I: Samantha Power – Influences

I: Samantha Power – Influences


Howard Adelman

This is the first of a series of articles on Samantha Power, the United States permanent representative to the United Nations. Though the essays are about her, they are more by way of a window into the positions of the United States and the Obama administration on foreign policy, not with respect to its main interests in Europe and Asia, particularly China, but with respect to handling crises, particularly those where conflict, atrocities or humanitarian assistance were and remain prominent. The first group of essays will offer background by exploring particular themes while the ones that follow excavate different contemporary foreign policy issues in a specific country. The focus on Samantha Power was triggered by an article on her in The New Yorker just before Christmas and by the decisions over the holidays to downsize the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan and Sudan’s decision on 30 December to expel the two top UN officials dealing with political and humanitarian issues in Sudan and Samantha Power’s response to these events, particularly because of her commitment to Darfur and identification with the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect.

Evan Osnos is a 38-year-old American journalist who, after earning a B.A., graduating magna cum laude in Political Science from Harvard, became a journalist. In 2008, he joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008 as the magazine’s Chinese foreign correspondent. He had already made a name for himself for his writing on China and as part of a Chicago Tribune team that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. This year, he published Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. That book, along with Canadian journalist and very recently retired Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, John Fraser, and his book on a previous generation, The Chinese: Portrait of a People, have given me the vey little I know about China. Both books provide insights into the larger collectivity by incisive portraits of individuals caught up in the maelstrom of a rapidly changing country.

Following Osnos’ very readable and incisive portrait of Joe Biden in a July issue, in the 22 December 2014 issue he wrote one of those feature articles on famous personalities at which The New Yorker excels. My favourite one this year was George Packer’s “The Astonishing Rise of Angela Merkel” in the 1 December issue. Osnos takes a different approach than Parker did, focusing not so much on how a famous but very unassuming individual acquired the position and power Merkel did, but on the relationship between influence and power, in part by tracing the trajectory of someone who has risen to the pinnacle of power, not through the electoral process, but because of her past journalism and writing (influence) and then transitioning to the role of confidante and advisor to an individual in pursuit of the top of the pinnacle of power. His article is called, “In the Landscape of the Possible: Samantha Power has the President’s ear. To what end.” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/land-possible) The question is: does influence translate into power?

The portrait painted is doubly interesting because Power, like Osnos, began as a journalist. Whereas Osnos made his name covering China, Power earned her journalist spurs covering the hell of Bosnia in the nineties. Both are Pulitzer Prize-winners, Samantha Power for her 2002 book, Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which I both read and reviewed and about which I will have more to say in my next blog when I discuss Rwanda. Both Osnos and Power were at Harvard, Osnos as an undergraduate, Power (she was at Yale as an undergraduate) as the co-founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

When Osnos was well into his article, he introduced a personal note with a brief aside on Samantha’s early background in Dublin. When Samantha was only nine, her mother, Vera Delaney, left Dublin and her piano-playing dentist husband, who spent a considerable time drinking and being a pub raconteur. Vera went to Pittsburgh and then onto Atlanta with her medical boss, Edmund Bourke. Jim Power died at the young age of forty-seven when Samantha was 14. When Samantha returned decades later with her current husband, Cass Sunstein, the barkeeper told Samantha that she remembered Samantha’s father. He died, she recounted, because his family, particularly Samantha who had been close to him and spent lots of time accompanying him to the pub and reading in a corner, left for America. The implication: he died of a broken heart.

Osnos does not explore what affect this had on Samantha Power’s psyche. However, the reader cannot help wondering whether it did, particularly since Samantha has always been attracted to men somewhat older than herself who manage to combine the power of words with political power. I am not just speaking of her husband, Cass Sunstein, who is sixteen years older than Samantha. For her attraction to Obama is of the same order as indicated by her close reading and underlining of Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope. I have no idea how close her relationship was with Michael Ignatieff, but, to the surprise of many of us in academe, before Samantha had any book out and almost immediately after graduating with a law degree, she became a director of the Carr Centre at Harvard. Cass Sunstein offers another case in point, though he is only a very faint shadow in the background of the story Osnos tells about Samantha.

Cass is one of the most prolific wordsmiths and legal scholars in academe and publishes on a very wide variety of subjects from constitutional law to environmental law, from animal rights to second generation human rights. He is self-designated as a proponent of paternalistic libertarianism, the overt use of federal, more particularly, presidential power, to enhance individual rights and liberties. He is a friend of Barack Obama from their days together as faculty members at the University of Chicago Law School, but they also have a common background as editors at Harvard Law School, Cass of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and Barack of the even more prestigious Harvard Law Review.

Their lives then took different routes. Obama was expected to clerk at the Supreme Court but instead went back to community organizing in Chicago. Cass did go on to law clerk, first for Benjamin Kaplan of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and subsequently for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. Recently, he introduced what might be regarded as wild ideas into the conversation in the Obama administration when Cass served as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Power between 10 September 2008 and 21 August 2012. Currently, Cass Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor and Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. Cass met Samantha when they were both working for Obama in January of 2008 and they were married that July.

