An “Insider” Memoir That Tells What the Author Learned, Not How Right She Was
Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir (Dey Street Books, 2019)
Americans who work with foreign countries, particularly poor, non-European countries, too often start off with answers, not questions. Convinced that they represent a successful society, U.S. diplomats, military advisers, and others sent abroad to assist economic development or promote good governance can be quick to assume that people in less successful societies (in their view) need to learn from Americans, but less frequently entertain the possibility that Americans can learn anything useful from the people they came to help. In that frame of mind, U.S. foreign policy and national security professionals tend to be better at handing out advice than they are at seeking it. That mentality has proven remarkably durable despite a good deal of historical evidence that years of American advice to client states did not exactly produce the results they were intended to achieve (think Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan).
In his 2013 book To Be a Friend Is Fatal, Kirk W. Johnson gives a telling glimpse of that mindset. In a conversation soon after he began working in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Baghdad office, the senior official who supervised the aid mission’s Iraqi employees told him, “Oh, their names are so tricky and hard to remember! Just call them Ahmed or Mohammad, that’s what I do, and it sure seems to do the trick.”
That foreign aid administrator was hardly an isolated example. A couple of years before Johnson went to Iraq, a writer for the New York Times Magazine visited a military base where U.S. soldiers were training recruits for the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. The Americans were having a hard time recalling the recruits’ Arabic names, so called them by English nicknames instead. One recruit was christened Flounder after a character in the movie Animal House. Strangely, the trainers were teaching the Iraqis to say “Raise your hands!” and “Drop your weapon!” in English, even though they would be operating in a country where few people would understand the English words.
In my years of reporting and teaching overseas, I saw plenty of other examples of Americans, in various countries and in both government and private-sector jobs, who didn’t bother to learn the names of the people they worked with or taught. The surprised looks I often got when I did make an effort to pronounce people’s names correctly or use appropriate courtesy titles were a pretty strong clue that that was a fairly rare exception, not the rule, in their contact with Americans. It also seems a pretty safe bet that Americans who find it too laborious to learn their own employees’ names are unlikely to learn much else about the country they’re supposed to be helping or to win many hearts and minds for the goals they are seeking to support.
These reflections sprang to mind after I read The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power’s new memoir. In particular, they were spurred by the chapter that opens with an account of a Security Council meeting early in Power’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations where she heard the ambassador of the Central African Republic beg the council members for help in dealing with a catastrophic outbreak of violent conflict between his country’s Muslim and Christian communities. Realizing that she knew almost nothing about the situation, Power writes, she asked to meet the ambassador “so I could begin to get educated.”
That impulse is the reverse of the know-all arrogance that Americans so often show when dealing with less developed nations. Reading about it is refreshing but also troubling, because it reminds one how rare it is to hear any U.S. official, whether of high rank or low, admit a lack of knowledge and a need to learn more.
Following up with the ambassador, Power did not summon him to the imposing U.S. mission as her predecessors almost surely would have done. Instead, she went to the tiny office that housed his country’s two-person delegation in a nearby building. “I have just come to learn,” Power told her host at the start of their conversation. “Tell me more about your country.” Subsequently, Power made several trips to the Central African Republic and helped shape a U.S. peacekeeping and humanitarian aid program there, an effort that did not end the violence but, she believes, may have prevented “worst-case scenarios from coming to pass.”
After that experience, Power set an unusual goal. During her time at the United Nations, she decided, she would try to meet the ambassadors of every other member country in their offices, rather than inviting them to hers. Eventually she visited every delegation except North Korea’s, 191 in all. Those encounters, she notes in her memoir, let her see the art on her fellow ambassadors’ office walls and the books on their shelves and learn things about their lives and the conditions in their countries that, she writes, “I would not have known about otherwise.”
That attitude is one of the qualities that make The Education of an Idealist more illuminating and valuable than most “insider” books by Washington big shots. Living up to its title, this book really is about what the author learned, not how important or righteous or successful she was. That makes it educational for the reader, too. Reading it reminded me of two other books that are also illustrations of knowledge-seeking and why it is valuable. One is Sarah Chayes’s Thieves of State, an impressive study of how corruption fuels conflict and instability around the world. The other is Frank Scotton’s Uphill Battle, a Vietnam war memoir by the man who may well have been the most knowledgeable American involved in the U.S. counterinsurgency effort (known then as pacification) in that war. Both authors, like Power, set out to educate themselves, often in dangerous places, and both made compelling stories from what they learned, not from preconceived assumptions.
The core issue in Power’s education was the tension between moral principles and practical needs. That theme is the connecting thread for the events and issues she writes about and for the two stages of her career — first as a journalist and author (her Pulitzer Prize–winning first book, A Problem from Hell, critically examined the American response to various cases of genocide around the world) and then in government service as a senior member of the National Security Council staff during President Barack Obama’s first term and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in his second.
