Let’s say it’s January 2021, and President Bernie Sanders has just assumed office. On his second day as commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in world history, Bernie and his foreign policy team are ushered into the White House Situation Room. After being seated at a long wooden table, a group of diplomats and military officers informs Bernie that armed militants in the Central African Republic have placed artillery around a town and are threatening to bombard its 10,000 inhabitants. The townspeople have requested that the United States destroy the weapons and save their lives. What should Bernie do?
For Samantha Power, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Barack Obama’s second term, this really is no question at all: You eliminate the weapons. Power has dedicated her life to promoting humanitarian intervention—the idea that the United States, as the world’s “indispensable nation,” has the moral duty to use its awesome military capabilities to prevent or halt atrocities. First as a war reporter covering the Balkans in the 1990s, then as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, and finally as a government official herself, Power has insisted that the “responsibility to protect” innocents from slaughter is sacrosanct, even if it means U.S. military adventurism or violating foreign nations’ sovereignty. When civilians are threatened, Power believes we must save them.
For this position, she has been both praised and lambasted. Power’s supporters see her as a moral beacon in a world focused on power politics at the expense of human rights. In the last two decades, she has shaped the way a generation of liberal analysts and policymakers understand international relations and their role within it: Barack Obama has called her “one of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy,” while Ben Rhodes has said she was “who I wanted to become when I moved down to Washington.” Meanwhile, critics like the law professor Aziz Rana understand her as an unreconstructed “war hawk,” who employs the discourse of human rights to mask American imperialism. For them, Power embodies the contradictions of liberal geopolitics, in which lofty rhetoric is used to justify military action in regions where the United States has at best tangential interests.
Power’s memoir arrives at a time when she and her approach have fallen from favor—both with the current administration, which has adopted a nakedly transactional approach to foreign affairs, and with left-wing foreign policy thinkers, who want to dismantle U.S. military dominance. Against these tides, Power’s new book seems intended to rehabilitate both her agenda and her own reputation, as she narrates in vivid and engaging prose her rapid rise to some of the most influential positions in U.S. foreign policy-making. It’s the story of a sympathetic protagonist just trying to save innocent lives—yet one that inadvertently demonstrates the lethality of good intentions. The most startling thing about a book titled The Education of an Idealist is that Power appears not to have learned very much.
Power’s early years exemplified the peripatetic privilege of the global bourgeoisie. She was born in Ireland in 1970, the daughter of a doctor mother and a dentist father. In 1979, after her father’s alcoholism destroyed her parents’ marriage, Power’s mother moved with Samantha and her brother to the United States. Power quickly acclimated to American life; she lost her Irish accent, began a lifelong love affair with baseball, and started on her high school’s basketball team. She also studied hard for the SAT, and in 1988 was accepted to Yale University.
During Power’s sophomore year, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, and she became a political junkie who quizzed herself on the news of the day. In the summer of 1990, she took a trip to Europe that would transform her life. Power began her journey with a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Walking through the bleak Secret Annex drove home to Power “the horror of Hitler’s crimes,” and after her visit she started to keep a list of books she wanted to read on “what U.S. officials knew about the Holocaust and what they could have done to save more Jews.” Soon after, she traveled to Dachau, where she “wondered aloud what the modern world would look like if President Roosevelt had not finally entered the war.” (Ignoring, naturally, the Soviet Union’s role in ending World War II, and that it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz.)
Power’s trip persuaded her that U.S. military force could legitimately be used to save innocent lives. The Holocaust became for her the moral justification for American empire in an era in which the United States no longer faced any perceived existential threats. Power concluded that if the United States didn’t rule the world, genocide was inevitable, and for the remainder of her career she would view atrocities in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East through the prism of the Holocaust: After all, if the U.S. military had liberated victims of genocide in the 1940s, why couldn’t it do the same in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s?
