Pulitzer Prize winning author and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has written an engaging and informative memoir: The Education of an Idealist. In it, her treatment of the Syrian crisis as it unfolded during the administration of former US President Barack Obama is as illuminating as it is unsatisfying. In the end, Power succeeds in drawing a bright line between her views on Syria and those of her former boss.
Yet she falls short in explaining why her decision to remain in the service of a president with whom she profoundly disagreed did not enable policies harmful to innocent civilians and contrary to the interests of the United States, in Syria and far beyond.
This is a book well-worth reading, one reflecting a still young life very well-lived.
Indeed, this writer will urge his students at Bard College—especially young women contemplating public service—to read it. It is inspiring, good-humored, and sometimes heart-breaking. It is the memoir of someone who is anything but a time server; someone who truly cares about things and who has tried—often successfully—to make a difference for the better.
Syria, however, is the problem from hell truly bedeviling this book. Indeed, the way Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sought to keep power for himself, his family, and his entourage—mass homicide directed at defenseless civilians living in areas beyond his control—tortured Ambassador Power unmercifully during her tenure at the United Nations. And yet her continued presence in the Obama administration right through noon, January 20, 2017 enabled the policy of an American president unwilling—despite her advice and that of fifty-one courageous Department of State officials—to lift a finger militarily to complicate and frustrate mass murder.
It is too bad that the Assad regime’s wanton slaughter of civilians was not, in the strict sense of the word, “genocide.”
Reading this book leaves one with an odd, but pertinent Syria-related thought: It is too bad that the Assad regime’s wanton slaughter of civilians was not, in the strict sense of the word, “genocide.” Power herself does not argue in her memoir that slaughter in Syria is less criminal, reprehensible, or deserving of a lethal response because it is not (by definition) genocidal. And yet…
If Assad had decided to exterminate or expel Syria’s Sunni Muslims simply because of their sectarian identity—causing, in the pursuit of genocide, the same or even fewer civilian casualties than he actually produced—the belief here is that the author of A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide would have confronted President Obama for the very behavior she condemned in that splendid volume, and she would have left office if rebuffed.
Indeed, President Obama might have felt obliged, if genocide had been in play, to extend to Syrian victims of Assad the same protection he offered Yazidi and Kurdish targets of ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State). Inaction in the face of genocide may have been politically perilous for the president, notwithstanding Obama’s pursuit of Iran (Assad’s most valuable ally) for a nuclear deal.
Alas, the wholesale slaughter of Syrian civilians through state terror could not be squeezed definitionally into mass murder’s most odious subset. When Barack Obama and Samantha Power left office the record was stark: Not a single Syrian civilian protected from a murderous Assad regime rampage that the United States could have frustrated and even neutralized without invasion, occupation, no-fly zones, or even manned aircraft in Syrian airspace.
It may not have been genocide, but the barrel bombs, artillery shells, rockets, missiles, and chemicals took a toll that was genocidal in scope.
Power does not try to avoid the Syrian catastrophe in this book. Far from it. Even in the preface she notes, “I had gone from being an outsider to an insider . . . [A]nd yet we were failing to stop the carnage in Syria. I was at risk of falling prey to the same mode of rationalization I had assailed as an activist.”
The view here is that a person of Samantha Power’s integrity was never at risk of employing the same rationalizations she had condemned in A Problem from Hell when writing about official American indifference toward the Holocaust, the Balkans, Rwanda, and elsewhere.
The risk was that she would creatively invent one of her own; one born of her admiration for Barack Obama, her unselfish love of public service, and her unbridled desire to do good in a world facing other horrors beside Syria, such as the Ebola virus. One need not ascribe base motives to this remarkable woman to conclude that she did indeed, albeit with good intentions, rationalize her continued tenure in an administration whose failure to counter mass murder in Syria contributed to a humanitarian abomination and Moscow-abetted global instability.
