The Education of a Cynic

Then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power in 2016 (Darren Ornitz/Reuters)
Samantha Power’s new memoir unwittingly crystalizes the weakness and amorality of Obama’s foreign policy.

In The Education of an Idealist, a new memoir of her government service, former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power relates a breathtaking moment from the White House Situation Room in 2013. In the course of a meeting on the mounting humanitarian and strategic crisis in Syria, President Obama, brushing aside Power’s arguments in favor of more assertive action against the Assad regime, grumbled, “We’ve all read your book, Samantha.”

The president was referring to A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, in which Ms. Power, then the executive director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights, detailed America’s long, deplorable record of inaction in the face of ethnic cleansing and genocidal war.

A Problem from Hell opens with the lethal persecution of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, in whose behalf the U.S. ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, issued urgent but unavailing dispatches to Washington reporting the outbreak of “race murder.” Power fleshed out her survey of modern genocide (a term, she reminds us, coined by the scholar Raphael Lemkin) by turning to the Holocaust, Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds, Rwanda in 1994, and the Balkans for much of the Nineties. Power’s personal journey into this ghastly subject began as a freelance reporter in Sarajevo, where she witnessed what Slobodan Milosevic’s project of “Greater Serbia” meant for ethnic minorities in the former Yugoslavia.

With the partial exception of Bosnia and later Kosovo, where the United States led belated rescue operations under NATO auspices, these campaigns of systematic slaughter were greeted by fatal indifference by the outside world and permitted to take their hideous course. In A Problem from Hell, Power condemned generations of American policymakers for their declared realism—more precisely, to borrow a concept from Christian philosophy, their amoral quietism—in the midst of systematic persecutions and massacres of minorities.

The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was a stinging rebuke of the world’s sole superpower, made all the more so by Power’s refusal to indulge facile misdirection about some fictitious “international community.” Invoking Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress in 1862, she reminded Americans: “We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility.” She also impugned the contemporaneous denials, often from the podium of the White House, that genocide was even occurring. No amount of euphemism could obscure the truth that “the real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will,” she wrote.

Eventually Power found her way into Obama’s circle, initially serving as an adviser to the campaign, then as a senior director in the National Security Council, and finally as U.N. ambassador. Notwithstanding their mutual antipathy to the “war of choice” that deposed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq (more intelligible in Obama’s case than in Power’s), the chemistry between them was always somewhat inscrutable. Throughout his career, Obama associated himself in word and later in deed with the very realist school of power politics that had, to put it mildly, little use for the kind of humanitarian action championed by Power.

Then again, Power’s brand of humanitarianism always bore the marks of being confused and cheap. Despite her rigorous inquiry into organized crimes against humanity, and her heartfelt plea for those in positions of “influence” to counter them, Power embodied a striking ambivalence about the stern imperatives of deterrence and the exigencies of power that, if emulated by America’s political leadership, would ensure their repetition. At one point in The Education of an Idealist, Obama muses that Power isn’t “nearly as hawkish” as she is made out to be, though it isn’t clear how he came by that impression. Only an idle or daft reader of Power’s work would have failed to detect that her commitment to the manacles of diplomatic protocol and multilateral cooperation involved her devotion to the humanitarian causewhich is nothing if not a case of emergency and crisis response—in many contradictions.

This bizarre hybrid worldview, in which human rights needed to be the fulcrum of U.S. foreign policy but without the hard power required to defend them against predatory regimes, flinches from the inconvenient truth that, in our unforgiving world, human rights will be upheld by force of arms or they will not be upheld at all. Since this stubborn fact would require an honest humanitarian to advocate either the use of power in making the world a better place or to step down off her pedestal of moral sanctimony and adapt herself to the world as it is, most human-rights activists have simply ignored it.

