Harvard Square in high summer is crisscrossed with tourists, but inside the university all is serene. Those academics who stay behind to work can enjoy the empty seminar rooms, loose deadlines and short queues at the cafeteria.
Samantha Power used to dread such periods of calm. The former US ambassador to the United Nations, and foreign policy and human rights adviser to Barack Obama, was afflicted for most of her adult life with intense anxiety attacks that left her unable to catch her breath, as well as inexplicable but excruciating back pain. She called them “lungers” – a term coined by a former boyfriend who witnessed her struggling to draw air into her lungs.
The symptoms would ambush her during the holidays, and later, while she was a freelance correspondent covering the Bosnian war, when the shelling stopped. “I had them in the summer of 1995 when there was a brief ceasefire,” she says. “I was like, what is wrong? I can’t breathe. There’s a ceasefire and I can’t breathe. That should have been a clue that something was a little bit amiss.”
The panic attacks persisted in the rare lulls during the hectic years of her stellar career that followed. At 48, Power has now written a memoir, The Education of an Idealist, that charts not only her steep upward trajectory, but also her excavation of her Irish immigrant roots, where the clues to her bouts of breathlessness and pain lay hidden. She doesn’t believe in neat ideas of “closure” – “There’s no moment where you just tie a bow around that stuff” – but she has noticed that since burrowing into her childhood, the demons have remained largely at bay.
“This period, after finishing the book, would be a perfect candidate,” she says. “But it’s really abated a lot.” The pressure will return however, as the book is published and scrutinised, because it will be not just the painful episodes from Power’s youth that are being dissected, but also the decisions taken by the Obama administration that were at odds with her own beliefs and recommendations.
Before entering government, Power had a single all‑encompassing preoccupation: how to respond to genocide and mass atrocities. It was watching TV pictures of the Chinese government crushing the Tiananmen protests in June 1989, and the famous image of a lone protester standing in front of a tank, that turned her from sports journalism to foreign policy. It was the unfolding genocide in Bosnia that drew her there as a 23-year-old freelancer.
I first met Power in Bosnia in the 1990s. We were part of a shifting group of journalists and aid workers who set up home in a Sarajevo bed and breakfast called The Hondo. Power was a decade or so younger than most, but even then was full of self-confidence and optimism about what she could achieve. She was already focusing on how she might change events rather than merely describe them. Looking back, she puts that drive down in part to a short stint working at a Washington thinktank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the influence of its president at the time, Morton Abramowitz, a retired diplomat who became her mentor. “I think it was because of Mort that I had this annoying habit, which was to be constantly thinking: ‘What should Washington be doing?’ Which was ridiculous for a twentysomething stringer who barely knows how to file.”
When, at the height of the war, Power left Bosnia for Harvard Law School, one older male reporter told her – somewhat derisively but more prophetically than he could have imagined – that she was on her way to becoming secretary of state. His implication that she was a calculating careerist still rankles: “It drove me crazy. It just seemed absurd but it did kind of follow me in a way that I found very discomfiting,” Power says. “I know this probably sounds not believable but I sincerely wanted policymakers to do something about the specific horror show in front of me.”
At Harvard she imagined being a war crimes prosecutor at The Hague. “The idea was you go to law school and you go get the bad guy somehow.” But she became absorbed instead in the question of why and how successive US administrations since the second world war had failed to respond effectively to genocide, for all the vows of “never again”. So she dropped out of the law course and embarked on what ended up being a five year project on genocide. It culminated in her book A Problem from Hell
Her prominence caught the attention of the then senator Obama, who recruited her as a foreign policy adviser. But his rise to the presidency, and her ascent alongside him to the White House and then the UN, took her from foreign policy theory to practice, with all the compromises that entailed.
One of the darkest clouds that hangs over the legacy of the Obama administration is Syria. Its decision not to intervene to try to stop the slaughter was arguably the most consequential. Power argued for action but ended up on the losing side, drawing accusations of betrayal and hypocrisy from many former supporters and colleagues. The US gave limited support and training to rebel groups, but made no direct military intervention, even after President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons, killing hundreds of people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus with a sarin gas attack in the summer of 2013.
Power’s memoir reveals for the first time just how close-run that decision was. Obama resolved to carry out air strikes in the aftermath of the chemical weapon attacks, but they were put on hold while a team of UN inspectors investigated Damascus. When they eventually left, having confirmed the use of sarin, Power rushed to call Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, unaware that by then the pendulum had begun to swing away from intervention. “I call Susan and I can’t reach her, and I say to her assistant: ‘It’s really urgent because I know we are still going forward.’ And she’s just totally unreachable,” Power recalls.
