Review by Donald Camp
The Education of an Idealist by Samatha Power
How does a committed and outspoken human rights activist confront the compromises necessary in diplomacy? This is the key issue former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power tackles in her intensely personal memoir. She is a hard-hitting journalist and crusader against genocide when she takes a job with then-Senator Obama and ends up on the National Security Council staff. She’s suddenly part of the establishment and it’s not an easy transition.
Her story begins in Ireland where she spends a happy childhood with two parents who love her deeply but who separate when her mother moves to Pittsburgh with the kids. Her alcoholic father’s descent into depression and an early death leaves her with an adolescent sense of responsibility that takes years of therapy to overcome.
She goes to Yale, fully Americanized with an addiction to the Pittsburgh Pirates and a plan for a career in sports journalism. College changes things. She watches the Tiananmen killings on television and, on a trip to Europe, visits Anne Frank’s house and Dachau. She emerges with a social conscience and a determination to make a difference.
Right out of college, she begins working at the Carnegie Institution, where she becomes immersed in Balkans activism. She calls Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to lobby for action on Bosnia (“I’m a little busy with Haiti right now,” he responds) and sneaks into the office of the editor ofForeign Policy to steal his letterhead and portray herself as a Foreign Policycorrespondent to get a UN laissez passer for Bosnia. Her courageous journalism and considerable writing skills ultimately produce the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell, on the American response to genocide.
The book opens doors for her. Obama reads it and invites her to join his Senate staff. She admires him and sees an opportunity to make a difference inside the system. Later, as an active campaigner for his presidential election, she is sidelined after her intemperate comment that Hillary Clinton was a “monster.” Dick Holbrooke later arranges a meeting with Clinton who accepts her apology.
The out-spokenness continues in her next job on the NSC staff. Always self-aware, she acknowledges her tendency to seem “preachy,” “off-puttingly intense, ” and sanctimonious. At a Cabinet meeting, President Obama snaps “we’ve all read your book, Samantha.”
She has a good instinct for people. Sent to Burma to advance Obama’s trip, she finds her idol Aung San Suu Kyi is not the woman she expected. “For someone whose life has been about human rights, it’s not clear she cares much about humans.” That was a judgment the rest of the world came to much later, in the wake of the Rohingya crisis.
Her four years as UN ambassador provide the most interesting historical perspective in the book, with both successes and failures. She cites mobilization of the global community on the Ebola crisis as an example of what the UN can accomplish. She convinced 134 UN members to co-sponsor a Security Council resolution declaring Ebola a threat to global peace and security. Then she traveled to West Africa to draw attention to the US effort at a time when the fear and stigma were at their worst. She fought within the Cabinet against a travel ban for Ebola-affected states, and raised money in Brussels and around the world to make the fight a global effort.
Less successful was US policy on Syria. Power is horrified by the Syrian use of chemical weapons and overcomes her concerns about the use of American military power in response. She acknowledges the damage done by Obama’s sudden decision in 2013 to submit the plan for Congressional approval and his ultimate unwillingness to enforce the red line he had drawn. She points out the subsequent US-Russian cooperation in the Security Council to collect and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, but acknowledges that this was only a partial response to Assad’s crimes.
For a UN-focused book, this memoir surprisingly lacks a serious discussion of climate change, though the Paris Agreement is mentioned in the final pages. It also has little about the Israel-Palestine issue, and nothing about the late-in-the-administration decision not to veto a Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlement activity.
At the UN, she won the hearts of her foreign counterparts with her personal approach. She recognized the need to cultivate the 178 countries not members of the Security Council, and was the first US ambassador to call on every one of her counterparts (except the ambassador from North Korea) at their offices. That sign of respect – a nod to the equality of nations, large and small – paid huge dividends. She invited her colleagues to Knicks games and to new productions at the Public Theater. And although it goes unmentioned in her book, she was also known for her enthusiastic participation in a motley musical band UN Rocks led by the Thai ambassador where she did an uncanny imitation of singer Joan Jett.
Power admits to classic Washington process fouls, getting around bureaucratic hurdles by cornering the President at inconvenient times to get her points across when she feels strongly about something (i.e., most of the time). When Washington instructs her to vote for Russia for the UN Human Rights Council, she can’t bring herself to do it and marks the secret ballot for Hungary instead. It turns out to be a consequential decision; Russia loses its first-ever election to a major UN body.
In the book, the personal mingles with the professional. Her two children are always around, whether underfoot at receptions or the subject of her worry as she travels the world. She describes her miscarriages, including one as she is departing Sri Lanka after pressing President Sirisena on human rights issues.
The personal and professional merge too on election night when Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, and all the female ambassadors at the UN are gathered for an election party at Powers’ home. The denial and disbelief grow as the evening wears on and the victory party becomes a wake.
After eight years in the government, she’s still an idealist but a more pragmatic one. She deploys her passion when it gets her closer to her goal. It’s not the inputs that matter, she says, but the outcomes. She quotes a journalist who says of Obama: “he’s basically a realist but he feels bad about it.” Maybe she is too and wrote a book to explain it.
Donald Camp is a retired foreign service officer who divided his career between southern and eastern Asia. He served at the US Mission to the United Nations while Samantha Power was US permanent representative, and currently resides in Falls Church, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @donacamp.