Samantha Power’s Power

Published April 5, 2011

National Review Online

A member of the president's National Security Council who shares Noam Chomsky's foreign-policy goals? An influential presidential adviser whom 1960s revolutionary Tom Hayden treats as a fellow radical? A White House official who wrote a book aiming to turn an anti-American, anti-Israeli, Marxist-inspired, world-government-loving United Nations bureaucrat into a popular hero? Samantha Power, senior director of multilateral affairs for the National Security Council and perhaps the principal architect of our current intervention in Libya, is all of these things.

These scary-sounding tidbits might be dismissed as isolated “gotchas.” Unfortunately, when we view these radical outcroppings in the full sweep of her life's work, Samantha Power emerges as a patriot's nightmare—a woman determined to subordinate America's national sovereignty to an international order largely controlled by leftist bureaucrats. Superficially, Power's chief concern is to put a stop to genocide and “crimes against humanity.” More deeply, her goal is to use our shared horror at the worst that human beings can do in order to institute an ever-broadening regime of redistributive transnational governance.

Knowing what Samantha Power wants reveals a great deal about Barack Obama's own ideological commitments. It's not just a question of whether he shares Power's long-term internationalist goals, although it's highly likely that he does. Power's thinking also represents a bridge of sorts between Obama's domestic- and foreign-policy aspirations. Beyond that, Power embodies a style of pragmatic radicalism that Obama shares. Both Obama and Power are skilled at placing their ultimate ideological goals just out of sight, behind a screen of practical problem-solving.

Critics of President Obama's intervention in Libya—and there are many all across the political spectrum—have taken a variety of approaches to the novel characteristics of this military action. Some have lamented the president's failure to establish a clear path to victory (i.e., the overthrow of Qaddafi), or indeed any unambiguous goal beyond the protection of civilian lives. By traditional war-fighting standards, the rationale given for Obama's Libyan intervention amounts to incoherence and weakness.

Viewing the glass as half full, however, others have declared that the president secretly does want to oust Qaddafi and establish a democratic regime, or at least that the logic of events will inevitably force Obama in that direction. Still others have suggested that a quick overthrow of Qaddafi followed by withdrawal would establish a positive model for punitive expeditions, without the costly aftermath of nation-building. And some have simply christened Obama's seemingly directionless strategy as an intentional program of pragmatic flexibility.

While there's much to be said for each of these responses, more attention needs to be given to analyzing Obama's intervention from the standpoint of his administration's actual motives—which in this case, I believe, are largely coincidental with Samantha Power's motives. Obama has told us that the action in Libya is a multilateral intervention, under United Nations auspices; that it is for fundamentally humanitarian purposes, but has strategic side benefits; and that it represents an opening for the United States to pursue its own goal of ousting Qaddafi, although via strictly non-military means. While Obama has in fact taken covert military steps against Qaddafi, and while our bombing campaign has been structured in such a way as to undermine Qaddafi when possible, we have indeed inhibited ourselves to a significant degree from pursuing regime change by military means.

Obama may not have been completely frank about the broader ideological goals behind this intervention, and yet the president's address to the nation, as far as it went, was largely accurate. Fundamentally, our Libyan operation is a humanitarian action, with no clear or inevitable military-strategic purpose beyond that. There is enormous risk here, and no endgame. We might take strategic advantage of our restricted humanitarian action. But we might not, and, in any case, we are under no obligation to do so. For all we know, many of those we're defending with American aircraft and missiles could be our dedicated terrorist enemies. From the standpoint of traditional calculations of national interest, this war is something akin to madness. Yet without fully articulating it (and that reticence is intentional), Obama and Power are attempting to accustom us to a whole new way of thinking about war, and about America's place in the world.

Samantha Power has refused to give interviews of late, and the White House seems to be downplaying her influence on the intervention in Libya, and on the president generally. Yet numerous press reports indicate that Power “has Obama's ear” and was in fact critical to his decision on Libya. Liberal foreign-policy expert Steve Clemons actually calls Power “the primary architect” of our Libyan intervention. The New York Times has gone so far as to characterize our humanitarian action as “something of a personal triumph” for Power.

If anything, these reports may underplay Power's influence on Obama. The two met in 2005, when Obama contacted Power after reading her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, A Problem from Hell. Power quickly became then-senator Obama's senior foreign-policy adviser, and so has a longer history with the president than do many others on his foreign-policy team.

A survey of Power's writings indicates her long preoccupation with a series of issues now associated with Obama's most controversial foreign-policy moves. In a 2003 piece for the New York Times, for example, Power bemoaned the reluctance of American policymakers to apologize to other countries for our supposed past mistakes. While Obama's controversial (and so far unproductive) willingness to engage with the leaders of rogue states was initially attributed to a novice error during a 2007 debate with Hillary Clinton, the need to deal directly with even the worst rogue states is a major theme of Power's second book, Chasing the Flame. That book was written in 2007, while Power was advising Obama's presidential campaign. A 2007 piece by Power in The New York Times Book Review attacked the phrase “War on Terror,” which of course the Obama administration has since dropped.