By the time Rice called back, Obama had changed his mind. David Cameron had lost a parliamentary vote on UK involvement in military action. Details of the planned strikes had leaked from the Pentagon, and Democrats were telling the president there was no appetite in their home states for military action. The president decided to go to Congress, which voted against giving him a mandate. “The conspiracy theorists believe that he wanted to fail. And they rightly see him as somebody sceptical of military entanglement,” she says. “But he absolutely thought he was going to succeed.”
In A Problem from Hell, Power had written admiringly of the US diplomats who had resigned over US inaction in the face of the Bosnian genocide. When her turn came to step down, she decided against it. She felt she could still achieve results by continually pushing for human rights to be central in foreign policy making. “There was so much else we were able to do.”
Power argues that it is impossible to know what might have happened had the US taken action. The consequences of not intervening are clear however. The Russians and Iranians have moved in to prop up Assad and help him wipe out the rebels along with hundreds of thousands of civilians, helping fuel the rise of the Isis caliphate. The exodus of refugees has destabilised the region and Europe, prompting a racist backlash exploited by populist politicians. “So with that logic of hindsight being 20/20 then I think indeed we should have tried to push the envelope a little bit more,” she says.
What distinguishes Power’s new book from most diplomatic memoirs is that the figure at the centre of these global political developments is a flawed, flesh-and-blood human being, plagued by personal problems. She details visits to therapists on the same page as debates about military intervention.
The pressures of working in the Obama White House were heightened by the tension of trying to start a family with her husband Cass Sunstein, a fellow Obama aide, author and law professor. In the memoir we find her sprinting from policy meetings to IVF appointments and slipping into White House toilets with pregnancy tests. The couple succeeded in having two children; Declan, born in 2009, and Rían in 2012.
Power also seems more prepared than most of her male counterparts to talk about her mistakes. Her public career almost came to an end during the 2008 presidential campaign when, in an interview with the Scotsman, she took a call from a fellow Obama aide about the primary battle with Hillary Clinton, and called Clinton a “monster”.
“It was such a rookie mistake,” she says, still kicking herself after more than a decade. Power was fired. “Suddenly to fall flat professionally in such a highly public way and to have no job … I was just like a wandering person,” she remembers. “All my dreams of the future, all the campaign stops I was going to do and the fundraisers I was going to host and the help I was going to give this amazing team and this amazing candidate.” Power mouths the sound of an explosion. “It was suddenly an empty calendar.”
The experience has left its mark. She calls it “Scotsman PTSD”. On plane journeys, Sunstein would walk in front of her to the toilet so she couldn’t be identified by fellow passengers. “I’m still much less free in public … I feel very much on guard,” she says. “But some of that was good. I was too trusting.”
Obama quickly forgave her transgression and brought her into the White House, where she had to overcome her lack of experience. On her way to her first Oval Office meeting she realised she had no idea where the room was within the White House. She Googled a Washington Post floorplan of the building and still ended up on the wrong floor.
But the emotional core of the memoir is set many years before the Obama administration and a long way away from the White House, in Dublin, where Power’s parents’ marriage fell apart over her father’s alcoholism. Power spent many days in her childhood doing her homework in a Dublin pub while her father, Jim, “brilliant, dashing and charismatic”, lined up pints of Guinness and held court. Her mother, Vera Delaney, a determined figure, fled to the US with Samantha and her younger brother to escape Jim’s downward spiral. On a return trip to Ireland, their father seized the opportunity to try to wrest custody, leading to a Christmas Eve showdown on his doorstep, and a brutal choice for the children.
The 10-year-old Samantha obeyed her mother and walked away from her father. Five years later, he died alone, leaving his daughter feeling responsible for his death. She only discovered when she was writing the book that he was found lying on her bed. “There was just this fear that I was carrying and on one level, still carry,” she says. But, in writing the memoir, “I learned things I didn’t know.”
Other than telling her story, Power’s broader purpose is a call to action during a time of despair, as Donald Trump lays siege to what is left of the liberal order at home and abroad. “I would like to make people feel, when they read the book, that they can do something about the problems around them,” she says.
She will campaign for the Democratic cause in swing states and plans to spend the coming years teaching at Harvard, including a course on effecting change, taught with her husband. And after that she would consider a return to government or even elected office. “I think the defining crises of our time require good people who care and who are willing to put themselves on the line.” But her caveat, the first lesson from the education of this idealist, is that even if you put yourself on the line “it doesn’t always work out.”
• The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power is published by HarperCollins (RRP £20) . To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99. She will be in conversation with Jonathan Freedland at a Guardian Live event on 5 November in London.
Source: The Guardian