Phi Beta Cons

Samantha Power: a retrospective and, probably, a prospective

Samantha Power will almost surely reappear if there is an Obama presidency, though she is for the moment out as senior foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign.

She’s been on a speaking tour in Britain these days to promote her balanced, very readable biography of the playboy diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was a sort of go-to guy for the UN before being killed in Iraq, where he was the organization’s head of mission. Like the best biographies, it reads as a parallel study of the events (i.e., seemingly every humanitarian catastrophe from Cambodia to Lebanon) in which its subject was involved. She was promoting the book when she let slip the “monster” comment about Hillary.
Power is an academic and, glancing at her résumé, one inevitably confronts the suspicion that she’s sort of a flake. She is a professor in something called “the practice of global leadership and public policy,” and she has made a living out of human rights activism.
Yet, those who have read her, heard her, or been in a class with her know that she is a wonderfully critical thinker and is coldly pragmatic about human rights causes, which certainly sets her apart from many of her confrères.
Her recent appearance on BBC’s Hard Talk is a demonstration of her attempt to balance her academic and political commitments. She does a poor job on some things (e.g., her parsing of the term “genocidal violence” around minute 11), but is extremely honest about others (how preoccupations about not letting Serbia see its campaign of ethnic cleansing as successful ended up costing lives in 1994 and ’95, around minute 14, and her explanation of why it would be counterproductive to commit American troops to Darfur, in minute 15).
Her calling-out of Europe for not having a security policy (16:30) is music to my ears, especially coming from someone you might assume to be a dove. But then you see her obfuscate on Pakistan (18:45) and try, very unconvincingly, to explain how Obama saying he would “take action” against al-Qaeda in the face of Pakistan’s refusal to do so somehow does not mean military action. The dilemma of being a surrogate, I suppose. And then there is the bizarre moment when Power herself doubts whether Obama would withdraw troops from Iraq 16 months into his term, which is definitely not something his surrogate should be saying (or, rather, it is something she should be saying, but not if she has his campaign prospects in mind).
Anyways, I trust this is not the end of Prof. Power’s political life, something for which I am thankful.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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