As the journalist David Rieff showed in At the Point of a Gun, his penetrating 2005 manifesto against the “imperialism of human rights,” Power exemplifies this wishful non-thinking and evasion of responsibility. Rieff condemns Power for promoting a bold campaign on behalf of universal human rights without laying out—for others or possibly even for herself—what that ambitious, if not utopian, project might entail. What on earth did she and others in the human-rights movement, Rieff modestly asked, think that they were doing in calling attention to flagrant violations of human rights in far-off lands? By what mechanism would the villains of their narrative—who sprang from hell to perpetrate rape and torture and murder on a mass scale—be held to account? The unspoken assumption was some combination of the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

In Rieff’s eyes, the neoconservative faction (or, if you like, liberal imperialists) offered a more coherent and compelling vision. This camp comprised mostly liberal hawks and so-called national-greatness conservatives whose worldview amounted to a fusion of idealistic emphasis on human rights and realistic emphasis on national power. Unabashed patriots and internationalists, they did not dilute their commitment to human rights with the milk-and-water righteousness of international law or excessive devotion to multilateral legitimacy. Instead, they proposed a muscular program of moral and military purpose that, even to critics like Rieff, was at least equal to the magnitude of the challenge posed by murderous regimes and gangster organizations. (In this, as Rieff points out, the neoconservatives were far more worthy heirs of the avowed imperialist Theodore Roosevelt than was Power, who, interestingly, makes him the hero of A Problem from Hell for his opposition to brokering a peace deal with Turkey before it brought to justice the architects of the Armenian “race extermination.”)

Power’s later failure to address humanitarian crises at the level of government policy was therefore the inescapable upshot of a grave design flaw in her work: an ambivalence, if not antipathy, toward American hegemony, without which humanitarian rescue could scarcely be contemplated, let alone implemented. By not accepting, much less embracing, the logical consequences of her own lofty analysis, she was bound to fall short of infusing foreign policy with an ethical dimension. What emerged instead was a descent from morality to moralism.

While she was an activist and an academic, the conceptual defects in her blinkered worldview were strictly confined to the imagination; after she joined the executive branch they were laid bare in the real world—an “education” for which Power, the administration she served, and the global order stewarded by her country, paid a high price indeed. The result invites the judgment against Power once rendered by an embittered Thomas Paine against George Washington: “The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.”

It has been intoned ad nauseum that the theory and conduct of foreign policy is divided between realists and idealists (though in general it is the idealists that dominate the realm of theory while the conduct is performed by realists). If one indulges this crude framework in assessing the statecraft of the Obama administration, it is clear that each camp has abundant cause for alienation. The realists, priding themselves on a prudent sense of the limits of American power in service of a global balance of power, indict the Obama administration’s military intervention in the Libyan rebellion. This sin of commission, they claim, was a misbegotten use of American might untethered to the national interest that helped transform Libya into a jihadist haven. Meanwhile, the idealists, priding themselves on the application of American power to humanitarian ends, indict the Obama administration’s abstention over Syria. This sin of omission, they claim, was a catastrophic blunder that produced a strategic shift in the region toward America’s enemies at the expense of the welfare of the Syrian people. Meanwhile, in odd but revealing ways, Power defends the administration on both counts.

Seldom is a political theorist given the chance to implement her vision, but as The Education of an Idealist explains, this opportunity came for Power in early 2011 when an uprising broke out against Moammar Qaddafi, who had ruled Libya for 42 years. After rebels seized Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, Qaddafi pledged to quell the rebellion with indiscriminate force. Rapidly dispatching several thousand troops to the east, he threatened to “cleanse” Libya “house by house” of every member of the opposition.

Initially, Obama was reluctant to apply American power to aid and shelter the Libyan rebellion. As Qaddafi’s forces advanced toward the outskirts of Benghazi and prepared a military assault to be followed by a protracted siege of the city, a U.N. Security Council resolution (at the behest of Britain and France) authorized taking “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, which ultimately became hard to distinguish from regime change in Tripoli. An initiative to protect Libyan noncombatants by means of a no-fly zone began to circulate in the Situation Room, but Qaddafi’s conspicuous lack of airpower meant that this method would have little effect on the impending bloodbath. Only striking Qaddafi’s ground forces and heavy weapons would halt or reverse Qaddafi’s march and fulfill the U.N.-endorsed “responsibility to protect.”