The timing of Power’s trip was also crucial for her intellectual development. Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it was difficult to argue that the U.S. military could serve as a neutral arbiter of human rights. Not only was the nation engaged in an avowedly political struggle with an existential communist enemy, but the Vietnam War and several other failed interventions underlined the dangers of using military force for ideological ends. Communism’s collapse made it possible for Power to imagine the U.S. military as a nonideological guarantor of broadly accepted human rights. The empire could act for humanity, not politics. For Power—and for many in her generation—the U.S. military was the base upon which the liberal international order of free markets, democracy, and human rights would be constructed.
By her senior year at Yale, Power had determined that she “wanted to end up in a position to ‘do something’” about humanitarian crises. After graduating, she interned at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Mort Abramowitz, the endowment’s president and a former ambassador to Turkey, was turning his attention to the incipient Bosnian War. The more Power learned about the conflict and its atrocities, “the more unnerved” she became. The war, she writes, provided her with “a focus—a specific group of people in a specific place who were being pulverized.” To publicize their suffering, she decided to become a war reporter, and in late 1993 she moved to the Balkans, armed with little more than a laptop.
Power was in Zagreb, Croatia, when on February 5, 1994, Bosnian Serbs mortared the Markale market in Sarajevo, killing 68 civilians. As she watched news footage of “market vendors carrying away the bloodied remains of their mutilated friends,” she found herself “rooting for the first time in [her] life for the United States to use military force.” She spent the next year and a half writing pieces on civilian suffering that she hoped would engender a domestic outcry and convince President Bill Clinton to forcibly end the siege of Sarajevo.
As time went on and Clinton refused to intervene (the U.S.-led NATO Operation Deliberate Force would not commence until August 1995), Power began to consider a new track that was “less about describing events and more about directly trying to shape them.” The decisive moment came in July 1995, when she learned that the Bosnian Serb army murdered more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. The sheer brutality of the genocide compelled Power to take up a place at Harvard Law School (she had applied and been accepted earlier that year), with the intention of becoming a prosecutor “who could bring murderers to justice.”
At Harvard, Power returned to the question that had haunted her at the Anne Frank House and Dachau: Don’t Americans, as citizens of the world’s greatest power, have a personal responsibility to save lives if we have the capacity to do so? She enrolled in a class on the ethics of using force and, most important for her future career, she wrote a paper that examined “what U.S. policymakers themselves were thinking” when they failed to respond to twentieth-century genocides. This paper was her first step toward her 2002 book “A Problem From Hell,” which codified a decade of liberal thinking about humanitarian intervention, and which transformed Power into an internationally renowned expert on human rights and genocide prevention.
“A Problem From Hell” had two main arguments. First, it claimed that throughout the twentieth century “the United States has consistently refused to take risks in order to suppress genocide” and, by not acting, had failed the people of Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, among other places. Second, the book maintained that in the future, U.S. decision-makers should take steps to prevent or halt atrocities along “a continuum of intervention” that would range “from condemning the perpetrators or cutting off U.S. aid to bombing or rallying a multinational invasion force.” Power did not, as many critics later avowed, unthinkingly advocate military intervention; rather, she considered intervention as the final in a series of graduated steps intended to avert or stop genocide. But as Power herself would soon learn, when Americans were presented with the hammer of military force, many atrocities began to look like nails.
Power’s book was perfectly primed for the post-9/11 moment, during which the question on many Americans’ minds was not whether the United States should remake the world, but how. “A Problem From Hell” quickly became a cudgel in the debate over invading Iraq; as Power notes, several pundits clamoring for war invoked her book, arguing that the 1980s Iraqi campaign of genocide against the Kurds gave the United States a casus belli. Even though Power herself opposed the invasion, the writers who referenced “A Problem From Hell” were not exactly misreading the book: Power had placed U.S. military intervention on the menu of options available to policymakers who said they wanted to protect human rights.
