“The Education of an Idealist” — a new memoir by Samantha Power, America’s ambassador to the U.N. from 2013 to 2017 — could have been among the greatest books ever written about politics. Power took an idiosyncratic path into the U.S. foreign policy nomenklatura after winning a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 book, “‘A Problem From Hell’: America in the Age of Genocide.” She’s an anomaly at the summit of U.S. diplomacy, with the intelligence, audacity, curiosity, humane instincts, and freedom needed to face the deepest questions head on. Plus she has the perfect name.
How does the foreign policy of the U.S., seen from the inside, truly function? What should a morally serious American, surveying the world’s berserk cruelty, do? What compromises and self-deceptions are necessary to get power? Can they be worth it, even if you personally are going to hell?
An honest book about this would have been a genuine, no-kidding service to humanity. But Power chose not to write it. Instead, “The Education of an Idealist” will take its place with the numberless other banal, sludgy 500-page memoirs by political exiles.
When talking about U.S. foreign policy, Republicans use transparent lies that insult the intelligence of every American. By contrast, Democrats respect their fellow citizens enough to tell more complex lies, ones that sound plausible as long as you don’t think about them for more than three seconds. Power’s book hews strongly to this tradition.
Power favors lies of omission. For instance, you’ll hear a lot in “The Education of an Idealist” about the barbarism of Syrian President Bashar Assad. There are also thousands of damning words about what Russia did at the U.N. to protect Assad’s government as it murdered its own citizens. You can quibble with the presentation, and lack of context, but this is all generally accurate.
However, you’ll learn literally nothing from Power about these subjects:
• The Obama administration’s massive campaign of drone strikes across the world. Power was there from the beginning, starting out in 2009 on Obama’s National Security Council as senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.
• The three major Israeli attacks on Gaza during Obama’s time in office.
• How the U.S. and our Gulf allies accidentally (?) ended up arming an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which Russia claimed motivated it to back the Syrian government more heavily.
• Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, which began in 2015 with America’s committed logistical support, including targeting intelligence and aerial refueling of fighter aircraft.
• Obama’s decision not to prosecute the men and women who built and ran black sites where prisoners were tortured during the George W. Bush administration.
• Power’s chummy hijinks with Henry Kissinger, one of the 20th century’s varsity war criminals. In 2014, she tweeted a picture of herself buddying up with Kissinger at a baseball game. She later received a prize both named after and personally awarded by Kissinger.
When I turned the last page of “The Education of an Idealist” and was confronted by the acknowledgements section, I honestly thought I must have missed something. But the index confirms these topics just aren’t there. There is no entry for “drones” between Drew, Nelson and Drudge Report. There’s nothing about Kissinger or Israel’s bombings of Gaza. (We do learn on page 468 that she played basketball once with “Palestinian girls who hoped to become engineers, architects and politicians.”)
The omission of the Saudi war on Yemen might be the most glaring of all. Now that she’s out of office, Power is very upset about it. But as the attack began in 2015, Power stood behind what The Atlantic called “an unrealistic and one-sided resolution drafted by the Saudis, introduced by the British and passed … with U.S. support.” At that moment, Power personally seized the opportunity to blame the Houthi side, by and large the situation’s victims. About 100,000 people have died in the actual fighting; 85,000 children have died of starvation; and according to the U.N., 10 million more Yemenis are now “one step away from famine.” But you’ll learn nothing about Yemen in her book, beyond the fact that it’s one of six countries on Earth that executes people for being gay.
Of course, this is unremarkable for a U.S. diplomat. But what makes Power different from the standard factory-issued apparatchik is the documentation that she knows exactly what she’s doing. In fact, she mentions it in her book.
During her Senate confirmation hearings, she explains, she was confronted by an essay she wrote in 2003. It calls the U.S. “the most potent empire in the history of mankind,” and contains lamentations that could appear in The Intercept. “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought,” she said. “It needs not tweaking but overhauling. We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States, [including] the CIA-assisted coups in Guatemala, Chile, and the Congo; the bombing of Cambodia; and the support for right-wing terror squads in Latin America.”
As Power describes it in “The Education of an Idealist,” she simply refused to be responsive to GOP questions about this. Asked “Do you believe the United States has committed or sponsored crimes?” by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., she just repeated that “the United States is the greatest country on earth.”
