The Obama administration's misadventures in foreign policy

Former US foreign policy advisor Samantha Power reflects on her early idealism on a new memoir—and why it has hardened with time

October 04, 2019
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In her earlier book, In A Problem from Hell, Power was scathing about “America’s toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view.” Photo: Shutterstock A t the height of the Bosnian War—and the height of American government indifference to it—four US diplomats resigned in protest. It was, notes Samantha Power in her new memoir The Education of an Idealist, “the largest wave of resignations over US policy in State Department history.”

Power was then a young reporter in Sarajevo, sending back dispatches on ethnic cleansing and massacres. Watching the horror up close profoundly shaped the way she viewed the world, and America’s role in it. Warren Christopher, President Clinton’s secretary of state, viewed the conflict as a civil war. He referred to the “hatred” between Muslim, Croat and Serb communities as “terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell.” Power disagreed. “If the subject of Bosnia came up and someone innocently described the conflict as a civil war, I would erupt: ‘It is genocide!’”

It prompted her to write a book on the history of genocide in the 20th century, and America’s ambivalent attitude towards it. The book, A Problem from Hell, won a Pulitzer, made Power a household name, and had an enormous influence on a generation of centre-left foreign policy experts.

Power did not just write about past genocides—she raised the alarm about those happening right now. When the Sudanese government began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur in the early 2000s, Power was instrumental in setting up a campaign group, Save Darfur, which swept university campuses and gained the support of politicians.

One of those politicians was Barack Obama. When he began running for president, Obama asked Power to join his team as a foreign policy adviser. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Obama championed an America that would stand up for human rights around the world.

In A Problem from Hell, Power was scathing about “America’s toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view.” Now America would have a president who would tolerate those unspeakable atrocities no longer. And Power, first as an adviser on the National Security Council, and then as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, would be alongside him for eight years, helping him to deliver on that promise.


The story of how Obama failed to meet that promise ends with Syria. But it begins with two incidents in the first three months of his presidency. Power’s first meeting in the Oval Office was about Darfur. Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir had just been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide. In response, he had expelled 13 international aid groups from Darfur. Power suggested that the president publicly condemn Bashir’s actions. But instead of agreeing, Obama listed all the reasons why it wouldn’t make any difference. He belittled Power, asking a series of questions he knew the answer to: “‘Are the Arabs with us?’ I shook my head. ‘The Africans?’ ‘Some,’ I said. ‘China?’ I looked down.

“The man who sat before me in the president’s chair looked and sounded just like the man I had worked for in the Senate and on the campaign,” Power recalled. “However, even two months into his new job, he was different.”

Obama had taken a stance on two genocides during the election campaign: Darfur and the Armenian genocide of 1915, which America had, so far, failed to recognise. As a candidate, Obama promised to rectify that. Yet once in office, Power looked on in shock as the president avoided the issue. Power recalls “bombarding” his more senior advisers, but they didn’t even reply to her emails.

Ahead of Armenian Remembrance Day, Power tried to persuade the officials writing the official statement to use the word “genocide,” inserting it into the text every time it was sent to her only for the original authors to delete it. “It was a crushingly antiseptic way to realise we were going to dash the hopes of the people who trusted us,” she writes.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, she bumped into Obama outside a toilet just before he gave his speech. He asked how she was. “For a split second I thought, ‘Don’t ruin this nice moment with a man who never gets a break. He is talking to you as a friend, not as the president to be lobbied.’ But I couldn’t help myself… ‘I’m really worried about the Armenians,’ I said. Obama’s eyes flashed—first in surprise, and then, seemingly, in anger.” Even now, a decade later, Power finds excuses for him. “No matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to put myself in his shoes, or appreciate the variables he was weighing.”


On the morning of 21st August 2013, the Syrian regime launched a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, a suburb of the capital Damascus. It was not the first such attack, nor would it be the last, but it was the most deadly: according to US estimates 1,429 people were killed, including 426 children. “What do you think this will mean,” Power’s husband asked her. “Nothing,” she replied, testily. “This won’t change things?” “Nope. Watch.”

