Two Views of Samantha Power: A Case Study in Conservative Journalism

Samantha Power, Wikipedia tells me, is special assistant to President Barack Obama and runs the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights as senior director of multilateral affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. She is, I can tell you, a remarkable woman by any imaginable definition in too many ways to elaborate here (though Wikipedia’s entry will give you at least an idea of what I mean and this New York Times article will give you an idea of why the role she may or may not have played in convincing the president to intervene in Libya has made her front-page news again).

Personally, I am divided about the decision to intervene in Libya. Even if it turns out swimmingly—which military interventions never, ever do—I think Obama made a grievous mistake in failing to go to Congress to get the requisite constitutional authority to put U.S. soldiers in harm’s way for an extended period. But my point today has little to do with the ultimate wisdom (or lack thereof) of Obama’s decision or even with the degree and quality of Ms. Power’s influence. Rather it’s about the nature of conservative journalism.

Inspired by her role in the Libya decision—whatever it may have been—two conservative journals of opinion have offered up new profiles of Power tied to the question of her influence over the president. The first, by longtime neoconservative Jacob Heilbrunn, is titled “Samantha and Her Subjects,” and appears in the new issue of The National Interest. The second one, by conservative author Stanley Kurtz, appeared in a recent edition of National Review

In the former, Heilbrunn takes Power’s ideas seriously as he simultaneously takes serious issue with them. He describes her thusly (and to my mind accurately):

Power is not just an advocate for human rights. She is an outspoken crusader against genocide. … she has made it her life’s mission to shame American statesmen into action and to transform U.S. foreign policy. And as she seeks to create a new paradigm, she is becoming a paradigmatic figure. She is a testament to the collapse of the old foreign-policy establishment and the rise of a fresh elite. This elite is united by a shared belief that American foreign policy must be fundamentally transformed from an obsession with national interests into a broader agenda that seeks justice for women and minorities, and promotes democracy whenever and wherever it can—at the point of a cruise missile if necessary. The same century-long progressive expansion of the democratic franchise that has taken place at home is also supposed to occur abroad. She is, you could say, the prophet armed.

Heilbrunn does not like much of what he sees in Power’s thinking. Oddly, and somewhat bravely, he takes issue with her refusal to sign up for George W. Bush’s Iraqi misadventure. On a 2004 panel, she told him that “The Bush administration was not acting multilaterally and Saddam’s actions, at that point, didn’t meet the definition of genocide even if they had in the past.” Heilbrunn recalls that he “never found [the answer] fully satisfactory, at least for someone who was otherwise championing the cause of stopping mad and bad dictators around the world.”

If so, perhaps he should have consulted the speech of a certain young Illinois state senator who exclaimed at an antiwar rally at the time:

I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

But not all of Heilbrunn’s criticisms are as easy to puncture. He writes, “What is missing from Power’s work, however, is a political context. There seems to be the assumption that Washington can always be on the right side of history—that American presidents can ignore domestic and international considerations simply to plunge into conflicts on the side of the beleaguered whenever they feel like it.” This strikes me as fair. Genocide in far-off lands is not a factor in the voting patterns of any powerful American interest group or voting bloc, unfortunately. But losing soldiers in foreign wars in which the United States enjoys no clearly defined national interest surely is.

Heilbrunn is also sensibly suspect of the heroic book-length portrait Power painted of the late U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed along with 20 other members of his staff in August 2003 when he was the secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq, relying in part on the tough-minded critique by The Nation’s Michael Massing. Having offered up a fair assessment of Power’s philosophy and mused cautiously about the degree of influence she exercised over the president, finding fault with her “solution to the conundrum that has bedeviled the Democratic Party since Vietnam—when to sanction the use of force abroad—is to support wars of national liberation. This is likely not a solution at all.”

Fair enough. One needn’t agree with Heilbrunn’s conservative critique to recognize that he has dealt with his subject fairly. In fact, one can read the critique and come to an entirely different set of conclusions, which, to my mind, is the mark of any intellectually honest assessment.

Now turn to the work of National Review’s Mr. Stanley Kurtz, who has set himself the same task as Mr. Heilbrunn. In a teasing post on “The Corner,” he promises readers, “Want to know what our Libya intervention is really all about? Want to know what Barack Obama is really all about? Then you just might want to know what Samantha Power is really all about.” 

And what is that? According to Mr. Kurtz, Power “shares Noam Chomsky’s foreign-policy goals. … 1960s revolutionary Tom Hayden treats [Power] as a fellow radical.” She “wrote a book aiming to turn an anti-American, anti-Israel, Marxist-inspired, world-government-loving United Nations bureaucrat into a popular hero.” All in all, she is “a patriot’s nightmare — a woman determined to subordinate America’s national sovereignty to an international order largely controlled by leftist bureaucrats. … 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.”

