Is It Really Worth It to Be in the Room Where It Happens?

Samantha Power’s frank memoir raises the question: Should an activist strive to join the corridors of power?

Samantha Power.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Martha Stewart.

Former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power has a rule for making big decisions that she calls the “X test”: An action is worth taking if “in trying for Y, the most I accomplish is X.” In other words, will it still be a worthwhile experience, even if you fail? Even if all you accomplish is learning something? On the evidence of Powers’ memoir, The Education of an Idealist, this is a great principle for having a rewarding and accomplished life and career. It’s less clear whether it’s a good principle for conducting foreign policy.

Amid the flood of memoirs from Obama administration veterans, Powers’ stands out as worth reading. For starters, she’s a better writer than a lot of them—she was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author long before she got into government. She’s also done more that’s worth reading about. Like the best journalists, Power has a gift for finding the perfect anecdote to illustrate a larger idea or theme, and this is the rare political memoir where you definitely shouldn’t skim the “early years” chapters.

Raised in Ireland, Power emigrated to the U.S. with her mother, a doctor, at the age of 9, after her parents messily and traumatically separated at a time when divorce was nearly unheard-of in the country. During the 1990s, she covered the civil war and ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Balkans as a freelance journalist. After attending law school, she wrote the book that made her famous: 2002’s A Problem From Hellwhich excoriated multiple U.S. administrations for America’s inaction in responding to the 20th century’s genocides. After founding Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and playing a key role in organizing the Save Darfur movement, she hitched her wagon to a rising political star named Barack Obama, working as a fellow in his office and as a foreign policy adviser to his presidential campaign. Later she became a staffer on his National Security Council and, finally, U.N. ambassador during his second term.

Power writes movingly about her father’s struggles with alcoholism and her guilt over not having done more to help prevent his death at a young age. (She quotes a therapist’s assessment that she chose to study such a grim topic because her own pain naturally “paled in comparison to genocide.”) She also devotes a good portion of the book to the struggles of parenting young children while holding down an unrelenting job with life-or-death consequences—she and husband Cass Sunstein, the law professor and former Obama regulatory czar, had two children while working in the administration—and discusses the network of family, friends, and professional caregivers who made it possible, something that doesn’t often come up much in the memoirs of male policymakers.

Also fascinating is Power’s account of her unlikely friendship with her Russian counterpart at the U.N., the late Vitaly Churkin. The two were bitter rivals on the floor of the U.N. Security Council at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were breaking down—“Are you incapable of shame?” she once asked him during a contentious debate over Syria—but bonded outside of work, sharing family meals and tickets to NBA games and Hamilton.

But for the purposes of the book, the most important relationship is the one between Power and Obama. In Power’s telling, the two hit it off immediately, and there are some striking similarities in their biographies. Both grew up in multiple countries with absent alcoholic fathers and professionally accomplished mothers who pushed back against 1970s gender norms. Both are sports fanatics, Harvard Law grads, and gifted writers who achieved national profiles at an unusually young age. Both struggled with whether to push for social change from the outside as activists or from the inside by entering government, with all the moral compromises that inevitably entails.

This last conflict, as the title suggests, is the central theme of the book, and to her credit she doesn’t go easy on herself in the moments where she had to make those compromises. Power made her reputation by righteously criticizing U.S. officials for failing to act in the name of human rights. But at a certain point in her career, she decided, “I was tired of being a professional foreign policy critic, opining and judging without ever knowing whether I would pass the moral and political tests to which I was subjecting others.” She longed to be, as the musical she and Churkin enjoyed together put it, in “the room where it happens.”

Her entry into politics was a rocky one. She was briefly suspended from the Obama campaign for remarks she made to a Scottish reporter—thinking she was off the record—describing Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” After joining the administration, she found herself working with Clinton, as well as people like her predecessor as ambassador, Susan Rice, who was the target of some of the most withering criticism in A Problem From Hell over the Clinton administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide. Both, it turned out, would more often than not be her allies in pushing for more forceful responses to human rights violations.