Power had recently been appointed US ambassador to the United Nations, but her faith in her own government to do anything to prevent the ongoing slaughter in Syria had rapidly diminished. Obama, despite previously claiming the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” had so far failed to follow the threat with action. As he drew down US involvement in Iraq, he had no wish to get embroiled in what he now regarded as human rights adventurism with no clear end point. And he’d tired of Power’s calls for a more robust response. “We’ve all read your book, Samantha,” he snapped in one Situation Room meeting. Later that day they spoke on the phone. It’s the first time Power shows us that she fought back. But as she tries to restate her points, Obama seems more interested in taking apart her tone—he felt she was treating him and his national security team as if they were students who just needed to understand the situation better. “You are trying to tutor us as to why this is such a shit show,” he said.

Obama wasn’t the only person who was disappointing Power. “The student activists, civic groups, churches, mosques and synagogues that had come out en masse to demand help for the people of Darfur were largely silent.” After each atrocity, outrage swiftly faded.

But the Ghouta attack was different. The haunting images of children gasping for breath led US TV news. To Power’s shock and satisfaction, Obama asked the Pentagon to draw up targets for air strikes. “I believed that he should have responded in this manner even to the previous, smaller-scale chemical attacks… Had he ordered limited air strikes then, I wondered whether Assad’s forces would have dared to stage a large subsequent attack.” Something, at last, was going to be done.

Not straight away though. A team of UN inspectors was in Damascus and Ban Ki-Moon refused to pull them out until they had investigated. Nine days after the attack, Ban called Power to “relay the utterly unsurprising news” that sarin gas had been used. The delay had not just stopped momentum, it had given Obama second thoughts. Now deciding he needed political cover, he decided to ask Congress for approval. Power “was so taken aback” that she thought she’d misheard.

In the UK we tend to believe that parliament’s decision to vote against air strikes played a major part in persuading Obama to consult Congress. Not in this telling. Power mentions it in a footnote. (Indeed, the UK is barely mentioned in Power’s book. The Central African Republic’s ambassador to the UN gets pages; ours doesn’t appear once.)

While Britain is absent, Russia looms large and its ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, is a central character. In Power’s most famous speech in the UN chamber, she lambasted Churkin after his government’s bombing of Aleppo: “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”

And yet, Power’s relationship with Churkin was complicated. She reveals that Putin’s man at the UN engaged in freelance diplomacy behind Moscow’s back. During the crisis in eastern Ukraine, after the annexation of Crimea and with Russian troops active in the country’s east, Power received a text message from Churkin “asking to meet ‘not at my mission or yours.’ We settled on a booth in an empty, darkened restaurant” in the basement of a hotel.

It was the first of many secret meetings the pair held. Churkin, claims Power, opposed Putin’s actions in Ukraine and wanted to find a way to pull him back from a bigger confrontation with the west. On one occasion, Churkin gave Power a list of people who Putin was “inclined to listen to.” “He thought the people on his list might be able to convince Putin to pull back from eastern Ukraine.”

Their furtive meetings went nowhere. On Power’s final day in office in 2017, she called Churkin. “I guess things didn’t turn out exactly the way we had hoped,” she said. “‘No, they certainly didn’t,’ he said. There was a long pause. Then, in unison, we each said, ‘We tried.’” A month later, Churkin was dead. He had, apparently, suffered a heart attack.

Power struggled—and continues to struggle—with Syria. She “was often flattened with horror” and “often closed my office door and prayed for those begging for rescue.” When Obama defended his lack of action in an interview towards the end of his presidency, she wrote him an email arguing that he had “damaged his credibility as president and undermined the influence of the United States.”

By the end of her time in office, Power “knew that neither the United States government nor the governments of other capable countries were planning to confront a scale of evil rarely seen in this world. Syrian civilians were going to remain besieged until they surrendered to the Assad regime. And when they capitulated, even worse could follow.”