After systematically (if politely) criticizing President Obama’s failure to use military force to punish and deter civilian slaughter—a failure that “damaged his credibility as President and undermined the influence of the United States”—Power goes into rationalization mode.
All that said, I do not now—and did not then—have the bitter certainty of President Obama’s critics. Because history can’t be replayed, we will never know what would have happened had Obama taken a different path, for example, ordering the Pentagon to set up a no-fly zone. Perhaps tens of thousands more Syrians would be alive today and perhaps, without such a huge exodus of refugees, the xenophobic forces rising in Western countries would not have gained such traction. On the other hand, had the US military
struck Syria’s air defenses, Assad—sensing how little appetite there was in the United States for a fight—might have called the President’s bluff and dared us to ramp up our military involvement. This escalation could have taken the United States down the very “slippery slope” that all of us sought to avoid, miring our troops in a regional conflagration with Russia on the other side of the line.
A “no-fly zone” was, however, not the issue. Removing, to the extent possible with unmanned systems, Assad’s tools of mass destruction—combat aircraft, rockets, Scud missiles, field artillery—was. If the administration had (for example) responded to the regime’s August 21, 2013 chemical attacks with the air strikes Power says were planned and which she favored, any subsequent “dare” on the part of Syria’s dictator would have been accompanied by a sharp reduction in his tools of state terror. Syria’s air defenses would not have come into play.
Changing the subject from what was really under consideration to something that was not, is what helps provide the rationale for remaining an “insider,” while (ironically) denigrating the “bitter certainty” of critics who supported, publicly and privately, her efforts to turn the president around. The “no-fly zone” invention was a variation on the customary Obama straw man: My critics really want me to invade and occupy Syria—Iraq Part Deux—and I’m not going there.
Power, however, says some hard things about a policy she deemed disastrously wrong, rendering her ex-boss’ “get out of jail free” card via the “no-fly zone” straw man strikingly inappropriate.
She was disappointed by the president’s failure to follow-through quickly on his initial inclination to hammer Assad’s military in the wake of the August 2013 chemical atrocity, which openly defied the presidential “red line;” indeed, she would have favored military retaliation for regime chemical attacks preceding the August atrocity.
She expressed regret that subsequent American warnings about mass murder focused only on chemical weapons—leaving Assad free to use any of his other murder weapons—and noted that Obama would never again (after the red line fiasco) seriously consider military means to protect civilians, no matter what Assad did.
One wonders how heavily Iran weighed on the president’s reluctance.
She noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin reaped praise from Russian commentators “for showcasing his country’s enduring influence on the world stage—and for outmaneuvering Obama,” while “Assad could reasonably conclude that, going forward, he could starve his people into submission, carpet bomb hospitals and schools, and eventually even resume chemical weapons attacks, all without the United States doing much to stop him.”
She lamented that, as the administration’s final days approached, “The greatest superpower in the world was a lame duck in the face of the systematic bombardment of innocents. And we were about to hand the reins to someone who had nothing but kind words for Putin.” In fact, the the person to whom the reins were handed reacted to Assad regime chemical attacks twice by responding in ways Power would have supported had the president been named Obama instead of Trump.
The Education of an Idealist is a superb memoir. The United States could benefit greatly from the continued public service of Samantha Power. She did herself no harm in this respect; the idealist has become wise to the ways of Washington and crafted her Syria story in a way reflecting that wisdom.
No doubt, however, a person of her decency must still be plagued by questions never fully answered in this exceptional book. Did I inadvertently, through my presence, enable bad policy on a profoundly important issue; policy that was bad for Syrians, their neighbors, Europe, and the national security interests of the United States? Should I have resigned once I became convinced that President Obama would not take my advice and change his disastrous course? Was Syria not important enough for me to take a principled stand and make a professional sacrifice? Might I have been more effective in changing policy for the better as an outspoken outsider?
Yes, Syria aside, she did much good by staying on. But is that good enough for Samantha Power?
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is Bard College’s Diplomat in Residence and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.