Named one of Time’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ in both 2004 and 2015, Irish-American Samantha Power served as US President Obama’s human rights advisor for four years and a further four as US UN Ambassador. She is famed for her achievements but also for her conscience.
Samantha Power was born in 1970 to Dubliner Jim Power, a musical dentist and Vera Delaney, a multi-talented sportswoman and medical doctor from Cork, both dividing studies between London and Dublin. She was brought up in Dublin, living in Castleknock and attending Mount Anville school, sadly spending too much time downstairs in Hartigan’s pub while her father drank his health away upstairs. Her mother’s specialities took her to Kuwait in 1977 to set up the first kidney-transplant and dialysis unit. Power retained strong memories of visiting. An affair between Vera and her boss Eddie Bourke inspired their plan to emigrate to America.
Vera sued Jim, whose alcoholism was worsening, for child custody. The judge’s comment opens the book: “what right has this woman to be so educated?” With no divorce and less than 10% of married women working, Vera’s confrontation of the Irish system for her rights was exceptional, and paid off. The new family resettled quickly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and never looked back.
As a young adult, Power heard how her father’s decomposed remains were found in her childhood bed. Therapy in response to severe anxiety symptoms centred on this relationship. She suffers demobilising anxiety attacks and back pain: “lungers” is the term used by a former boyfriend who witnessed her struggling to breathe.
Pathos aside, Power’s depiction of Irishness veers towards caricature, perhaps because although well-disposed she invests so much in the damage her father seems to have precipitated.
She went to school in Atlanta, Georgia, obtained a BA in Yale and a JD law degree in Harvard. A trip around Europe in 1990 broadened young Samantha’s horizons, as did a stint as administrative assistant to Mort Abramowitz, highly-respected President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
Abramowitz’s opinion columns, friendships and diplomatic efforts for the former Yugoslavia momentously drew Power away from a possible career in sports journalism and into the escalating ethnic conflict between Bosnian Serbs and non-Serbs. She became a war reporter there. On her own initiative, she drafted a chronology of events titled ‘Breakdown In The Balkans’. The hundred copies she self-printed quickly ran out due to the ‘hugely useful’ content, as American leaders struggled to comprehend and top officials resigned in protest at US inertia.
Feistily forging a news pass at the Foreign Policy desk, Power toured the Balkans in August 1993, relying on UN papers and protection at checkpoints, meeting many tortured bereaved refugees and making new journalist friends. Back in Washington, US News published her eye-witness account. She returned to Zagreb, proceeding to Sarajevo, Srebrenica and beyond. Hazardously chronicling survivors’ experiences for nearly two years, demand grew for her reportage. She blames herself for not personally preventing the 1995 murder of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica: “I was the correspondent in Munich while the bodies burned in Dachau. … I had power and I failed to use it”. The book makes it clear that Samantha held herself to the highest standards, at this stage.
To her indignation, loopholes in UN approval of the no-fly zone patrolled by US and NATO aircraft allowed slaughters to continue. Throughout her career, Power has repeatedly banged her head against such internal UN dysfunction, especially the veto system pitting the five permanent members at cross-purposes. A theme developed here too, of Russia’s reflex denials, accusations of fake news and weaponising social media, ploys aped by Russian allies.
By now Samantha Power was being noticed, and she impressed. Declining a job from Richard Holbrooke who had brokered the Dayton peace accords on Yugoslavia in 1995, she decided to study law with a view to prosecuting human rights abuses. Three years later she became the Founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
In 2001 she wrote a piece in the Atlantic featuring exclusive interviews with scores of those in the US administration who had dealt with atrocities in Rwanda. It outlined countless missed opportunities to mitigate a genocide.
Researching exhaustively, complemented by some human rights and teaching work, she grabbed a book deal. ‘A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide’ was published in 2002. Blending activism and diplomacy, she stressed the importance of recognising war’s human consequences and considering every non-military solution first, stopping short of embracing non-aggression and a global security system without war (see WorldBeyondWar.org/alternative). In the end she wonders why American leaders who vow “never again” repeatedly fail to halt genocides. It is an appealing message from the pen of a talented, and idealistic, future leader. And being Samantha Power, she won a Pulitzer for it. She went on to cover the 2004 massacres from Darfur, Sudan.
As early as 2005 diplomat Peter Galbraith connected Power to then Senator Obama’s team and in 2008 she moved onto his campaign group as he vied with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
In March 2008 she suggested, irritatingly for her boss but as it turned out accurately, that Obama would not be in a position to withdraw as quickly as he was promising in his campaign he would, from Iraq.
A major hiccough a few days later was an interview about the campaign with The Scotsman, where she proclaimed:
“We fucked up in Ohio. In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio’s the only place they can win. She is a monster, too—that is off the record—she is stooping to anything … if you are poor and she is telling you some story about how Obama is going to take your job away, maybe it will be more effective. The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive”.