The president, as Power makes plain, was not keen to fulfill this weighty responsibility lest it embroil the U.S. in a bloody and protracted conflict, but ultimately determined that Benghazi and other opposition-held towns could not be allowed to fall to the regime. The unusual character of this intervention would later lead one sympathetic observer of the administration to dub it “the apotheosis of the Obamian approach to the world.” (With friends like these . . .)

At the outset, Obama proclaimed the military operation primarily European (as if this would make it so), with the U.S. providing logistical assistance such as refueling aircraft and reconnaissance—“leading from behind,” as one Obama aide infamously described it. But shortly after hostilities commenced, the French and British air forces began to run out of bombs, and the pretense of a genuinely multilateral effort fell away. In short order, American air sorties rendered a devastating assault on Qaddafi’s forces. This intervention gave the initiative to the rebels, who after seven months of fighting captured the dictator hiding in a drainage pipe near his hometown of Sirte, and after sodomizing him with a blade, executed him.

The result of this intervention was a democratic election, followed swiftly by appalling sectarian strife. The governing coalition that emerged after Qaddafi’s fall failed to establish a monopoly on violence, and without the restraint of strong central authority, the copious militias that prosecuted the rebellion plunged Libya into internecine conflict. In preventing a regime-orchestrated massacre, European heart and American muscle had midwifed a failed state presiding over a fractured society with jihadist stirrings.

Power labors to absolve the administration of what happened in post-conflict Libya: “We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own.” In his New Yorker review of the book, Dexter Filkins writes that “in a certain light, this sounds like an argument for not intervening at all.” Filkins’s conclusion is preposterous, since it takes no account of the insuperable contingency in human affairs. When has the future ever been so predictable?

What’s more, it was less than a decade before that U.S. forces had deposed an even more awful and dangerous Arab despotism in Baghdad, inheriting a brutalized and shattered country for which it had nothing resembling a systematic plan. The gross mishandling of postbellum Iraq by the Bush administration (before it took remedial action in the form of the “surge” that catalyzed the Anbar Awakening, dealing a major blow to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia) exacerbated the Hobbesian state of Iraqi society, but it also exposed it. Such unsettling challenges bred a passivity bordering on paralysis in a Democratic party eager to shed responsibility for regime change and espouse a more constrained vision of America’s global role. Was it really so hard for such people to imagine that Libya would emerge from decades of grotesque divide-and-rule dictatorship as a landscape of desolation and ruin? Did they really believe that liberal-minded Libyans would recover command over their own destiny with a little help from Brussels simply because Qaddafi’s repugnant Green Book was no longer mandatory reading?

What the Obama administration lacked most conspicuously in Libya and elsewhere was not the gift of prophecy but strategic insight and political nerve. Power confesses few misgivings about the foreseeable post-conflict turmoil, much less the shambolic intervention targeting a dictator that, according to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Obama never had any intention of removing from office in the first place. The president’s “uncertain trumpet” that was to become his primary instrument in foreign policy was unsheathed in Libya to devastating effect. His intention to lead from the rear did not simply expose forward operators to lethal danger, as when the American mission at Benghazi fell under attack. It also unleashed a maelstrom of violence from which Libya has yet to recover. Obama has referred to America’s half-hearted Libyan involvement as the worst decision of his presidency, but considering the Syrian disaster that ensued, that judgment is far too lenient.

Power’s description of the Syrian rebellion, which evolved into a destructive vortex of ethnic and confessional conflict that drew numerous interventions from hostile foreign powers, is suspiciously sparse. “In 2011, the Syrian revolution had begun like the other uprisings across the Arab world,” she relates. “The Syrian regime . . . responded to the opposition’s progress with violent tactics more inhumane than anything I had seen since researching the Rwandan genocide for ‘A Problem from Hell.’” Since the targets of Assad’s war were almost entirely Sunni civilians, the campaign plausibly fit the legal definition of genocide. As Power documented in her earlier book, the Genocide Convention required signatory nations (of which the United States is one) to intervene in a genocidal state’s “internal affairs” to prevent atrocities or punish them.