In an appearance at Columbia University, just hours before the president's Libya address, Power herself identified the protection of the citizens of Benghazi as the core purpose of our current intervention. Yet it should not be thought that Power's shaping of Obama's reasons and actions ends there. Almost a decade ago, Power laid out a series of secondary, interest-based justifications for humanitarian interventions—e.g., avoiding the creation of militarized refugees who might undermine regional stability, and flashing a discouraging signal to regional dictators—all of which were featured in Obam
a's speech to the nation. To be sure, these “interest-based” justifications were largely rationalizations for an intervention driven overwhelmingly by humanitarian considerations. Yet Power's broader and longstanding framing of the issue has been adopted wholesale by Obama.

In Power's view, to be credible, humanitarian interventions must respond to immediate danger (thus Obama's waiting until the militarily unpropitious moment when Benghazi itself was under imminent threat), must be supported by multilateral bodies (thus the resort to the U.N., NATO, and the Arab League in preference to the U.S. Congress), “must forswear up front…commercial or strategic interests in the region” (thus the disavowal of regime change as a goal of our multilateral action), and must “commit to remaining for a finite period” (as Obama has pledged to do in Libya). Even NATO's threat to bomb the rebels if they kill civilians (which struck many as unrealistic, and at cross-purposes with our supposed military goals) is foreshadowed in Power's writings, which highlight the need to police both sides in any humanitarian action.

The evident tension here is between Power's desire to act, and to be seen to act, on strictly disinterested humanitarian grounds, and her need to sell humanitarian intervention to the public on grounds of national interest, conventionally defined. This leads to continual contradiction and dissembling in Power's writings, as the ideology driving the action can neither fully disguise itself, nor fully announce itself either. So, too, with Barack Obama's policies (and not just on Libya).

Nowhere is this pattern of disguise and contradiction more evident than on the topic of “American exceptionalism.” Supposedly, Obama's address on Libya, with its invocation of America's distinctive tradition of shouldering moral burdens throughout the world, gave the lie to those who have described the president as a critic of the concept. And Power's work is filled with invocations of America's unique leadership role in the world. But read carefully, her hymns of praise to American leadership all turn out to be calls for the United States to slowly devolve its power to international bodies. After all, the world's foremost state would have to assume leadership of any process whereby its own power was gradually dismantled and handed off to others. This is essentially what Power is calling for, even as she frames the diminishment of America in superficially patriotic terms. Is Obama doing the same? I believe he is.

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.

Power explains that Vieira de Mello never really surrendered his Sixties ideals, even as he transformed himself from a pass
ionate ideologue into a “ruthless pragmatist.” The young America-hating Vieira de Mello grew into a mature diplomat who could charm Pres. George W. Bush, even while lecturing the commander-in-chief on the follies of Guantanamo Bay. In other words, Vieira de Mello learned to manage his public persona, appealing to American leaders with arguments (allegedly) based on American national interest.

This is clearly Power's ideal for herself. In fact, she tells us in her acknowledgments that the point of the book is also “the point of my career.” Power even cites the uncanny resemblance between Vieira de Mello and Obama. Of course, Obama's Alinskyite training stressed the need for community organizers to advance their quietly held leftist ideological goals through “pragmatic” appeals to the public's “self-interest.” (For more on that, see my study of Obama.)

Samantha Power has a lot to teach us about Barack Obama. She herself draws analogies between the need to redistribute wealth via health-care coverage and the need to divide military and diplomatic power (and, implicitly, wealth) more evenly through the international system. Power regularly invokes arguments for international law derived from America's Founders and the West's great liberal thinkers, as if her goal were the founding of a government of the world. In truth, that is what Power is up to, even if she sees her project as a long-term collective effort necessarily extending beyond her own lifetime.

The novel doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” which Power means the Libyan action to enshrine in international law, could someday be used to justify military intervention to impose a “two-state solution” on Israel (apparently this is one of Power's longstanding goals, although she now disavows it). The International Criminal Court, which Power has long defended, may someday enable the leftist Europeans who run it to place American soldiers and politicians on trial for supposed war crimes. The Obama administration's troubling acquiescence in the development of sweeping international prohibitions on “aggression” may one day make virtually any use of force not pre-approved by the United Nations subject to international sanctions. These are the long-term goals of Power's policies, although they are seldom confessed or discussed.

On rare occasions, Power comes straight out and admits that the sorts of interventions she favors constitute an almost pure cost to American national interest, traditionally defined. More often, she retreats into the language of “pragmatism” and “self-interest” to justify what she knows Americans will not support on its own terms. That is Samantha Power's way and, not coincidentally, Barack Obama's way as well.

At some point, after we've all done our best to fit the president's puzzling Libyan adventure into our accustomed conceptual frameworks, we just might wake up and discover what has been going on behind the curtain. When we do, the answer will be found in the writings of Samantha Power.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the author of Radical-in-Chief.

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