She resigned, though shortly afterwards was reconciled with Clinton, apparently as a “birthday present” from Holbrooke and Obama.
The second half of ‘The Education of an Idealist’ assumes that the idealism which was so clearly forged in the first half found an effective outlet. Readers will make their own minds up but it is the premise for her book. Her vindication comes from proof, if the reader allows it, of how she attempted to bring her convictions to bear in the two successive Obama administrations.
She served in Obama’s administration first as a member of his State Department transition team from late November 2008 and then, once he was in office, as Director for Multilateral Affairs in the National Security Council.
In 2013 she became the youngest ever US ambassador to the United Nations.
She was predictably progressive in seeking internal UN reform and on refugees, genocide, LGBT rights, anti-racism and women’s rights.
She will be remembered, however, for her achievements in particular geopolitical crises.
Three weeks into her role as UN ambassador news broke of a suspected chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria.
The climax of ‘The Education of an Idealist’ is the story of ten days in August 2013 when tension in Syria was at its most intense. Obama’s crucial question following the first chemical attacks in April, was: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”.
But he did not ultimately follow through. Congress kept him waiting crucial days for its go-ahead. A Republican Congressional majority was rabid for him to mess up. A letter signed by 140 lawmakers, 119 of them Republican had already warned him that military strikes in Syria “without prior congressional authorisation” would be unconstitutional. Despite unusually having administrative and European backing, Obama reasoned that “an on-the-ground UN investigation ‘above and beyond’ what the United States had conducted would be accepted as more independent and objective”.
The UN assembled an investigation team, which had just started its survey in Syria when Assad struck again, much more lethally, on August 21. Urged on by advisors including Power and pretty much the entire international community, Obama gave the order for air-strikes. The only obstacle now were the investigators, but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would not withdraw them, refusing to make the UN complicit in imminent western military action. It took nine days for him to authorise their departure after they detected sarin gas: time for more questions and hesitation to build.
To meet the 1973 War Powers Resolution criteria, granting Congress a say in US military operations, Obama again sought permission. In this complex fast-moving scenario, Power kept arguing for intervention in Syria, at least for a no-fly zone that might have tilted the balance of power enough there so Assad would negotiate with pro-democracy rebels. But sensing insufficient legitimacy and no ultimate exit, Obama overruled her. Of course, Syria ultimately disintegrated into civil war, and a bloodbath ensued as Russia and Iran helped annihilate the rebels.
In 2016, while speaking on the situation in Syria, Power returned to an ongoing theme – Russian cynicism. She said, “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism…Instead of pursuing peace, Russia and Assad make war. Instead of helping get life-saving aid to civilians, Russia and Assad are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive”.
Although, in 2011, a firm peacekeeping mission had averted war in South Sudan, recalling Bill Clinton’s UN-backed military rescue operation ending the Bosnian War in August 1995, a civil war erupted in 2013. Power was unable to persuade the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and sanctions on key leaders. By the end of Power’s term in office the Obama administration’s South Sudan strategy was in tatters. Tens of thousands of people had been killed and rape had been rampant.
Samantha Power was the only woman on the Permanent Security Council. In 2014, she and five Non-Permanent female ambassadors made up the largest female contingent on the Security Council in the UN’s history. Concerned about what was happening in Sudan, they secured the passage of a Council resolution requiring the UN to expel whole peacekeeping units whose soldiers were accused of sexually abusing civilians. This measure has been effectively enforced since.
Power and Hilary Clinton are considered to have been key figures in the Obama administration in persuading the President to intervene militarily in Libya. Taking orders from National Security superior officers mid-March 2011, Power attempted to get a resolution through the UN Security Council for the protection of Libyan citizens by any coercive steps necessary. This Resolution passed on March 17th.
Taking that UN approval into account along with the appeals of European allies, the Arab League and many Libyans, Obama consented to the United States joining forces with France and the UK under the NATO banner, and beyond, in coalition with reinforcements from Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Libya’s own resistance fighters. Strikes on Libyan military targets began on March 19, ousting Muammar Qaddafi and his regime. Unfortunately, the failure to prepare for a smooth transition and provide a sufficient peacekeeping presence on the ground led the country into anarchy.
Power is perceived to have been even-handed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict though she omits reference to this tenacious conflict in her memoir. Power expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself during the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict.
On the other hand in December 2016, she endorsed the Obama administration’s refusal to veto a resolution against Israeli settlements. Power told the UN Security Council: “Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 undermines Israel’s security, harms the viability of a negotiated two-state outcome, and erodes prospects for peace and stability in the region”.
Power devotes her twenty-first chapter entitled ‘April 24th’ to an account of her bitter and frantic struggle to finally have recognised as genocide the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians – an electoral promise made by Obama. The US President’s annual statement on that day routinely expresses condolences while studiously avoiding use of the term genocide in order to keep NATO ally Turkey on side.