“As Assad intensified his bombardment of civilian neighborhoods,” Power says she stood “in awe of the bravery of the Syrian people” risking all to defy this odious regime. (Her sense of awe was evidently not shared by the president, who rejected a 2012 plan, backed by Defense Secretary Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, CIA chief Petraeus and General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to directly arm and train the Syrian rebels.) The scenes of urban slaughter from Homs and Hama and Aleppo put her in mind of her days as a foreign journalist in the Balkan wars, recalling “the vulnerability I felt trying to shelter in the bathtub in Sarajevo while the Bosnian Serb Army shelled the neighborhood while I slept.” In July 2012, President Obama received reports that the Syrian military was preparing to escalate further—this time employing chemical weapons. The president quickly issued “a carefully prepared warning that the Syrian government would ‘be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons.’ . . . At a White House press conference the following month, the president significantly sharpened his warning” by drawing the infamous red line.

What happened next almost defies comprehension, even years after the fact. “Assad wasted little time before crossing this red line . . . . The U.S. government began receiving information in late 2012 that the Syrian government had begun using chemical weapons.” Within months, these reports of multiple chemical attacks were confirmed by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies. Then, on August 21, 2013, exactly one year to the day from Obama’s red-line threat, the Assad regime launched a massive sarin-gas attack on the Damascus suburbs, killing 1,400 Syrian civilians.

President Obama “was enraged by Assad’s attack,” Power relates, and deployed warships to the Mediterranean to exact a hefty penalty for the regime’s monstrous crime. Since a Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council would remove legal sanction from a punitive attack, the administration found itself in “the perverse circumstance in which the UN Charter effectively rendered President Putin the arbiter of legality” over any attempt to hold this outlaw regime to account. The Obama team, in thrall to notions of international humanitarian law governing the use of force, felt compelled to justify any military reprisal by relying on the Kosovo precedent in which NATO conducted an air campaign against the Serbian army without the approval of the Security Council. (Of course, as Putin liked to point out, the Kosovo precedent had no legal precedent of its own.)

But in an incredible volte face Obama abruptly referred the matter to Congress. Showing no sign whatever of the “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch” that Hamilton, in Federalist 70, recommended in the executive branch, the president expressed the usual reservations about the grave consequences of an armed intervention, and doubted that what started as a “limited” military operation in Syria would stay that way. “Obama knew that if he opted for targeted air strikes to punish chemical weapons use, pressure would grow for him to respond to other strikes as well, both because they were horrific and because after U.S. strikes, American ‘credibility’ would be on the line.” Power appears to be working on the assumption that by this point American credibility wasn’t already on the line, despite the accumulating catastrophe in Syria, to say nothing of Assad’s contemptuous disregard for the president’s public threat in perpetuating the largest massacre of this savage war.

Power concludes that “Obama recognized how quickly his political opponents would abandon the cause if they deemed it expedient.” So he would abandon it first. For appearance’s sake, Obama continued to feign support for the mission while it awaited congressional assent (a constitutional nicety, it will be remembered, that he foreswore in Libya). The White House dispatched senior executive-branch officials to present a hopelessly feeble and muddled case to the public.

Secretary of State Kerry provided the most memorable of these pitiful spectacles, arguing in a Churchillian key about the duty to confront aggression and punish “unspeakable crimes” while simultaneously promising “unbelievably small” American strikes. It is nearly impossible to cast Power’s contribution to this debate, which she reproduces in the form of inane remarks she delivered at the time to the Center for American Progress, in a favorable light. Taking a cue from her boss’s style, Power uses a “on the one hand, on the other” technique to take account of every possible response to Assad’s barbarities as well as every conceivable objection to those responses. The result is a mind-numbing recitation of pros and cons, wholly devoid of the sinews of argument, leaving the reader grasping for the point.

