The Women Who Shaped Obama’s Foreign Policy
Two new memoirs by Samantha Power and Susan Rice show how idealists became insiders—and what was lost along the way.
Very few people should write their memoirs. If you become rich, powerful, or famous, however, people will assure you that you have a story to tell and that you should tell it. And you may. But the very reasons for your success are probably also inversely correlated with the kind of self-understanding needed to make the story worth telling. While readers may really want to know what it’s like up there, they’re less likely to be interested in the fact that when you were still in the cradle, daddy admonished you not to “take crap off of anyone.”
That, by the way, is the “tough love” that Susan Rice, in her book of the same name, writes that her parents applied to her and that she has since imposed on friends, loved ones, and subordinates, some of whom appear not to have been very grateful for the treatment. Still, it must have been an effective formula, for Rice became a U.S. assistant secretary of state at 32 and President Barack Obama’s national security advisor at 48. But tough love is not a source of human insight. Having spent her life running as far and as fast she could, Rice writes, “I’ve had very little time to absorb and reflect on what I have discovered about myself, my family,” or much else. She has, she feels, put off that hard work until now. In Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Rice recounts, very briskly, her triumphs in the classroom and the playing field, the pain of her parents’ divorce, her rapid ascent up the ladder of power, and the inevitable dangers to family life of a career in national security policymaking. Her Obama is a kindred soul who, despite an intransigent world and implacably hostile Republicans, managed to “put points on the board”—her highest accolade.
Washington is full of people like Rice, who are very smart, very ambitious, and very reluctant to distract themselves with self-reflection. Only rarely is a person with a rich inner life drawn to power. One such person, of course, was Obama, whose own memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was laced with melancholy. Now Samantha Power, who succeeded Rice as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, has written a memoir less epic in its reach, though more intimate in its texture, than Obama’s. Although Power’s title leads the reader to expect a tale of chastening, the author, a former journalist, has actually written a book about how life formed her principles—and about how the experience of government tested them. In The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, Power presents herself as a ponytailed do-gooder with a book bag who ventures into a very tough-minded world ruled over by a benevolent figure who, alone among them all, grasps both ideals and iron necessity. Her Obama remains admirable even as he falls short of her deepest hopes. (I should note that I was a college friend of Power’s husband, Cass Sunstein, and have met her socially on a very few occasions.)
Many readers will rifle through these books looking for fresh gossip on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. I promise to come to that—but first something needs to be said about the relationship between personal experience and worldview that is at least implicit in both books. By her own accounting, Rice has scarcely deviated from the path she set out in childhood: By third grade, she writes, “my intellectual and physical self-confidence was well-established,” and by age 10, she had vowed to become a U.S. senator. That precocious self-confidence came in part from growing up in the bosom of the Washington establishment: Her surrogate aunt was the socialite Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and Madeleine Albright was a family friend. Rice has experienced far less failure than most of us mortals and seems never to have doubted her own gifts. After observing that Obama was “consistently the smartest guy in the room,” she feels compelled to add: “Personally, I hated acknowledging that.”
An African American woman, Rice’s most salient identity is as a Washington person. She has spent her entire life thinking about, and formulating, foreign policy; the mental habits of that world, both its aspiration and its limits, are second nature to her. When she describes herself as a “realist” rather than a “woolly-eyed idealist,” she is invoking a standard of professionalism more than an intellectual persuasion. (The phrase abuses not just idealists but the English language, which ascribes to true believers a woolly mind, or head, but not eye.)
Power, by contrast, was an outsider who found her way in. Raised in Ireland, she had the kind of father whom little girls worship: tall, handsome, charming, musical, bardic, and highly attentive. But he drank himself to death and along the way destroyed his marriage. Power never pretends to have squirreled away her painful memories; they haunt her long into her stable and comfortable life in the United States, to which she moved with her mother at age 9. That said, you do not become Samantha Power without deep reserves of self-esteem. She grew up as the smartest girl in class and the starting shooting guard on her high school basketball team. (Rice, though 5 feet, 3 inches tall, was the starting point guard on her high school team.)
