Samantha Power: Patriot’s Nightmare?

The re-emergence of Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power to prominence has brought critics to the forefront

The re-emergence of Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power to prominence has brought critics to the forefront. NRO’s Stanley Kurtz is positively aghast at “Samantha Power’s Power.”

A member of the president’s National Security Council who shares Noam Chomsky’s foreign-policy goals? An influential presidential adviser whom 1960s revolutionary Tom Hayden treats as a fellow radical? A White House official who wrote a book aiming to turn an anti-American, anti-Israel, Marxist-inspired, world-government-loving United Nations bureaucrat into a popular hero? Samantha Power, senior director of multilateral affairs for the National Security Council and perhaps the principal architect of our current intervention in Libya, is all of these things.

These scary-sounding tidbits might be dismissed as isolated “gotchas.” Unfortunately, when we view these radical outcroppings in the full sweep of her life’s work, Samantha Power emerges as a patriot’s nightmare — a woman determined to subordinate America’s national sovereignty to an international order largely controlled by leftist bureaucrats. Superficially, Power’s chief concern is to put a stop to genocide and “crimes against humanity.” More deeply, her goal is to use our shared horror at the worst that human beings can do in order to institute an ever-broadening regime of redistributive transnational governance.

Knowing what Samantha Power wants reveals a great deal about Barack Obama’s own ideological commitments. It’s not just a question of whether he shares Power’s long-term internationalist goals, although it’s highly likely that he does. Power’s thinking also represents a bridge of sorts between Obama’s domestic- and foreign-policy aspirations. Beyond that, Power embodies a style of pragmatic radicalism that Obama shares. Both Obama and Power are skilled at placing their ultimate ideological goals just out of sight, behind a screen of practical problem-solving.

But Powers is hardly a secret force. She was Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor during the early part of his presidential campaign–until she was forced to resign after calling Hillary Clinton “a monster” for her win-at-all-costs approach to the race. Nor are Powers’ views on humanitarian intervention subterranean: she published them in a 2003 book called A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won numerous awards, including a Pulitizer Prize. Her second book, a 2008 release on UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira, was made into a documentary. If this is a subtle ploy at placing her goals “just out of sight,” it’s failing miserably.

Is she a radical? Unquestionably, at least by the standards of America’s foreign policy elite. If it were her call, America would be engaged in countless conflicts around the world doing good.

But she’s actually not in charge–just one of many diverse voices in an administration that famously assembled a “team of rivals” rather than an ideologically coherent group. The she–in conjunction with several others in the administration–managed to slowly persuade Obama to intervene in Libya is, in my judgment, regrettable. But it’s worth pointing out that Obama decided the other way in Sierra Leone, Yemen, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Bahrain, and numerous other places where Powers’ principles could arguably demand humanitarian intervention.

Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that Libya was the only one of those conflicts where John McCain, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and other prominent leaders from both parties were demanding intervention. And the only one where regional actors and major allies called for action. There’s no question in my mind, then, that President McCain would have intervened in Libya had things been different in 2008. For that matter, so would President Hillary Clinton.

Does she “share Noam Chomsky’s foreign policy goals”? Well, Chomsky actually denounced A Problem From Hell for being too soft on America’s support for nasty regimes around the world, and thus what he viewed as our culpability in atrocities.

I’m not sure why I should still care about Tom Hayden, whose heyday took place when I was still in diapers, but the basis for the claim the he considers Power “a fellow radical” is presumably a recent piece in The Nation (“Samantha Power Goes To War“) in which he asserts, “Over a long conversation with Power in December 2003, I was struck by the generational factor in her thinking. If she had experienced Vietnam in her early twenties, I felt, she would have joined the radical left, suspicious always of American power. But as an Irish internationalist witnessing death and destruction in the former Yugoslavia, she wondered how the United States could be neutral.”

But if we’re citing Hayden as an authority, he debunks Kurtz’ darker assertions a few paragraphs later:

Perhaps the greatest problem in Power’s worldview is an elitism that scorns domestic policy and politics, the very domain where she believes the crusade to stop genocide is so often “lost.” Anyone primarily concerned with domestic priorities, in her view,must be an isolationist and thus an obstacle to the global struggle for human rights. One can’t imagine Power worrying very much about, say, rent subsidies or pension funds.

Is Powers unpatriotic, let alone a “patriot’s nightmare”? I’ve met her only briefly and haven’t read enough of her work to peer into her heart. But I’ve certainly seen no evidence that she doesn’t love her adopted country (she was born in Ireland). She could, after all, live anywhere she wanted and has chosen to be in the United States, where she’s raising a son with husband Cass Sunstein.