Some of the events chronicled in these pages are continuing crises today, such as the post-Arab Spring catastrophes in Libya and Syria. Others, like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, had a more temporary impact. Power was directly involved in that one, traveling personally to three of the affected countries. Her trips had a double agenda: to bolster and promote international relief efforts and to counter hysterical — and utterly impractical — demands to close U.S. borders to all travelers from the region.
Power’s accounts of those and many other events are sharply written and credible. They portray an institutional culture that complicates high-level decision-making — “I often heard one of two entrenched views,” she writes: “‘We never do that,’ or ‘We always do that’” — and the clash between her priorities and those of many other officials who “considered prioritizing human rights to be in tension with, if not antithetical to, our traditional security concerns.”
Power believes that some of the policies she advocated did help strengthen the moral component of American actions in various parts of the world. The successful effort to help contain the Ebola epidemic was one example. Another was Obama’s decision to use U.S. military assets to drop supplies and protect an escape corridor for tens of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority community under threat of genocide by Islamic State fighters in Iraq. Power also helped shape more generous U.S. policies on refugees, including the admission of more Iraqis (though far from all who desperately sought visas) who were in particular danger because they had worked with the U.S. military or other government agencies.
But there are plenty of stories on the other side of the ledger, too, and Power does not sugarcoat them. The grimmest and most emblematic of those stories is the ongoing human disaster in Syria.
The critical crossroads in U.S. Syria policy came in August 2013, after President Bashar Assad’s forces used chemical weapons to kill more than 1400 people, including more than 400 children, in two rebel-held neighborhoods outside Damascus. The attack blatantly crossed the “red line” Obama had declared the previous year. In spite of that warning, Obama had not responded to several small-scale attacks by the Assad government, but after the August 2013 strike with its mass casualties, he ordered the Pentagon to prepare for punitive airstrikes on Syrian targets. Power, who had been disappointed at Obama’s failure to respond more forcefully to the earlier attacks, welcomed that decision.
Very quickly, however, Obama began having second thoughts, mostly about what would happen if U.S. strikes did not deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. Barely a week after his initial order, the president chose to put off the strikes until Congress approved. That never happened, and U.S. military action in Syria was not considered again during Obama’s presidency.
The Syria turnabout left Power with lasting feelings of guilt and frustration. But her account also shows the excruciatingly difficult choices a president faces in deciding on the use of military force. Her final reflection on the 2013 events makes that lesson — not just relevant to Syria — clear:
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 . . . [Assad] 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.
In the end, she concludes, “all we can know is that those of us involved in helping devise Syria policy will forever carry regret over our inability to do more to stem the crisis. And we know the consequences of the policies we did choose.”
In the book’s closing pages, after noting the changed political climate that put President Donald Trump in the White House as Obama’s successor, Power offers another reflection drawn from a longer swath of experience back to her earlier time as a journalist covering the Bosnian war:
While I once viewed the conflict in Bosnia as a last gasp of ethnic chauvinism and demagoguery from a bygone era, it now seems more of a harbinger of the way today’s autocrats and opportunists exploit grievances, conjuring up some internal or external threat in order to expand their own power. Those of us who reject these tactics have yet to figure out how to convincingly reach people who are frightened by false claims.
That’s a convincing diagnosis, and not a hopeful one. One could say the same about Power’s repeated discoveries of “the constraints that stood in the way of making positive change” even under a president clearly much more open to humanitarian concerns than his successor. But even when she was most disappointed at particular decisions, she writes, she never considered leaving her post. Instead she tried to follow the counsel of one of her mentors, the late Richard Holbrooke, who once advised her to “do good where you can do good.”
In a nutshell, that seems to have been the main lesson of the education that gave her book its name. As a guiding principle, it may serve other idealists well. And, circling back to the beginning of this essay, another important lesson from Power’s memoir, especially for readers who are in or hope to be in the foreign policy world, is that people and countries will do better at solving problems if they ask questions first instead of arrogantly assuming that they already know the answers.
One need not agree with all of Power’s views to recognize that if more Americans in high and low positions in the foreign policy hierarchy had tried to educate themselves as this memoir shows she did, possibly Washington’s decisions in the last few decades would have been wiser and the outcomes better than the disasters we continue to contend with today.
Arnold R. Isaacs is a writer, author, and educator based in Maryland. Formerly a reporter, national and foreign correspondent, and editor for the Baltimore Sun, he has also taught in China, Ukraine, Bulgaria, former Soviet Georgia, and a number of other countries. He is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, and an online report, From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America. His website is www.arnoldisaacs.net.