In a moment defined by paranoia, revenge fantasies, and a sense of moral crusade, it is not particularly surprising that “A Problem From Hell” was employed to rationalize war. The book’s relevance at the time, in fact, helps explain why it won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in April 2003, one month after the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Power got the chance to use her ideas to shape U.S. policy more directly. Obama and Power first met in the spring of 2005, when Obama was an ambitious junior senator from Illinois. They worked together for a year (Power volunteered to serve in his office), and when Obama won the Democratic primary in 2008, he hired her as a foreign policy adviser, later appointing her to the National Security Council as senior director for multilateral affairs and senior director for human rights.
In government, Power swiftly learned that few officials cared about human rights; many, in fact, deemed them a distraction from more important issues of power politics. Nevertheless, while at the NSC, Power helped expand by $50 million U.S. aid to Iraqi refugees, increased the number of Iraqis allowed to resettle in the United States, and doubled the government’s refugee stipend. She also advocated for the United States to run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, which it won in 2009. From this perch, U.S. officials spurred a number of resolutions focused on revealing human rights abuses in various nations, including Iran, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea. Moreover, Power proudly emphasizes, the United States “succeeded in getting the Human Rights Council to reduce by half the share of country-specific resolutions on Israel.”
As this last comment indicates, for Power, protecting human rights means disciplining nations of the Global South that are not U.S. allies. Throughout The Education of an Idealist, she barely mentions Israel or Saudi Arabia—she says nothing about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or the Saudi war on women and LGBTQI+ people. These silences are deafening, because the type of world Power wants to build will never be realized if only certain countries—namely, those that stand outside America’s imperial sphere—are held to account. Her approach does not make much sense from a pragmatic perspective either: U.S. officials have the highest likelihood of ending human rights abuses in countries that depend on us; there is little point in spending political capital in a mostly quixotic attempt to transform antagonists like North Korea.
Meanwhile, Power completely ignores the human rights violations that took place in her own country under Obama’s watch; like many liberal interventionists, she is far more vexed by suffering abroad. Nowhere does she address police violence against African Americans, mass surveillance, refugee detention, or mass incarceration. Nor does she give much thought to the colonial violence that defines American history: In The Education of an Idealist, she recalls inviting a Serbian official to meet with her in the so-called Indian Treaty Room, where she lectured him on the importance of apprehending the war criminal Ratko Mladić. Somehow, Power overlooks the irony of championing justice in a room named for repeatedly broken treaties that the U.S. government made with the native population against which it committed genocide.
Power’s most consequential decision during Obama’s first term displayed a shortsightedness that has often accompanied her faith in U.S. military power. With the outbreak of civil war in Libya, Power began to advocate vociferously in favor of intervention to stop a potential massacre at Benghazi. In particular, during a March 15, 2011, meeting, Power endorsed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s proposal to establish a no-fly zone over Libya and attack Muammar Qaddafi’s forces. Obama approved Rice’s plan, and on March 19, a U.S.-led NATO coalition began bombing Libya, initiating a process that concluded with Qaddafi’s death. Despite the war’s expansion and the chaos that ensued, Power remains proud of her contribution. For her, “once the revolution spread, the real question became how to use the tools at our disposal to bring about the best possible—or the least bad—outcome.”
But was that the real question? Here are some other questions that are equally important and that she should have taken more seriously before Obama commenced Operation Odyssey Dawn: Is the war likely to expand? If the war expands and Qaddafi is deposed, who will govern Libya? Is the United States—especially the American public—willing to commit itself to reconstruction efforts? What precedent does the intervention potentially set? Power never really asked these questions, because ultimately, as the historian Stephen Wertheim has argued, she considers humanitarian intervention a categorical imperative (as long as it doesn’t involve U.S. allies, of course). For this reason, throughout her time in office Power regularly encouraged war.
In Obama’s second term, Power left the NSC to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In this position, she won many admirable victories: She aided in establishing a U.N. post dedicated to monitoring global LGBT rights; brought countries together to end the deadly Ebola outbreak of 2014; and promoted a resolution that demanded the United Nations deport any peacekeeping units from countries in which U.N. soldiers were reported to have committed sexual assault.