Her international relations worldview, in a nutshell, is that states are not entitled to have their sovereignty respected when they’re not living up to minimal human rights standards promulgated by the United States and a handful of other developed nations. The notion that the United Nations and its “leftist bureaucrats” could impose its will on the United States is absurd on a number of levels. Not only is it chiefly American values that it’s seeking to promote but it’s American money and military capability that allows it to function. As President Dave Chappelle aptly noted some years back, the UN lacks an army.

As my colleague Dave Schuler–who reluctantly voted for Obama in the end–observed at the time of the “monster” hubbub, “I do think that the loose lips of Obama’s advisors, first economic advisor Austan Goolsbee and now foreign policy advisor Ms. Power, suggest an immaturity in judgment that should give us pause. They may know everything there is to know about economics and foreign policy. Do they have the maturity and judgment to render sound advice?” It’s a concern that bore itself out, at least in the opening months of the administration.

I by no means share Powers’ foreign policy vision. It’s an extreme if logical extension of the liberal internationalism that has dominated Democratic international relations thinking since the Clinton Administration and one of a shrinking set of reasons that I vote Republican. (Of course, it’s more than somewhat undermined by the recent domination of my party by neoconservatives, who manage to find just as many reasons to go to war.)

Does Obama secretly want to be more Powersesque in his policies? Who knows? But he rather clearly hasn’t been. Again, he’s apparently not given more than passing consideration to intervening in any number of ongoing humanitarian crises aside from Libya, where a bipartisan and international elite consensus for action existed.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    Her genocide book was quite good I thought. Kurtz’ assertion makes sense if she was the only one wanting to go into Libya. That was not the case. I suspect the UK and France had more to do with it. (This is all part of a right wing meme that the women nagged Obama into this. ) Given the UK steadfastness in Afghanistan I think it was probably hard to ignore their request.


  2. James Joyner says:

    Steve: Yes, I think a variety of factors forced Obama’s hand. I disagree with the choice but think all our recent presidents would likely have made the same one.

  3. sam says:

    “Her international relations worldview, in a nutshell, is that states are not entitled to have their sovereignty respected when they’re not living up to minimal human rights standards promulgated by the United States and a handful of other developed nations.”

    Well, you know, I don’t find that any more objectionable than I found:

    “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
    And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

    I find the sentiments, principles, admirable and fundamentally American. How one goes about instantiating the principles is what needs to be debated, not the principles themselves.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @sam: I’m dubious of the idea that mere humanitarian concerns should ever be cause for intervening in an ongoing civil war. But, no, the idea that it’s a bad thing for dictators to slaughter people is hardly novel or outlandish.

  5. Franklin says:

    Kurtz uses the word radical in each of the three paragraphs above. Maybe if he used it just a few more times I would get really scared. I don’t really agree with Powers either, but she doesn’t seem like much of a bogeyman (or bogeywoman, I guess).

  6. PD Shaw says:


    Joyner did mention she is married to Cass Sunstein, about whom a number of blogs have identified as a radical, with radically radical ideas, that are simplyway too radical.

  7. Jay Tea says:

    I guess “radical” is the counterpart to “extremist,” as Senator Schumer demonstrated is the go-to word for liberals to apply anyone to the right of Mao.


  8. PD Shaw says:

    The piece seems to conflate policy with tactics. I can see that Powers supports humanitarian interventions and may be skeptical or look askance at the intrusion of domestic politics, but to me, getting domestic support is a tactic that gives the President greater authority in carrying out military actions and conveys to the enemy that the polis is united and won’t be easily waited out.

    One reason not to get domestic support is that the domestic politics are too difficult for it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. (See Kerry and McCain)

    No, it looks like a deliberate attempt to convey that American support is limited and equivocal. That doesn’t seem like the approach of an aggressive interventionist; it sounds like Obama approving an aggressive plan and imposing his own limits on it (like he did in Afghanistan).

  9. Jay Tea says:

    Here’s the problem with Powers’ ideas — and they’re a common on from the left.

    They are based on the idea that if the intentions are good, then the results will be good. If their hearts are noble and their motives are pure, all will work out.

    We tried that in Somalia.

    We’re trying that in Libya.

    Hey, what’s this written on the paving stones? Why are we in this handbasket? And why is it getting so warm?


  10. wr says:

    Of course, in Kurtz’s world, the only way to be a patriot is to believe exactly what he does. Anyone who opposes a war he cheerleads is an evilcommietraitor.