Obama and Sunstein both share an intellectual approach and yet differ. Both are interested in solutions that overcome polar oppositions. Both are inclusionists who try to bring as many into the discussion as possible. Cass, however, is much stronger in excluding fruitcakes, especially conspiracy theorists. If Obama approaches a problem from the centre as a listener, Cass approaches a problem as an outfielder, often bringing what are initially regarded as eccentric ideas into the discussion. Obama manages a discourse; Cass stimulates one. Thus, they complement one another.

Since Osnos’ article is about influence and power, one drools to know how Cass influenced Samantha in the evolution of her ideas while serving the Obama administration. At the same time, one would like to know whether and how Samantha influenced Cass when he was the regulatory czar in Washington for four years. But you will not find any answers in the article or even the question raised. Further, a reader might at least have been expected to compare and contrast Cass’ Senate approval process in 2008 with Samantha’s own as U.S. Ambassador to the UN.

Osnos does discuss Samantha’s approval process, which begins with bets that she only has a 20% chance of being approved (Tom Nides a former Deputy Secretary of State), her husband, Cass’, introduction to her nomination and with a lineup of Republicans determined to stop the appointment. It ended with her winning 18 of 20 votes on the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs with her virtually guaranteed approval by the full Senate that voted 87:10 for ratification. Contrast that process with the way the Senate only voted for Cass as Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in 2009, when the Democrats had an overwhelming majority, by a vote of 63-35 by the Office of Management and Budget, and then only after the Senate voted for cloture did the Senate confirm Sunstein’s appointment by a vote of 57 to 40. In comparing Sunstein’s hearings with those of Samantha, she proved to be a superb diplomat in parrying questions after being confronted with some of what were regarded as her more extreme statements from her past.

A reader might have expected or just hoped that Osnos would have compared her husband’s theory of “nudge” to her own complementary version of encouraging, cajoling, pushing and prodding. Nudging, however, is structural and educational. For example, in the science of behavioural policy, nudging involves laws (systems of formal authority) and architecture (the arrangement of artifacts in space), material incentives as well as educational and information campaigns. Nudging is, therefore, about creating lawful authority and regulations as well as conventions (persistent social norms over time) to provide a continuity framework. It also involves three dimensions of influence – aesthetic, material, and cognitive. Nudging may have the same semantic roots as the Yiddish word, “noodge”, but noodge does not entail leading a horse to water but poking and pestering a horse as if it were a mule. Nudging is creating a context of temptation so that an individual more willingly chooses what is better for him or her as well as society to overcome the proneness of individuals to bias and laziness. Noodging, on the other hand, is driven by moral assertions aimed like whips at your backside.

Samantha’s concentration is on the question of ends: “To what end can America’s power be directed?” Cass focuses on the best means to facilitate citizens in a democracy making more informed, and, hence, better choices for themselves and the polity to which they belong. But most of all, in Osnos’ relatively flattering portrait of Samantha, there is a strong suggestion that her skills constitute seduction (not sexual) – the French ambassador at the UN, Henry Kissinger, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Where can the psychic roots for such skills be found? After all, the contrast with the portrait of her relations – or, better, lack of intimate relations with women – is stark, whether Hilary Clinton, whom she once, off the record, to a journalist from the Scotsman called a “monster” (Hilary and Samantha later made up) or to her close but non-intimate relationship with Susan Rice.

I would especially have loved an exploration of some of the deeply substantive issues on which Cass has written that directly impacted on her duties – most significantly on the relationship between rational analysis and risk in making foreign policy decisions. Perhaps my concern with her substantive beliefs, her psyche and her relations with men goes back to a meeting in 2002 just before her famous book came out that made her a superstar public intellectual. The meeting was on early warning, conflict and genocide, interests which we had in common. But I cannot remember what she said or her role at the meeting, a fault I am sure of my bad memory rather than her performance. But I do have a record of what she wrote at the time. (See tomorrow’s blog.) What I also remember is that she was close to Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had just been made a Special Representative to Iraq by the UN Secretary General. It was in that position that he would die, killed not long after in the terrorist explosion of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and about whom Samantha would write a book published in 2008 called: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, a volume that has been on my “to read” list for six years.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian diplomat, was a unique UN professional who was even better dressed than the French delegates and had a style that combined intimacy with brutal honesty, diplomatic language with sharing inside stories. He was also a connoisseur of food and wine and loved beautiful women, Samantha Power in her heels towered over him for Sergio was not a tall man. Until that meeting, I had never heard the rumours of their relationship, which my colleagues said were widely known, but I could not tell you even today whether there was any truth in them. We all – or the colleagues I knew well – wanted, and expected that someday, Sergio to become Secretary General of the UN.

What influence did Sergio Vieira de Mello have on Samantha? She wrote, and it is quoted at the end of Osnos’ article, that de Mello “started out as a humanitarian, but, after years of contending with crises around the world, “he had become a diplomat and politician.” At the end of the article, Osnos depicts Samantha through the same trope and, further, suggests that this depiction may be one that Samantha projected onto de Mello. However, as I understood Sergio Vieira de Mello, ideals and the real political world were not at loggerheads. Rather, the issue is how do you use and manipulate the nature of the real world to serve higher ends. Sometimes you are unable to. But you should always use your best efforts to try.

