSC staffer.

Power’s New York Times review of Noam Chomsky’s book Hegemony or Survival is an excellent example of what she’s about. Power is critical of Chomsky’s caustic tone, his failure to adequately back up his preaching-to-the-choir assertions, and his disregard of the complex tradeoffs inherent in foreign policy. But for all that, Power makes it clear that she largely shares Chomsky’s policy goals, above all the curbing of American power via the building up of international law and related doctrines of “human rights.” In other words, Power sees herself as the clever sort of radical who works from within established institutions, without ever really sacrificing her rebellious ideals.

A long conversation with Power in 2003 convinced 1960s revolutionary Tom Hayden that she was a fellow-traveler of sorts, even if Power was not as systematically suspicious of American military force as a true Sixties-vintage radical would be. In Hayden’s assessment, Power’s originality was “to see war as an instrument to achieving her liberal, even radical, values.” Hayden was right. The important thing about Power is not that she favors humanitarian intervention, but that she seeks to use such military actions to transform America by undoing its sovereignty and immobilizing it, Gulliver-style, in an unfriendly international system.

Power’s aforementioned second book, Chasing the Flame, celebrates the life of a United Nations diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who died in a terrorist attack in Iraq in 2003. Vieira de Mello was a Sixties radical of international scope. Hailing from Brazil, he became a committed Marxist while studying at the Sorbonne. He was among the violent protesters arrested during the student uprising in Paris in 1968. His first published work was a defense of his actions.

Vieira de Mello went from student radicalism straight to a job with the U.N. in 1969, and brought his intense anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism with him. Later he became a bitter critic of Israel. A United Nations “patriot,” he carried around a well-worn copy of the U.N. Charter the way an American senator or Supreme Court justice might take a copy of the U.S. Constitution wherever he went. Vieira de Mello’s colleagues used to say that his blood ran U.N. blue. As the U.N.’s most charismatic and effective diplomat (said to be “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy”), Vieira de Mello is the hero around whom Power attempts to build a following for her ideals of global governance.