When an idealistic Obama adviser bumped against real-world politics

Samantha Power’s candid memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” details her experiences in President Barack Obama’s White House. 

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
“The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, Dey St., 580 pp.

A clashing array of cultural forces virtually assures a rough landing for Samantha Power’s memoir, “The Education of an Idealist.” Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her brilliant and controversial 2002 book “‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” managed a career move that has been causing problems for its practitioners since at least the days of Machiavelli: She moved from the theoretical worlds of academia and literature to the real-consequences world of diplomacy. “The Education of an Idealist” is both the story of that transformation and the next step in the process.

Readers of “A Problem from Hell” will recognize Power’s lean, evocative prose line, and here that focus is turned on her own life, from the story of her parents and her early years in Ireland to her immigration to the United States with her mother and brother in 1979. She attended Yale, was a war correspondent covering the bloodshed in Sarajevo in the early 1990s, got a degree from Harvard Law School, joined the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, won a Pulitzer, and eventually worked for a charismatic senator named Barack Obama.

It was her role as a foreign policy adviser to candidate and President Obama, who appointed her first to the National Security Council and then as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that gave Power access to international power politics, and this role is likewise what provides “The Education of an Idealist” with its most interesting chapters. Although Power has a formidable academic background, this book describes the kind of education that only raw experience can provide.

As a portrait of President Obama, Power’s book immediately ranks right alongside that of her administration colleague Ben Rhodes, “The World as It Is.” As in that book, so too here: Readers see Obama as Intellect-in-Chief who seemed to thrive on letting the thinkers on his staff do his deliberating for him. “He would pose questions, and we would each state our case. His trusted advisers would then duke it out in front of him,” Power writes, dutifully adding, “The President would make the tough decision, and we would rush off to implement it.”

Thanks to Power’s long background with the candidate, the Obama portrait in these pages begins well before the Oval Office. Some of the book’s most soaringly affecting pages revolve around the meteoric presidential campaign that seemed to climax when Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucus. Stunned, she sent a message to the candidate: “Um, congratulations on changing everything forever.”

Power is every bit as candid when the recollections tell against her; she shares some brutal moments when she and Obama disagreed, moments made all the sharper by Power’s willingness to allow readers to see her as not just a frustrated idealist but a sometimes dangerously naive one. 

It’s this gutsy choice that will prompt debate about “The Education of an Idealist.” Is Power indeed an idealist, battered but still steadfast in her conviction that America’s power on the world stage creates a moral obligation to do good, to use that power in the cause of human rights even by force? Or is she a partially co-opted ideological shill, someone willing to provide humanitarian rhetoric as a cover for self-interested American interventionism? Partisan critics lining up to take either position will, one suspects, scarcely glance at the book itself before pouncing.

“The Education of an Idealist” doesn’t read like a standard Beltway exercise in self-justification. It’s too roughly honest for that, and, alarmingly, there are patches all throughout where the author’s naivete still lies fresh on the ground. “To this day,” she writes, for example, “I am still approached by people who ask how I could have supported the Iraq War” – as though she’s somehow unaware that “A Problem from Hell” could easily be read as a defense of American interventionism, and therefore as an apologist text for the War on Terror. She refers to the slaughter inflicted by President Assad on his own people as “a scale of evil rarely seen in this world” and relates the widespread denunciations of the Obama administration’s tepid and wavering response to the “red line” in Syria, including her own. (She was called out by name in Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorials, and she was told by a furious Senator John McCain “[Y]ou should resign. NOW!”)

It’s this bluntness of assessment that makes the book’s broader points on power and purpose feel disappointingly anodyne. “I heard one question more than any other during my time as UN ambassador,” Power writes, and that question is: But what can one person do? Against the frustration of such a question, Power’s defenders will list her considerable accomplishments in furthering the cause of human rights. 

Her own answer is simpler and contains an ominous note of its own: “I did what was within my power to do.”

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