Power barely read beyond the sports pages until she got to Yale University in 1988. Foreign policy happened to her, first in the form of Tiananmen Square and then the humanitarian catastrophe in the Balkans. For Power and the generation of journalists who came of age in Sarajevo, foreign affairs was not a strategic pursuit but a moral calling. In the book that made her famous, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Power examined the rationales that even liberal foreign-policy professionals—people like Rice—deployed to persuade both themselves and others that little or nothing could be done in the face of genocide. Indeed, in Tough Love, Rice unapologetically concludes that, given existing constraints, President Bill Clinton’s administration—in which she served as National Security Council director for international organizations and peacekeeping at the time of the Rwandan genocide—could have done little or nothing to mitigate the slaughter there. In her book, Rice claims that Power misquoted her in “A Problem From Hell” when she wrote that Rice opposed the use of the word “genocide” on the grounds that acknowledging the magnitude of the horror would make inaction far more politically damaging. But the anecdote does not sound wholly out of character.
In 2005, Power found her soulmate in Sen. Barack Obama, who not only read serious books but wrote them. Obama hired her first as a fellow—a kind of conscience without portfolio—and then, when he became president, made her senior director of multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council. Everything seemed strange to Power, as it would for anyone not habituated to life inside the U.S. government. She writes about how marginal she felt and then of her shame at her own self-pity; how repellent she found the boys-club language—“open Kimono,” “show some leg”; how dumbfounded she was to learn that hostile senators did not actually expect serious answers to the rhetorical questions they posed. She suffered from a well-deserved reputation for high-minded idealism and looked for guidance to the famously tough Rice, who had been one of the boys since she was a girl. (“Don’t let anybody there roll you,” Rice admonished, referring to those parts of the administration resisting Power’s efforts. “Act like you are the boss.”) And of course, Power continued to follow Rice’s path when Obama appointed her as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in 2013.
Power had justified to herself the decision to forsake journalism and academia for government on the grounds that she could do more good there, at least under a president like Obama. Yet she found herself at odds not merely with the rituals of authority but with the hard facts of great-power politics. When Obama traveled to Turkey early in his tenure, Power urged him to press Ankara to acknowledge the 1915 genocide against the Armenians, which she had discussed extensively in “A Problem From Hell.” But she encountered resistance to offending a close ally up and down the administration and ultimately lost the battle. Obama bluntly told her, “I am worried about the living Armenians. Not the ones we can’t bring back.” The president wanted to persuade Turkey to normalize relations with Armenia and was willing to trade historical truth for substantive progress. Power had the moxie to tell the president that his bid would fail and turned out to be right. She consoled herself, she writes, with the thought that at least her hero was “more conflicted than he wanted to reveal.”
Power is acutely aware that many readers will regard her career as an object lesson in moral compromise. Though she openly admits to her failures, she neither pronounces herself terminally chastened nor accepts a judgment of failure. In March 2011, Power, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rice, and a few others, persuaded a reluctant Obama to join a military intervention to prevent mass atrocities in Libya. Power continues to defend the decision today—as does Rice—and argues that, for all Libya’s current chaos, had Muammar al-Qaddafi been allowed to remain in power the country might have plunged into an even worse civil war. (She does acknowledge that the administration failed to follow up the military campaign with diplomatic pressure to prevent the country from falling apart, as it has.) She believes that timely, if less dramatic, action helped ward off slaughter in the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic. And she takes pride in the creation of an atrocities prevention board designed to provide early warnings of mass violence and to organize a response, though she offers no evidence that doing so either raised the consciousness or altered the actions of the Obama administration.
Rice’s account of her time in office has a wider ambit than Power’s, for she played a central role in all foreign-policy decisions in Obama’s second term. She is, however, no more a political philosopher than she is a memoirist. Her “mantra,” she tells us, is “get shit done.” She writes at length of the shit she got done as national security advisor, for some of which the Obama administration probably deserves more credit than it got at the time. Both Rice and Power detail the difficult politics and complex logistics of the administration’s response to the West African Ebola crisis in the summer and fall of 2014, which entailed mobilizing the U.S. military to build treatment labs on-site and speed health professionals to the front. Try to imagine the Trump administration organizing something comparable.