After the “monster” incident, Power vowed to “make myself as uninteresting and unavailable to the press as possible,” which was never really going to work, given her penchant for speaking her mind and the natural tension of one of the country’s leading proponents of humanitarian intervention working for a much more cautious president.

Power pushes back against what she sees as an oversimplification of her views, arguing that A Problem From Hell, released during the lead-up to the Iraq war and often invoked by its proponents, was not actually an “extended argument for US military action.” (She opposed the Iraq war.) Military action, she says, should only be considered in the most exceptional circumstances, and concerted diplomacy early in a crisis can prevent it from being necessary. She rolls her eyes at the characterization from commentators like Maureen Dowd that she, Clinton, and Rice were the “Lady Hawks” or “Amazon Warriors” pushing squeamish men like Obama, Joe Biden, and Robert Gates toward military action. And she touts some of the administration’s less-discussed nonmilitary successes, particularly coordinating the international response to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, during which she traveled to the affected area.

But inevitably, as with all assessments of Obama’s foreign policy, it comes back to Libya and Syria. On Libya, she defends the decision to intervene in 2011, arguing that critics are wrong to assume Muammar Qaddafi’s government could have maintained stability if the U.S. had stayed out, but concedes that more U.S. engagement might have prevented the country’s descent into anarchy. On Syria, she believes more active U.S. intervention early on could have prevented some of the war’s worst atrocities, and was disappointed in Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes in response to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Writing now about her job defending the administration’s decisions publicly, she’s disturbed to recall herself “falling prey to the same mode of rationalization I had assailed as an activist.”

While Obama clearly valued having Power’s voice in the room to tell him “what values we’re betraying today,” as he joked, the two have very different ways of approaching crises. “For him, it seemed like malpractice to judge one’s prospects by one’s intentions, rather than making a strenuous effort to anticipate and weigh potential consequences,” she writes, noting that the president was always wary of “overpromising and underdelivering.” She rejects the description of one U.S. official quoted by the New Yorker that Obama is “basically a realist—but he feels bad about it,” but in the end that seems like a pretty apt description, and also not the worst thing for a leader to be.

One of the most painful chapters of the book concerns a tragic incident in which a car in Power’s motorcade struck and killed a young boy in Cameroon while she was on a tour to highlight the atrocities of Boko Haram. As a metaphor, the incident is almost sickeningly apt: the U.S. secure in its military might and moral righteousness, taking innocent lives as collateral damage in its wake. “Even when we try to do right, we invariably end up making situations worse,” she reflects at a low point following the accident.

This is where the “X test” breaks down. When the United States throws its massive weight behind goal Y, outcome X is usually unknowable. Very often outcome X makes things worse in ways that were impossible to anticipate at the outset. In the case of Syria, the urge of advocates like Power to do “something,” calling for Assad’s ouster and backing rebels, combined with Obama’s reluctance to get too involved in another war, may have created a worst of both worlds—outcomes that raised expectations and prolonged the conflict without actually turning the tide of it.

Despite these disappointments, Power maintains it was worth being in the room where it happens. She writes that she was often asked, “What would the old Samantha Power say to the current Samantha Power?” They “know each other quite well,” she would respond. When there were calls for her to resign over the Obama administration’s Syria policy, she says she never really considered it, believing she could have more influence in her current role, an argument that she acknowledges has been used by generations of officials to justify carrying out actions they oppose. When asked, “Do you miss having your own voice?” she would reply, “The reason I was exercising my voice before was to influence people in jobs like the one I now have.”

This seems a little unfair to the “old” Samantha Power. Yes, she learned in government that the officials she assailed as an activist were under more complex pressure and constraints and considering more variables than she allowed for. But it’s not the job of an idealist to consider those constraints, nor should we want her to. It’s not clear to me that one more Samantha Power inside government making her case (while considering all the angles and drawbacks) is always worth one less Samantha Power outside of government, burning with zeal and conviction, holding America to account for failing to live up to its professed ideals. But she certainly did learn something.

The Education of an Idealist book cover.
Dey Street Books