Samantha and the Power of Denial

Sep 21 2019

Samantha Power—who wrote a Pulitzer prize–winning book about genocide that catapulted her onto President Obama’s foreign policy team, where she was a forceful advocate for humanitarian military intervention—has just published another book. It’s a memoir called The Education of an Idealist.

So far the commentary on the book illustrates a general principle of foreign policy commentary: the more your views depart from the establishment consensus, and the more willing you are to attack credentialed members of that establishment, the smaller the platform you’re allowed to express those views on.

x–Exhibit A: Daniel Bessner, a young historian, writing in the estimable but relatively small-circulation New Republic, says Power’s book demonstrates “the lethality of good intentions.” Power, for example, argued for the 2011 intervention in Libya, which morphed from a protect-civilians-via-bombing campaign into a regime-change-via-bombing campaign that wound up spreading chaos and weaponry well beyond Libya’s borders.  

But Power offers no mea culpa. Bessner writes, “The most startling thing about a book titled The Education of an Idealist is that Power appears not to have learned very much.” 

Exhibit B: Meanwhile, over on the massive New York Times platform, Tom Friedman—who, having written that paper’s foreign policy column for a quarter of a century, is himself a pillar of the foreign policy establishment—says that Power, in her “wonderful book,” ponders her track record, good and bad, “with unblinking honesty.” 

And so it goes. Members of the foreign policy establishment—the agglomeration of liberal hawks and neocon ultrahawks that have been dubbed “the blob”—scratch each other’s backs and forgive each other for making the same kinds of bad calls they’ve made. So the blob keeps blobbing. 

But maybe there’s hope! Over at The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins gives Power a somewhat hard time. That’s notable not just because the New Yorker is, though no New York Times, pretty big and influential, but also because highly emotive New Yorker writers have championed a series of ill-fated military interventions, notably including the Iraq War. 

Filkins says much of Power’s book “reads as though it were written by someone campaigning for her next job—one that requires Senate confirmation.” (Over to you, Tom Friedman, who says that, whatever the mistakes of the younger, less experienced Power, now that she has reflected on the kinds of tough choices she had to make, “Every president should want an older Power around to help sort out those choices.”)

The best part of Filkins’s review is when he quotes Power excusing herself for the Libya blunder (“We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own.”) and then adds: “In a certain light, this sounds like an argument for not intervening at all.”

In a certain light, yes. Like this light: Maybe if you’re aware that you lack enough knowledge to confidently predict success, you shouldn’t embark on a venture that involves killing a bunch of people and turning a country that has a government into a country that doesn’t have a government.

Friedman, like Power, depicts past choices to intervene or not intervene as tensions between “idealism” and “realism.” This wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t for the tendency—shared by pretty much everyone in the foreign policy establishment—to act as if idealists are morally serious people whereas realists are cold-hearted cynics. The fact is that both idealists like Power and realists like me believe our favored policies are, in the long run, the most humane policies available. And my own view is that, judged by that standard, the recent track record of realists looks better than the recent track record of idealists.  

Note: In the foreign policy world, “realism” is a technical term, designating a particular world view, and I don’t agree with classic realists about everything. I’ve advocated what I call “progressive realism”—a world view I trotted out in a long 2006 New York Times op-ed and recapitulated in a mercifully short piece in the Nation a decade later. In this newsletter, when a piece appears under the PROGRESSIVE REALISM bar, that means I consider it faithful to the spirit of that ideology. It also means that if you click on the bar, you’ll go to the part of our website where all such pieces are archived. And so too with the other colored bars in this Newsletter—click them and you’ll go to a (for now small, but growing) repository of related material. And that includes the bar that says MINDFULNESS:  

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