Rice does not reflect at length on the deeper critiques of Obama: that he put too much store by words rather than deeds, that he grew too enamored of drones and secret warfare, that he so deeply internalized the supposed lessons of Iraq that he would not use force even when it might have been effective. Her reflections are more small-scale. She openly admits the failure of some of her most cherished hopes, including the virtual collapse of South Sudan after its birth, a drama in which she played a central role. She also acknowledges that she and others failed to anticipate the rapid expansion of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, Rice concludes, in the face of turbulent events—whether the Arab Spring or Russian aggression in Ukraine—Obama remained true to his principles, which included international engagement, careful deliberation over national interests, and getting shit done. The combination of that consistency and the active national security decision-making process that she installed allowed the administration to both manage crises and put points on the board.
The longest chapter of Tough Love delves into Rice’s personal crisis over the killing of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012. She remains deeply angry—and rightly so—at Republican members of Congress and right-wing pundits who tried to pin on her the blame for a tragedy that almost certainly could not have been prevented. You will not be surprised to hear that Rice believes that she emerged from her crucifixion “stronger, tougher, and wiser.” Beyond costing Rice her shot at being secretary of state, the episode demonstrated the single-minded focus of the Republican Party on destroying the credibility of the Democratic president, no matter the cost to his ability to conduct foreign affairs.
The difference between Rice and Power in temperament and worldview arises most fully in their discussion of Syria. In 2011, when peaceful resistance descended into civil war, Rice was often described in the press as an ally of Power in the cause of intervention, for as a civilian she had advocated a military response to the atrocities that the government of Sudan perpetrated in Darfur. But this was a misreading. Like Obama, Rice was always attuned to the limits of the possible; I recall an off-the-record briefing in the late spring or summer of 2011 at which she explained—sincerely, I thought—why military action was far less likely to succeed in Syria than it had in Libya. “[A]s pained as we felt,” she writes, Obama’s decision to steer clear of the Syrian civil war “was the right choice for the totality of U.S. interests.” As in Rwanda, so in Syria, though for different reasons.
Syria was a more agonizing and more intensely personal issue for Power. She writhed when she heard administration spokesmen offering the kinds of tortured rationales for inaction that she had recounted in “A Problem From Hell.” Like most idealists, Power was predisposed to believe that doing right, and being seen to do right, redounded to U.S. national interests. That was the argument she lost over Armenia. As U.N. ambassador—and still as Obama’s conscience—she played an important role in deliberations over the reaction to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks in August 2013. Though Rice had opposed arming the rebels or mounting a no-fly zone, she joined Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, and others in urging Obama to enforce his “red line” over chemical weapons with an airstrike.
Obama ultimately extricated himself from the dilemma when Russia offered to help rid Syria of chemical weapons. Rice concludes that she was wrong and Obama right, since the threat was (she claims) eliminated without the use of force. For Power, the achievement of a U.S. goal was less salient than ending the massacres, which resumed days after the Syrian government agreed to the deal. She rebukes Obama for the pride he later took in standing up to the interventionists, describing his remarks to the Atlantic as a “defensive overstatement.” We could not, she concludes, “call that chapter a proud one in the annals of U.S. foreign policy.”
If each author is the hero of her own story, above each, shaping their destiny from the clouds, is the figure of Obama. They leave the reader with slightly different impressions of this extraordinary figure, at once intimate and remote. He was, Rice says, a realist like her, though one with a devout belief in America’s ability to shape a better world. Power, for all her palpable sense of disappointment at several key moments, rejects that term, pointing to the president’s willingness to act in Libya despite his own reservations. Power’s Obama stands above: She describes him in the midst of the Libya debate as the only figure listening for an answer rather than advancing a view of his own. He is far more attuned to remote consequences of action than the idealists are but far more aware than are the realists of the power of words and even small deeds to shape a different world. He is, above all, an incrementalist who likes to remind the dispirited moral absolutists around him that “better is good.”
Foreign policy is a tragic enterprise, a matter of choosing the lesser among evils. That is perhaps the “education” of Power’s title. Her penultimate chapter is titled “Shrink the Change,” a New Age-y version of “better is good.” She has learned, she writes, that even if she cannot change the world, she can use the power she has been given to do whatever modest good she can. There is no mistaking the pathos of that acceptance. But what else is one to do? “Shrink the change” is the idealist’s realism.
This story appears in the Fall 2019 print issue.