Events in Syria may take up just a handful of the book’s 40 chapters, but even the chapters about the fight against Ebola or for gay rights around the world are really about Syria. Look at what else I did, she says. Please don’t judge me on Syria alone. (It hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, but this is by far Power’s worst book. A Problem from Hell is a superb piece of reporting and analysis, while Chasing the Flame, her biography of Sergio Viera de Mello, a UN diplomat killed in Iraq, is hauntingly beautiful.)

By the end of her time in office, Power’s ambitions are tiny. Her victories are “the relief of a father... reunited with his son, newly free of a deadly disease,” a foreign government minister who she knows is gay walking on a crossing painted rainbow colours to indicate gay equality. How far things have fallen from ending “America’s toleration of unspeakable atrocities.”


In the midst of America’s war in Vietnam, the historian and journalist James C Thomson wrote an essay for the Atlantic about what he called the “effectiveness trap” which kept officials from resigning in protest. “The inclination to remain silent or to acquiesce in the presence of the great men—to live to fight another day, to give on this issue so that you can be ‘effective’ on later issues—is overwhelming,” he wrote. “It is easy to rationalise the decision to stay aboard. By doing so, one may be able to prevent a few bad things from happening and perhaps even make a few good things happen. To exit is to lose even those marginal chances for ‘effectiveness.’”

While working for Obama, Power read Thomson’s essay every few months and asked herself “whether the balance of considerations still made it right to stay.” The answer was always yes. “I did what was in my power to do,” she writes. “I never seriously considered leaving.”

She claims—and she quotes her close friends, backing her up—that her resignation would have made no difference. It would have had no impact on the government’s Syria policy and there would be no guarantee that she would be replaced by someone as committed to human rights as her. The gains she thought she was making elsewhere would disappear. Even when Power understood the “effectiveness trap,” she couldn’t help but fall into it.

Power is a complex figure. She suffered from imposter syndrome and constantly second-guessed her interactions with Obama, a man who she considered a friend but who in this portrayal comes across poorly. On several occasions at the end of meetings, Obama pulls Power to one side. Not to ask her about her views, but to inquire about her pregnancy or her children. Instead of answering, she tried to use her limited time with the president to push him to do the right thing on whichever human rights issue she was working on. She would later castigate herself for not talking about her personal life. But the fault here lies with Obama, not Power. She was his adviser, not just his friend. One can’t imagine him getting annoyed with Joe Biden or John Kerry for talking about issues rather than family.

It would be easy to paint Power as a hypocrite, someone who was happy to have principles when she had no power. Indeed, that is how some of her critics on both right and left painted her. “What would the Samantha Power who wrote A Problem from Hell say to Samantha Power the UN ambassador?” she was often asked. “The old and new Samantha knew each other quite well,” she would reply. “They talk all the time.”

The two Powers did not disagree on the principles. The younger Power was on the outside sounding the alarm, the older one was on the inside trying to put out the fire. The problem was the refusal of the Power on the inside to realise that her effectiveness could be greater on the outside.

It is hard to prove a negative, but there is reason to believe that a principled, angry resignation that spoke of the necessity of America to stand up against “unspeakable atrocities” could have made a difference on Syria. It could have galvanised some of that outrage that had faded. There were no easy answers, but Power believes limited military action might have changed the dynamic of the war: “after Assad’s chemical weapons attack in 2013, the United States should have followed through on Obama’s threats and bombed the Syrian military targets designated by the Pentagon. Even having not taken this step, before Russia intervened militarily two years later, we should have at least attempted to mobilise a group of countries to enforce a no-fly zone.”

And even if her resignation had led to nothing changing whatsoever, just like the four diplomats who resigned over Bosnia, it would have inspired a fresh generation of Americans to believe that principles matter—that there is nothing wrong with being an idealist.

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (£20) is published by William Collins