Yet it was also during Obama’s second term that Power found herself less able to convince the president of the moral necessity of intervention. In her memoir, she relates that when she first learned that Bashar al-Assad’s government had employed chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, she hoped “Obama would respond forcefully” and was disappointed when he didn’t. Nevertheless, in August 2013, Power was heartened to discover that Obama intended to answer the Syrian government’s murder of 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack with airstrikes of military targets.
Power’s expectations, however, were dashed when she was informed that Obama had decided to seek congressional authorization for the airstrikes. “What happens if Congress doesn’t support you?” she asked the president. “Does that mean Assad could just keep using chemical weapons?” In the end, Obama determined that Congress would rebuff his plan and chose not to go ahead with a vote; against Power’s wishes, he also refused to intervene. Instead, the president accepted Russia’s offer to work together to disable Assad’s chemical weapons program. For her part, Power “shuddered at the inadequacy of the effort” to decrease Assad’s stockpile, despite the fact that U.S.-Russian collaboration provided an opportunity to build the trust necessary to reach a political resolution of the conflict.
Power’s recollection of the Syria debate highlights her meritocratic skepticism of democratic politics. She writes that she “regretted that our administration had not ascertained whether we had the votes before the President announced he was going to Congress. Had he known he would fail, [she] did not believe he would have chosen the path he did.” Power, in other words, wanted Congress to rubber-stamp Obama’s decision to intervene; she wasn’t interested in having a real public discussion about the potential benefits and drawbacks of using military force. In fact, Power has the temerity to express disappointment with the U.S. public for refusing to support intervention. Most Americans, she laments, “wanted no part of Syria. The student activists, civic groups, churches, mosques, and synagogues that had come out en masse to demand help for the people of Darfur [where in the mid-2000s a genocide erupted] were largely silent.” Such a statement evinces the privilege of an individual who has no reason to fear the effects another Middle Eastern intervention might have on her own family—or on the people of the Middle East.
The assumption running through Power’s career is that the American empire is able to act as a force for good in the world. At her memoir’s end—and in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—she affirms that “on issue after issue, either the United States brought a game plan to the table or else the problem worsened.” Though this might be true in some cases, it is certainly not the rule, especially when one considers the disastrous effects of the nation’s wars in the Greater Middle East; its pointless antagonism of China, Russia, and Iran; its unwillingness to take the business-unfriendly steps required to arrest climate change; and its unhesitating promotion of a capitalist system that has exploited the labor of untold millions. The last several decades have taught us that the world needs far less American “leadership” than it has enjoyed.
If you accept Power’s premises, then humanitarian intervention boils down to a purely philosophical inquiry: Is it right to save lives if one has the capacity to do so? The answer, of course, is yes. The problem, though, is that intervention is not a thought experiment; it takes place in a world of brutal realities. In particular, humanitarian forces confront radical uncertainty. Is intervention likely to impel more violence in the long term? Do policymakers actually know enough about the situation on the ground to make the “right” decisions? Is the American public willing to commit itself to years-long reconstruction efforts? Honest answers here may not sit well with idealism. In many instances, the most moral act is not to act at all.
Simply maintaining an enormous military able to intervene anywhere in the world carries its own set of malign consequences: endless wars, global arms proliferation, a militaristic political culture, the diversion of resources from welfare to weapons, and the strengthening of the military-industrial complex, to name just a few. The Education of an Idealist does not account for these social ills, or consider that the only way we can avoid them is by giving up the capacities that enable us (theoretically, if not in practice) to alleviate foreign suffering.
The historian Samuel Moyn has warned that we must be careful not to elevate “the narrow and rare problem of when to send the military to help strangers into the decisive one around which the future of American foreign policy revolves.” Power’s memoir shows how much the discourse of humanitarian intervention obscures. By focusing on the question “Do we save innocent lives?” liberal interventionists like Power shift our attention from an equally important query: “How do we change conditions so lives don’t need to be saved?” A world oriented around this last question would look very different from the one we have now.