In September 2013, Kerry posited that the crisis revolved not around Assad’s manifold outrages against international norms and human decency, but around his “declared” remaining chemical arsenal, which, if surrendered entirety, would solve the crisis. The Kremlin seized this chance to save its client in Damascus and offered to broker a deal, which the White House, sighing with relief, eagerly accepted. In Power’s eyes, “we had made the best of a bad situation.” (If it was really the best conceivable outcome, what was she pleading for in the Situation Room that caused Obama to lose his patience?) She relishes the “seemingly impossible” achievement of “removing and destroying a whopping 1,300 tons of chemical agents that Assad would otherwise have had at his disposal.” This “meaningful” feat did not strip Assad’s forces of all its chemical arms, as became apparent when the regime unleashed sarin gas and chlorine bombs on civilian neighborhoods again and again.

Summarizing this helter-skelter diplomacy—to put it no higher—Power asserts that “Congress had effectively tied Obama’s hands for this round,” omitting the crucial fact that Obama had laid out the rope and dared them to make use of it. Attempting to assuage her guilt, Power argues that if Assad were to deploy his chemical arsenal on a future occasion, “the United States military would have targets at the ready, and the congressional political dynamics might have shifted.” (If she was hoping to conjure a scenario to keep Assad awake at night, she has little hope of satisfaction.)

Power does not bother to explain how these “dynamics” of public opinion and legislative initiative would have shifted without a robust display of leadership from the White House of which it had already shown itself to be incapable. Indeed, she later concedes that with Washington’s drift and indecision, Assad could only conclude that “he could starve his people into submission, carpet bomb hospitals and schools, and eventually even resume chemical weapons attacks, all without the United States doing much to stop him.”

In all this, Power leaves no doubt that she favored a more vigorous response to Assad’s barbarism but never so much that she assails the feeble, erratic, and cynical response settled on by the administration. This is made plain when she boasts of having supported punitive strikes against the Syrian regime for its previous smaller-scale chemical attacks as well as its general indiscriminate use of violence against defenseless civilians. Such a policy, she rightly suggests, would’ve sent an important message to depraved dictators everywhere that the taboo on chemical weaponry could not be violated with impunity. Nor were the retaliatory options available to the Syrian regime and its allies much of a deterrent since, as Obama noted, Assad had no interest “in escalation that would lead to his demise.” Despite the refusal to bring American power to bear against this aggressive tyranny, Power curiously indicts Putin rather than her boss for “forcing Assad to renounce chemical weapons and getting him to work with the international community to destroy them”—thereby “legitimizing” Assad as a partner in “peace.”

The Education of an Idealist is ultimately neither especially idealistic nor very much of an education, except in the gulf between morality and moralism, between political virtue and political virtú. What it illustrates is not a fighting liberalism, but a handwringing liberalism, content to issue threats against bellicose tyrants without bothering to enforce them. It is a liberalism, to use a phrase of Lionel Trilling’s, without moral realism—or possibly, to borrow from Leon Wieseltier, a rationalism without night vision. It is, at last, a liberalism that has no answer to the furies from hell.

Hungry to the last for sympathy, Power recounts a telephone conversation with Senator McCain in which he chastised her for remaining in the service of a president whose quiescence in Syria was a shameful betrayal of American principles and American interests alike. Her presence was not only humiliating for an ostensible humanitarian, but it lent crucial cover to a bystanding administration eager to mask its Kissinger-esque obsession with stability with pretensions to good international citizenship. Before slamming the phone down, McCain shouted, “You should resign!”  Not a scintilla of evidence in the pages of The Education of an Idealist equips the reader to argue otherwise.

If Power had mustered the courage of her convictions and resigned in protest (as her long-ago subject Ambassador Morgenthau did over America’s impotence in the midst of the destruction of the Armenians), she might have found a worthy occupation in her premature retirement. After all, A Problem from Hell is overdue for a haunting new chapter that considers the Syrian debacle. It would have been some consolation if, after trying in vain to prove her principles in the crucible of power, she had dusted off her pen to write such a postscript. And, with any luck, it might even have found a reader in President Obama.


The Latest