In The Final Year, a documentary film about the Obama administration, Ben Rhodes stares into the camera and declares: “If we had gone full-bore into Syria, we wouldn’t be sitting here with a climate agreement, we’d have no Iran agreement, we’d have no—I don’t think we would’ve had the time to do Cuba. Like, that’s all we would be doing.” The chief vessel through which Obama spoke when it came to foreign policy, Rhodes seems almost impatient as he rattles off the price of letting half a million Syrians die at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s death squads and chemical bombs and nerve gas.
This cold-blooded calculation was precisely the sort of cynicism Samantha Power once dedicated her career to shaming. But that was before she had any power beyond her name. She served on Obama’s foreign-policy team both terms, eventually rising to the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. If you open up Power’s new memoir, The Education of An Idealist, in search of the kind of righteous denunciation that was Power’s particular stock-in-trade before she went to work in the White House, you will be disappointed.
“Some may interpret this book’s title as suggesting that I began with lofty dreams about how one person could make a difference, only to be ‘educated’ by the brutish forces that I encountered,” she writes in the preface. “That is not the story that follows.” Indeed, “educated” would be the wrong word to describe Samantha Power’s journey.
Hoping to draw worldwide attention to violence in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Power went to Bosnia as a foreign correspondent. She didn’t know to pack a full range of clothing and jackets for Balkan weather shifts, nor did she have the right armor for a war zone. “Initially,” she reports, “I wore a camouflaged vest and helmet given to me by George Kenney, the first of the U.S. officials to resign from the State Department to protest the government’s Bosnia policy.” It was insufficient compared with the flak jackets the other journalists wore. The symbolism is excruciating: She inherited the garb of the officials she looked up to, who had the courage to resign in protest, but found she had no use for it.
Returning to the States to attend Harvard Law School, Power soon threw herself into a life-defining project: a book-length documentation of policymakers’ response to genocide around the world. In the course of her research into A Problem from Hell (2002), she continually found U.S. officials who risked their careers to protest inaction. Power began in her mind to plant the seeds of her future excuses, it seems: “I believed their actions were noble, but they were focused only on their impact, which they deemed marginal.”
A Problem from Hell won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Power’s human-rights activism at Harvard eventually led to a teaching position at its Kennedy School of Government after graduation, then a job with then–Senator Barack Obama. She advised his presidential campaign, and when Obama won, he put Power on his National Security Council. “I knew I was tired of being a professional foreign-policy critic, opining and judging without ever knowing whether I would pass the moral and political tests to which I was subjecting others,” she writes. “I wanted to be on the inside, to try to influence this new administration’s actions.”
Back in the 1990s, Power had read a Washington Post profile of four U.S. officials who resigned to protest American inaction in the Balkans. When she finished the article, she says, she “grandiosely wrote in my journal: ‘My only regret is that I don’t work at the State Department so I can quit to protest policy.’” She would finally have her chance.
Of all the “moral and political tests” Power faced in the Obama years, three stand out.
The first had to do with a credible accounting of the Armenian genocide in 1915. “After the book was published, I built strong ties with Armenian-American leaders and participated in their memorial events, where the weathered faces of the genocide survivors still reflected the intense pain of their losses,” she writes. “I had been unprepared for the emotion of Armenian Americans as they expressed their gratitude to me, an outsider, for taking up their cause.”
When the Bush administration rebuked a diplomat for calling the Armenian genocide a genocide, Power helped Obama write a stern letter of protest to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which included this passage: “The occurrence of the Armenian genocide in 1915 is not an ‘allegation,’ a ‘personal opinion,’ or a ‘point of view.’ It is a widely documented fact.” During the campaign, Power “made a video” in which she “promised Armenian Americans that Obama would not let them down as other presidents had.”
Well, he did. The first time the subject came up during his presidency, Obama was asked about the genocide in a joint press conference with the president of Turkey. Obama deflected. Power “flinched.” As the day marking the genocide, April 24, approached, the National Security Council began circulating draft remarks for the president. Power kept inserting the word “genocide,” and it kept getting taken out as the revised drafts went forward. Using a chance encounter with the president just before a Holocaust Commemoration Day speech, Power, nine months pregnant with her first child, told Obama she was worried about the Armenians. Obama’s response was everything Power went into government to counteract: “You know what? I’m worried about the Armenians too. But I am worried about the living Armenians. Not the ones we can’t bring back. I am living in the present, Samantha, trying to help the Armenians of today.”
Power went into labor after the event and returned to the administration having settled on her own rationalization for going back:
I had allowed the indignities I felt to crowd out the basic, thrilling reality that I worked at the White House for President Barack Obama. In just the short period during which he had been in office, Obama had made high-risk decisions that were helping turn the economy around. He was putting in place desperately needed regulations to lower carbon emissions and developing a plan that would eventually provide health insurance to more than 20 million Americans. And in foreign policy, he had banned torture and begun negotiations with Russia to reduce our respective nuclear arsenals. He had three and a half years left in his first term and no guarantee of a second term. I had never been given an opportunity like this, and I could not count on ever getting one again.
