KAO: Samantha Power's memoir self-serving

Column: Left on Red

Samantha Power was an idealist, according to the title of her memoir, “The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir.”

As she tells it, she became convinced of the necessity for the U.S. to intervene to stop genocide in other countries. She even wrote a book on the subject, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and establishing her reputation as a human rights expert. 

She later joined then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and served in his administration, ultimately becoming Ambassador to the United Nations (UN). Her time in government was her eponymous education, converting her from an idealist into, presumably, a pragmatist, Power said. 

It is a neat story. The only problem is that it is untrue. 

In her pre-government career, Power was usually described as a human rights activist. While this is not untrue, she was hardly someone who bombarded the headquarters. 

From the start, Power was part of the elite. Educated at Yale University and Harvard University, she first interned at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. She later became the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. And she won the Pulitzer Prize, a further mark of establishment approval. 

Power’s own ideology belies her claims of idealism. As a Bosnian war correspondent, she was frustrated by former President Bill Clinton’s failure to intervene militarily in the conflict. 

When Clinton finally authorized airstrikes, Power recalled shedding “tears of relief.” Power has an unwavering belief in U.S. humanitarian intervention and in the primacy of U.S. questioning, and U.S. hegemony does not seem to be something she has ever considered. 

Her idealism was thus very much in the mainstream. She was not a true outsider in the White House, as she and others have portrayed herself to be. In her memoir, Power does cite examples of her idealism being shattered — Obama breaking his campaign promise to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, so as not to offend Turkey, for one — yet instead of resigning, she opted to stay, rationalizing her choice by arguing she could do more in power than out. 

But what Power did with her power is no less disappointing. Power advocated for U.S. intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi. The results have been disastrous. In an all-too-familiar sequence, the U.S. failed to stabilize the country after removing Gaddafi, and Libya has been in chaos ever since, with warring militias, terrorism and even open-air slave markets

Yet Power defends the decision to topple Qaddafi in her memoir, disingenuously arguing that the U.S. had no choice but to intervene or risk the destruction of rebels by Qaddafi. Obama himself would later admit the failure to plan for Libya was his worst mistake. 

In the memoir, Power singles out Libya and defends her conduct there, but she is silent on other matters. The Saudi-led war in Yemen, which began during Obama’s second term and was conducted with U.S. assistance, does not warrant a mention. 

Only after President Donald J. Trump came to office did Power condemn the war in Yemen. The administration’s bloody drone warfare is conspicuously absent from Power’s memoir, as is Palestine. 

I doubt she forgot about them. Power knows how embarrassing these issues are for the Obama administration and for her own record. 

Despite her talk of human rights, Power failed to follow through on that commitment while she was in government. Here is a flaw in her ideology: Her wholehearted espousal of the liberal human rights framework. While “human rights” holds a hallowed place in contemporary discourse, it can also be weaponized for imperial ends. 

Consider how the former President George W. Bush administration used the language of human rights to legitimate the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The invasion would promote human rights in a region that lacked them, Bush said. 

Of course, the opposite happened. Though Power herself did not support the invasion, it is not hard to see how the same logic of military adventurism in the name of human rights carries over to her own tenure in government. 

For its ability in shirking accountability, “The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir” ought to win another Pulitzer Prize for its author. Unfortunately for Power, this is a crowded category, as her book is no different from the dozens of memoirs released by former government officials. It is incredible how little one can say in approximately 600 pages, but not surprising. 

Power no doubt wishes to hold a government post again — perhaps as soon as 2020, should a Democrat win the White House — and thus is circumspect with her words. It is no accident she lavishes praise on Joe Biden every time he appears in her narrative. 

For now, she holds a comfortable sinecure as a professor at Harvard University. Perhaps the true problem from hell is the revolving doorway between the public and private sectors powerful people like her occupy. 

But one thing is clear: The next Democratic president should not hire Power. 

Samuel Kao is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in history. His column "Left on Red" runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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