In 2009, while Obama spoke passionately of the need to bear witness and “fight the silence that is evil’s greatest co-conspirator”, genocide was not mentioned. Power keenly felt this failure to persuade, especially as the event’s 100th anniversary came around in 2015.
Probably the most striking thing about Power’s memoir is her omission of her role in what was to become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – in Yemen. In 2015 a coalition of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other local countries attacked Yemen. Ambassador Power supported this intervention even when al-Qaeda helped the coalition. By the end of her tenure, 10,000 Yemenis were dead and perhaps 80% of the population was in need of humanitarian aid.
In July 2014, when two returning American health workers dramatically tested positive for Ebola, which they’d helped to treat in Liberia, panic ensued. Donald Trump was on hand to sow mayhem. Trump’s approach to the 2014 Ebola outbreak offered a preview of his coronavirus response six years later. He spread disinformation, attacked rivals, and tweeted through the whole thing. During an interview with Fox & Friends, Trump falsely dismissed assertions from public health experts that Ebola was “hard to catch” and “not very contagious”.
He publicly demonised both the afflicted and authorities. Realising a million plus people could die if the contagious virus wasn’t contained, President Obama brought the CDC, National Security and the Pentagon together to devise ‘a logistics mission with a medical component’. He deployed 3,000 troops to West Africa to build Ebola Treatment Units and train local health workers while appealing for additional international support.
Power persuaded UN National Security colleagues, more habituated to war themes, to convene an emergency session, proposing a resolution declaring Ebola “a threat to international peace and security”. She highlighted the cross-border risk. Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone were first on board. The largest ever number of cosponsoring countries, 134 single entities stronger together, backed the resolution on 18 September. Contributions poured in.
Twelve days later, an American transport worker unknowingly brushed with Ebola in Monrovia, and died a week later back home. Hospital staff involved became infected, Obama ordered the CDC to conduct intensive airport screening of travellers returning from infected regions, aiming to strategically avoid mandatory quarantining. Inviting recovered patients to the White House, his hug conveyed an anti-stigma message.
To quell nerves, boost morale and advocate for victims, even as a MSF doctor from New York was diagnosed, Samantha Power flew to West Africa, then home to nearby 500 Ebola deaths and over 10,000 positive cases.
Power witnessed the huge improvements in trained confident healthcare, safe burial, and testing and contact tracing capacity paid for by international aid.
The three worst-affected countries were declared Ebola-free by year-end. No further Americans contracted it.
Obama’s intervention in West Africa to stem the spread of Ebola is actually perhaps his most significant foreign policy achievement but he got little credit precisely because it worked. UN countries cooperating beat the epidemic. If Donald Trump had spearheaded the effort, the reader cannot fail to note, the result would have been entirely different. It is the sort of action where Obama and Power manifest competence and internationalism on a level that the successor administration has, frustratingly for progressives, not been able or willing to emulate.
In geopolitics Power’s legacy is mixed. She never failed to seek the cloak of principle and the very act of seeking pitched the administration in a more ethical direction than either of the Clintons, George W Bush or Donald Trump would have taken it. It is also clear that her conscience rang louder than her President’s. However, Power’s idealism was not of the sort that when she lost the argument in one country, she resigned. A benign view is that she would then search for somewhere else to fix.
Nevertheless. the diktats of realpolitik make this a sphere that spits out the soft-minded. And Samantha Power is anything but soft-minded.
As to her private life, a period of messy dating ended when Power clicked with Cass Sunstein, legal scholar and author of ‘Nudge’. They got married in Waterville, where Power has relatives, in 2008. They have a son and daughter. Power sings the praises of her live-in nanny Maria Castro, a Mexican immigrant, and realistically charts the childcare angst of a working mom. Who minded Maria’s own four children is left unsaid. Vera and Eddie’s active grand-parenting provided another invaluable safety net and a homely touch for the Irish reader.
Power currently teaches law at Harvard Kennedy School and acts for the International Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP) which notably represented individuals affected by Trump’s 2017 travel ban. She is a regular presence on Irish media where it is taken as unassailable that she has always been a guardian of values and idealism.
As Obama frequently remarked to Power, “better is good”: doing something constructive is better than merely ‘admiring the problem’. Whether this constitutes idealism rather than utilitarianism or pragmatism, is a different matter.
Power quotes Obama as losing it with her when she tended to sanctimoniousness. During a Situation Room debate on Syria, a tired Obama says to her: “We’ve all read your book, Samantha”. Obama repeatedly told her, “you get on my nerves”. But at the same time, when she wouldn’t speak up for idealism, Obama would rouse her: “Are you sick, Power?” She was a force, usually more idealistic than anyone else in the room.
In the end though, the premise of the book fails for those not well disposed to US foreign policy or compromised idealists. Samantha Power sold out, perhaps had to sell out, on best political and humanitarian practice for the good, or more often the best possible, or just the possible. It does not take from her achievements which on their own terms, whatever about hers, are outstanding. She is missed.