Samantha is portrayed as a very intelligent, very savvy, very persuasive individual, and an absolute star at networking. But as Osnos also depicts her, she had a powerful influence on policies on Libya and Syria, with very ambivalent results, and a powerful influence on some relatively marginal issues – the Central African Republic and the Ebola crisis (all examined in later blogs). However, on the Ukraine, on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, on refugee resettlement, on the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, to all appearances she seems to have little or no influence. At least any account of such influence is absent from Osnos’ article.

So the question is: who influenced Samantha Power and how did she in turn influence government policy? There were many other men in her life than the few discussed above that I would like to have had the influence-power relationship clarified, the influence of those men on her and her reciprocal influence on them and the policy issues which they faced and had to deal with.

Much earlier there had been Richard Holbrooke. Senator Patrick Moynihan said that a new kind of war correspondent had been created by the war in Bosnia, one who covered atrocities committed against civilians rather than battles. Samantha Power was one of those new kinds of journalists who covered those atrocities by the Serbs. George Will summarized them at the time in very graphic language. “Today, with abundant evidence of rape used as a weapon of war, of Muslims’ eyes gouged out and ears and noses sliced off by Serbian “soldiers” (it is disgusting to give that honorable title to snipers killing Sarajevo children), with testimony about heads on stakes and a woman forced to drink blood from her son’s slit throat, it is reasonable to suspend disbelief concerning all reports about the cowardly mob called the Bosnian Serb ‘army’, which is a proxy for war criminals in Belgrade.” The events, in which ethnic cleansing of at least 500,000 and the killing of 65,000-75,000 Bosniaks, are generally collectively referred to as the Bosnian or Bosniak genocide.

The New Republic, which is currently in a coma expected to be terminal after a century of publication, wrote at the time that, “The United States seems to be taking a sabbatical from historical seriousness, blinding itself to genocide and its consequences, fleeing the moral and practical imperatives of its own power …. You Americanize the war or you Americanize the genocide. Since the United States is the only power in the world that can stop the ethnic cleansing, the United States is responsible if the ethnic cleansing continues. Well, not exactly the United States. The American president is an accomplice to genocide. Not so the American people. The president of the United States does not have the right to make the people of the United States seem as indecent as he is. He has the power, but he does not have the right.”

Journalism, with Samantha Power very much in the lead, had become the moral superego of the nation in the aftermath of President Clinton’s gross failures concerning the Rwanda genocide. Was Samantha used by special U.S. envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to spread his policy options and preferences through the media to enhance support back home, since it was well known that Powers and Holbrooke had become close? Or did Richard Holbrooke bow to Samantha’s hectoring and powerful moral voice? And what about the practical issues – the Dayton Accords that empowered the ethnic cleansers. After all, fewer than 10% of voters cast ballots, as they were entitled to do, in the original locations where they had their homes. Given the divisions of Bosnia-Herzegovina into ethnic enclaves in which the majority ended up voting for the most nationalist parties, the prospects of integration had been undercut. When compounded by ballot stuffing, non-cooperation and other devices to undercut democracy, one despaired at the peace – except if one compared it to the three horrific years of war that had preceded it.

I had a front seat for one dimension of the effort to devise practical solutions. At the time I had written proposals and studies that were very pessimistic about the prospect of refugee and displaced persons returning to their original homes and had made a number of proposals to help their local integration and settlement. One concerned currency. A meeting of three academics, including myself, with the UN heads of the seven key ministries, was held in Geneva to discuss the proposals. I had made the suggestion that the currency be based on the value of real estate and then the currency created could be used to allow sales of homes in the abandoned enclaves and purchase of new homes in the enclaves where the refugees and IDPs now lived. We were all thunderstruck when we learned from the representative of the International Monetary Fund that, given the past record of the former Yugoslavia as a communist state, a decision had been made to create the currency based on monies owed for labour expended, that is, on a labour theory of value. The effect was that the members of the armed forces and militias who were owed past wages (most of the others, except for party apparatchiks – had been unemployed), were rewarded. The foundation of monetary policy meant that the currency being created went disproportionately – extremely so – to those who committed ethnic cleansing, atrocities and genocide. Further, the whole idea of creating a market in real estate backed by the Deutsche Bank had been undercut.

The point of telling this story is that the moral issues are settled in the details – electoral, monetary, etc. – and not in high sounding moralistic general principles. And in almost all cases, these details were widely askew. I do not recall – but I could be very wrong – Samantha Power probing these details, for by then she had returned to the U.S to study law. But she had been a moral crusader during the war, not a practical reformer. What had she learned from Richard Holbrooke and how had her strident positions influenced him? The article does not tell us. The article summarizes but does not explore that period. The focus is on the Obama administration.

Tomorrow: Samantha Power and Rwanda: Authority and Powerlessness

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