At that moment, Power says, “I had lost my innocence” — but she was confirmed by the Senate 87-10.
This is one of Power’s complicated lies. She lost her innocence long before that, in exactly the same way.
While covering the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a reporter in the 1990s, Power grew horrified by the Clinton administration’s failure to stop various bouts of mass murder. This led her to write “A Problem From Hell,” which examines other times America looked on as thousands or millions were exterminated: the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia in the 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s assault on Iraqi Kurds during the 1980s, and Rwanda in the 1990s.
“A Problem From Hell” is exactly like “The Education of an Idealist” in that Power is sincerely angry about the evildoing of other countries. But active U.S. participation in other genocides and war crimes is consigned to near-total silence. There’s nothing in “A Problem From Hell” about the Korean War, in which we killed 20 percent of the population in the north; our support for the mass slaughter of at least 500,000 Indonesians after a military coup in 1965; the fact we dropped 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos, more than we used during World War II; near-genocide in East Timor, conducted by Indonesia with money, arms, and protection from the Ford and Carter administrations; or actual genocide in Guatemala. The Vietnam War appears mainly as an explanation for our lack of action against the Khmer Rouge.
And while Power is rightfully consumed by the significance of the Armenian genocide — the first industrialized genocide, the one that demonstrated countries could do this in an age of modern communications and get away scot-free — she omits a key story about it. The thesis of her book is that because the U.S. bloviates endlessly about how much we care about the lives of foreigners, this should manifest itself in reality. But what the Armenian genocide shows is that all governments bloviate about their concern for foreigners, and even in the most extreme cases, this is just a tactic to get what they actually want: more wealth and power.
It was no secret that the Ottoman Empire was slaughtering Armenians during World War I. Its opponents — France, the U.K., and Russia — publicized the atrocities and cried out to the heavens about these “crimes against humanity and civilization.”
But in 1915, Djemal Pasha, one of the three Young Turks then running the Ottoman Empire, secretly sent an offer to the three countries. If they would help him eliminate the other two members of the triumvirate and seize sole power, he would remove Turkey from the war — and halt the genocide. There was just one other thing he wanted in return: for France and the U.K. to abandon their aspirations to slice off tasty parts of the Ottoman Empire, such as present-day Syria and Iraq, for themselves.
It turned out that France and the U.K. didn’t care about the Armenians that much. They rejected the idea, and the genocide continued for years. As one famous history of the period puts it, “Djemal appears to have acted on the mistaken assumption that saving the Armenians — as distinct from merely exploiting their plight for propaganda purposes — was an important Allied objective.” Emitting giant clouds of moral rhetoric, while possessing total disinterest in moral action: That’s just what countries do. The question is whether America is a country like other countries.
This is what makes Power different from America’s endlessly carping leftists. It’s not that she’s operating from different facts. It’s that, as she did in her 2003 essay, she’s asked “whether the United States is structurally capable of using its tremendous power for the good of others,” and decided the answer is yes. Most people who know U.S. perfidy chapter and verse never need to consider this seriously, because we have neither the talent nor inclination to ever get within a million miles of the ambassador penthouse at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. But Power did. You don’t have to agree with her decisions to want to know more about why she made them.
In an alternate reality, Power is using her formidable might right now to make this case:
I was complicit in evil because that got me in the room where I could make U.S. foreign policy two percent better — which, for the most powerful country on earth, is a lot.
I’m OK with being a cynical hypocrite, because that got me to a place where I could help stop a potential genocide in the Central African Republic before it started.
Noam Chomsky is wrong when he says, “There’s really an easy way to stop terrorism: Stop participating in it.” In fact, if you’re one isolated official in the U.S. government, it’s actually much easier to squelch the malefactors in enemy countries.
I’m a shameless liar, and that’s why I was there to help organize competent professionals to deal with a terrifying outbreak of Ebola.
The U.S. empire isn’t going anywhere, and if you actually care about human beings, you need someone willing to play the game and get filthy down in the mud.
But here in this dimension, “The Education of an Idealist” is simultaneously heartbreaking and boring. Power has returned from the mountaintop but won’t honestly tell us what she saw because she wants to get back there. As a recent Guardian article about her reported, “she would consider a return to government or even elected office.” Secretary of State Power? Senator Power? Who knows what the future holds, but Power is anxious to continue a life worthy of her name.