  11. alkali says:

    1) The fact that Stanley Kurtz is aghast at a particular Democrat is about the most unremarkable thing one can say about a Democrat.

    2) IIRC, the takeaway from Power’s book on genocide is that America’s commitment to full military intervention in cases of genocide means that (i) we are unwilling to label genocide as such because that would entail commitment to full military intervention, and (ii) we are therefore unwilling to take up half measures like arms embargos or no-fly zones, because doing so would raise the question of whether the conduct we are trying to interdict is a genocide that requires a full military intervention. So it is not quite right to say that Power would prefer that “America would be engaged in countless conflicts around the world doing good.” Rather, it is probably her preference that America utilize measures short of full military intervention more frequently than it does now.

  12. mantis says:

    They are based on the idea that if the intentions are good, then the results will be good.

    Get that strawman, Jay. Get im!

  13. anjin-san says:

    We tried that in Somalia.

    We’re trying that in Libya.

    Reagan tried it in Lebanon. Guess you forgot about that.

  14. Jay Tea says:

    alkali, I did a very amateur study of the Darfur genocide, and looked at it from a purely logistic, pragmatic approach… and concluded that there wasn’t really anything we could do. We would need overflight — if not basing — rights from at least one of the Sudan’s neighbors, and that would not be likely. Further, we’d have to actually put troops on the ground, with the accompanying video of US troops killing black Muslims in their home country by the scores.

    Everyone always says “we need to stop the killing.” The problem is that “stopping the killing” almost always requires “killing the killers,” and that tends to curdle stomachs and sap will very, very quickly.

    Which is why we should consider very, very, very carefully any types of military intervention. Because we better have better reasons than “others want us to do so, and it’s the moral thing to do” because the support can fade very quickly, and the “moral” argument can evaporate even faster when the so-called “moral experts” decide that our tactics don’t meet their high standards.

    Usually, when we start “killing the killers to stop them from killing the innocents.”

    On the other hand, the “in our own national interests” argument is far more sturdy and less prone to collapse. It also has the benefit of not setting precedents that can result in attempts to draw us into all kinds of purely internal conflicts around the world.

    What’s that phrase again — “America is not the world’s policeman?” Or is that only operative when we have Republican presidents?


  15. reid says:

    Seems like I heard a lot about Saddam being a brutal dictator, too. Though, that was after other excuses to invade were invalidated….

  16. Jay Tea says:

    Lebanon was not quite the same, anjin. It wasn’t a humanitarian move, but a peacekeeping one.

    Turned into an utter fiasco, a major point in empowering the Islamists to challenge the US, and one of Reagan’s worst moves, but not quite the same as Libya and Somalia.


  17. alkali says:

    @Jay Tea: I’m not sure what your point is.

    Power’s argument is that the official US government policy of pledging to launch a full military invention in the case of every genocide is wrong, including for the reason that it makes us reluctant to identify genocides as such when we are unwilling or unable to launch a military intervention, and that we should be open to using measures short of a full military intervention in cases of genocide.

    With regard to Darfur in particular, a little Googling reveals that Power is on the record as calling proposals for US military intervention there “idiotic.” (Talk Nation Radio interview, Dec. 1, 2006 (“What would it actually take to do the job if all of the worst case scenarios transpire? So that’s why you don’t hear me calling for a U.S. invasion of Sudan or anything idiotic like that. I just think it’s idiotic, but a lot of my colleagues are calling for that.”).)

  18. Andre Kenji says:

    The point is that Libya was on the US television. Ivory Coast was not. Bahrain barely was.

  19. JKB says:

    This R2P seems dubious to me since it is entirely discretionary. That’s not much of a responsibility, i.e.,” you must act when you have the desire to stop some potential atrocity”.

    It is definitely dubious in light that all levels of government in the US have claimed and the SCOTUS has decreed that our government has no duty to protect (American citizens, in America).

    So I guess they went with R2P since the reality was to long: The time-limited, scope-limited, when it suits you, responsibility (in a name only) to Protect.

  20. PD Shaw says:

    alkali, thanks for your comments. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like I may have underestimated Powers’ tactical thinking on the desirability for constraints on interventions.

  21. ponce says:

    “America’s foreign policy elite.”

    Who might they be?

    It’s kinda like like saying “America’s soccer playing elite”

  22. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: Our “foreign policy elite” are the key policymakers and those in think tanks and academia who are key influencers in the foreign policymaking process, by virtue of coming in and out of government or at least being very connected to those people. I know such people but am sufficiently far outside the circle that I’m in no danger of entering it.

  23. ponce says:


    Kinda like the Special Olympics, you get a medal just for showing up?