Power’s second major moral test came in 2012, in Rangoon. The ruling Burmese junta had taken steps toward democracy and Obama, desperate for a “win,” pushed for a presidential visit. Power was meeting with dissident and human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who told her that a presidential visit was a mistake. Power agreed in her heart but tried to convince her anyway. She had her orders.
The conversation only got worse from there. Power brought up the plight of Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority, long mistreated by the Buddhist majority. Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and inspiration to a younger generation of peace activists, was in fact a rank bigot who shared her countrymen’s hatred of the Rohingya, and she let Power know it. Burmese law officially discriminates against Rohingya—they are denied full citizenship and stripped of voting rights. They are forbidden from marrying without state permission and in some communities are restricted to a maximum of two children. Needless to say, employment discrimination and government neglect of and violence against the Rohingya are widespread.
In June 2012, an accusation of rape by three Rohingya men led to an outburst of anti-Rohingya violence that ultimately displaced 120,000. A month later, Obama eased sanctions on the regime. Another wave of violence targeted the Rohingya that October. A month later, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Burma. The violence would culminate five years later in an open campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Power’s work long focused on seeing the signs of looming genocide in order to prevent it. Yet she pleads ignorance on Burma: “Few predicted then that the persecution of the Rohingya would escalate into full-scale genocide, which it did in August of 2017.” Of all people, shouldn’t the author of A Problem from Hell have predicted it?
On the flight home from Burma, the newly reelected Obama asked Power to name her choice of position in his second term. She responded: UN ambassador.
It was in that role that Power delivered the worst of her moral failures. In 2012, Obama said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons as he continued to put down the rebellion in Syria, there would be consequences.
By the end of the year, Assad had crossed the red line. In early 2013, the White House informed Congress that Assad had done it again. Obama responded by calling for a UN investigation. Rhodes, asked whether the red line had been crossed, balked. And then, on August 21, came the predictable results of Team Obama’s spinelessness: a chemical-weapons attack killing over 1,400 Syrians, more than 400 of whom were children.
It surprised no one, least of all U.S. intelligence agencies. As Joby Warrick reported in the Washington Post the following week, “U.S. spy agencies recorded each step in the alleged chemical attack, from the extensive preparations to the launching of rockets to the after-action assessments by Syrian officials.” The administration had no doubt now, and no plausible deniability either.
Obama was now convinced he had to strike Syria. But he had a problem of his own making: UN inspectors were on the ground. So the president waited. And as he waited, he got cold feet and started looking for a way out. He chose to put the matter in the hands of Congress—he needed no authorization for strikes, he said, but wouldn’t strike without congressional say-so. No real strategy to persuade even Democrats in Congress was set forth. And there was, Power writes, no Plan B.
In the end, Obama’s desperation to be bailed out of action led him to agree to a joint U.S.-Russian plan to rid Syria of the chemical weapons. It was a sham. Assad hid some weapons from inspectors and continued bombing civilians with chemicals that were left off the list. Obama rewarded Assad and Vladimir Putin by ceding them the playing field conclusively. Power looks back on one administration meeting after the August chemical attacks:
What I did not know in that Saturday meeting was that this would end up being the only time Obama would seriously contemplate using military force against the Assad regime. We would have countless meetings and debates on Syria over the next three and a half years, but he would never again consider taking the kind of risk he had been prepared to bear in the immediate aftermath of the August 21st attack.
And why wouldn’t he ever again consider it? Because he had undertaken to strike a deal with Assad’s patron in Tehran and to reorganize American alliances to allow Iran and Russia to fill the vacuum of U.S. influence in the region, a vacuum that Obama specifically aimed to create. As Frederic Hof, a U.S. envoy to Syria in 2012, put it: “To complicate the ability of Iran’s man in Syria to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity would have placed at risk nuclear negotiations aimed ultimately at dissolving American relationships of trust and confidence with key regional powers.”
Power never realized that she wasn’t there to be heeded. Rather, she was there to be silenced. Obama’s conduct of U.S. foreign policy required the coopting of his critics. He found a way to let the world burn without running afoul of Samantha Power’s network of interventionist scolds: Make Power the public face of doing nothing.
Power says she “never seriously considered leaving.” By the end of the book, she is ready to deliver the soliloquy that would help her sleep at night.
During my time in government, I came to better appreciate the constraints that stand in theway of making positive change. Even the most conscientious government decision-makers operate with shrouded and shifting fields of vision, deciding among wholly imperfect options. I felt the lasting damage caused by US government mistakes, particularly regarding the use of US military force. Irrespective of American intentions, the government’s sins of commission—but also those of omission—underscore the immense responsibility one takes on as a public servant, and the need for humility about one’s judgments.
The political and policymaking worlds were waiting to see how Power would answer this question. That this was the best she could come up with represents a harsher indictment than her critics will ever produce.