“Interesting if true,” you say? And I’ll bet you can’t wait to see the evidence. Well, tough luck, reader. There isn’t going to be any because, sadly, “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.” What’s more, Kurtz has discerned a “continual contradiction and dissembling in Power’s writings, as the ideology driving the action can neither fully disguise itself, nor fully announce itself either. So, too, with Barack Obama’s policies.” That’s how they get you.

OK, too bad for that. What about Power’s love for Noam Chomsky? Is it because, in a long review in The New York Times Book Review, she wrote:

For Chomsky … America, the prime oppressor, can do no right, while the sins of those categorized as oppressed receive scant mention. Because he deems American foreign policy inherently violent and expansionist, he is unconcerned with the motives behind particular policies, or the ethics of particular individuals in government. And since he considers the United States the leading terrorist state, little distinguishes American air strikes in Serbia undertaken at night with high-precision weaponry from World Trade Center attacks timed to maximize the number of office workers who have just sat down with their morning coffee.

Or is it because she wrote of Chomsky’s work that “he meets official falsehoods with exaggerations of his own,” with “far-fetched claims that he doesn’t adequately back up.” Perhaps it is because she wrote, “Chomsky is wrong to think that individuals within the American government are not thinking seriously about the costs of alliances with repressive regimes; he is also wrong to suggest that it would be easy to get the balance right between liberty and security, or democracy and equality — or to figure out what the hell to do about Pakistan.”

No, apparently it’s because “Power makes it clear that she largely shares Chomsky’s policy goals, above all the curbing of American power via the building up of international law and related doctrines of ‘human rights.’” If the support of human rights and international law are what people imagine when they hear the words “Noam Chomsky’s foreign policy goals,” then he is a far more benign critic of U.S. foreign policy than anybody on earth has likely ever suggested. It’s like saying Power and Chomsky are identical because they often eat toast for breakfast.

Can Power also be accurately described as a “fellow radical” of Tom Hayden’s? True, Hayden recently wrote that Power saw “war as an instrument to achieving her liberal, even radical, values.” Kurtz might have mentioned, however, that he did not mean this as a compliment. In the same article, he continued:

While carefully separating herself from President George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq, she endorsed the Army and Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual associated with Gen. David Petraeus and co-produced with Power’s close colleague Sarah Sewall at the Harvard Center for Human Rights. Power believed that counterinsurgency provided greater protection for civilians, despite mounting evidence of Iraq’s secret prisons, torture chambers, thousands of civilian casualties and top-secret assassination operations carried out by Lt. General Stanley McChrystal in 2006, described in Bob Woodward’s The War Within. Liberal interventionists cringed at the outcome in Iraq, but Power apparently thought the counterinsurgency doctrine was a step towards greater emphasis on human rights.

Does that sound like props to a comrade-in-arms peacenik to you?

And what were Vieira de Mello’s ideological crimes that earn him the “anti-American, anti-Israel, Marxist-inspired, world-government-loving” epithet? Well, that’s not so clear. Kurtz repeats the “intense anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism” charge, as well as the “bitter critic of Israel” attack, but provides no evidence for either one. Just about the only crime of this U.N. official he does specify is the fact that “he carried around a well-worn copy of the U.N. Charter the way an American senator or Supreme Court justice might take a copy of the U.S. Constitution wherever he went.” Apparently, Kurtz believes Brazilian U.N. officials should carry around the U.S. Constitution—or perhaps copies of Atlas Shrugged—all 1,088 pages.

Kurtz goes on in this vein, warning his readers that Power is leading the president down a path that “may someday enable the leftist Europeans who run it to place American soldiers and politicians on trial for supposed war crimes,” and “may one day make virtually any use of force not pre-approved by the United Nations subject to international sanctions.”

The evidence for the above is about as strong as one might expect, especially when one considers what passes for evidence when Kurtz is being sufficiently careful to use the word “may.” Of course, the point of all the above is not really Ms. Power at all. It’s that one can write opinionated conservative journalism, as Mr. Heilbrunn has done, in a fashion in which truth counts and respect for not only evidence but the views with which one disagrees is evident.

It would be a better world if these were the conservatives who actually spoke for the conservative movement in the United States. Instead what we get is mostly dishonest hacks like Stanley Kurtz; character assassins and ideological obsessives whose wild accusations do not even stand up to the scrutiny of the links provided in their own articles. Sadly, it is Kurtz, not Heilbrunn, who is the true voice of American conservatism.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.