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The Education of an Idealist

 

The Memoir

 
 
   
   
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The Bat Cave, John [Prendergast] explained to me, is inside each of our heads—either a place of great stillness, or, on other occasions, a place where bats fly around, flapping their wings in sometimes frantic ways. Being ‘in the Bat Cave’ thereby became our shorthand for times when self-doubt was intruding.1

In her memoir The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power takes us through the ups and downs of being an idealistic bureaucrat in the Obama administration. During this time, Power’s government service culminated as the United States (U.S.) Representative to the United Nations (U.N.). Ambassador Power offers a refreshingly candid view on confronting episodes of self-doubt while navigating everything from the human rights atrocities in the world to the challenges of motherhood. She highlights the importance of building relationships with the most unlikely candidates, as well as embraces the camaraderie of like-minded individuals, particularly in a male-dominated working environment.

The first few chapters are devoted to her tumultuous childhood. Power immigrated to the United States from Ireland when she was nine years old. Despite being burdened with guilt for leaving her alcoholic father in Ireland, which she would grapple with later in therapy as an adult,2 Power threw herself into her new American life and transformed from an awkward girl with an Irish brogue into a stand-out student and athlete in high school.3 Even upon her acceptance to attend Yale, however, she “began to imagine all that could go wrong.”4 She bemoaned: “[w]hile I could adapt to any new environment, I did so with the latent conviction that nothing great could last.”5

Despite her doubts, Power graduated with ease and then found a passion in journalism, jumping in as a war correspondent. Overwhelmed by the idea of regimes committing unthinkable violations inside their sovereign borders, she immersed herself in the wretched stretches of the world.6 When she traveled to the towns of Prijedor and Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina (an area residents referred to as the “heart of darkness” because so many Muslims and Croats had been expelled or murdered) she could not help but become engrossed in the “desolate, almost apocalyptic sight of roads lined with gutted, bombed-out houses.”7 It was the Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims in 19958 that caused her to pivot toward a new career. When Chechen rebels executed her friend and humanitarian hero Fred Cuny,9 Power left the war and attended Harvard Law School. Her goal was to become a prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.10

She admitted that she was not a quick study in law school and became flustered when called upon in class, stammering through her answers.11 Later, a course called “The Use of Force: Political and Moral Criteria,” introduced Power to the intricacies of a nation’s use of military force outside its borders.12 She debated a number of issues, from the question of when military force is justified to how a decision-maker, such as a commander-in-chief, measures the risks of action and inaction. Perhaps the most informative effect of this course, and premonition of things to come for Power, was her recognition that “[f]or the first time, a question that I had initially seen in fairly black-and-white terms—should the United States intervene militarily to stop atrocities in Bosnia?—took on a much more complex texture.”13 As a journalist in Sarajevo, Power reflected, “Just as the war had come to feel normal, so, too, had the idea that nobody would stop it.”14

Power’s description of fluttering in one’s Bat Cave, that the road to happiness and success in the workplace and home begins and ends with the individual, is an underlying theme of her book. Power started to understand the physical and mental effects of pushing herself to exhaustion when working on her first book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and teaching U.S. foreign policy and human rights at the Harvard Kennedy School.15 A friend recommended that she see a therapist. Powers initially questioned the usefulness of therapy,16 but during her initial sessions—and later with her second therapist—Power began to understand that exercise and emotional well-being was imperative for her overall happiness and health.17 Later, when she suffered debilitating back pain and spasms—as well as anxiety attacks—she came to understand that the pain could have come from a different source: her emotional discord.18

Another key theme in her memoir is the importance of professional relationships, particularly mentors. We are often told to seek out mentors who look like us, think like us, and talk like us. However, Power convincingly imparts how an individual, who at first blush seems like an unlikely ally, could become a lifelong mentor. After college, Power interned at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy institute.19 She worked directly for the president, Mort Abramowitz, who was a fifty-nine-year-old retired diplomat, with roles including ambassador to Thailand, ambassador to Turkey, and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research.20 From early on in her career, Power sought his advice and once called him at four o’clock in the morning just to hear his voice.21 Over the years, she reached out to him, and he connected her with people all over the world, including his friend and then-Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, right after President Clinton asked him to broker peace in Bosnia.22 Many years later, as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., she unsurprisingly consulted Mort—her longtime mentor23—about the Obama administration’s policy in Syria. She also consulted another longtime mentor, Jonathan Moore, who, when they met, was a sixty-year-old former U.S. official who had held positions under six presidents.24

On the other hand, Power welcomed the advice of her circle of female colleagues during her first National Security Council (NSC) position. Her new set of friends dramatically improved her work environment.25 Their weekly get-togethers led to a sisterhood that assured Power she had undeniable support from a group of women who understood her struggles. Later, as the U.N. Ambassador, Power convened regular outings for the “G37” women, a name that represented the thirty-seven women—with Power as the thirty-seventh permanent representative woman—of the 193 countries.26

A third theme of Idealist is confronting downfalls and self-doubt in the workplace. While traveling to Ireland, her home country, for Barack Obama’s primary campaign in 2008, Power called Hillary Clinton “a monster,” during a conversation with a reporter that she thought was off the record.27 Unfortunately, when Power called Clinton a “monster”—she was venting about Clinton’s campaign—she did not realize that a reporter had left a tape on. When she did notice, she naively thought that the conversation was not for publication.28 One unfortunate morning, the Today Show and Good Morning America led off with her “monster” comment, while the New York Times and New York Daily News—among other publications—covered the story with a headline, “Pretty Dumb!” This caused Power to resign from the campaign.

After Obama won the election and several months had passed since her mistake on the campaign, Power returned to work for then-President Obama, first as the Senior Director and Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral Affairs at the NSC. In her job as a Senior Director on the NSC, Power struggled with finding her direction and voice. She expected, but did not receive, a “tutorial on how to do [her] job” and how to “help shape U.S. foreign policy.”29 Power soon learned that the NSC, being the “central coordinating hub to inform and advise [Obama’s] decision-making on national security, and intended to ensure that his foreign policy was implemented across numerous executive branch agencies,”30 was a complex, bureaucratic machine with its own “bureaucratic lingo”31 and a clearance process for every single paper on matters of national security.32

As far as discovering her voice in the NSC, even though others clearly were not the subject matter experts on the issue, Power found herself holding back in policy debates—despite her natural inclination to want to speak up, and observing others vociferously sound off.33 Susan Rice, then-U.S. Representative to the U.N., later the National Security Advisor, advised Power not to let anyone roll her and to “act like you are the boss . . . or people will take advantage of you.”34 In 2010, she was scolded for not speaking up. After a meeting in the Situation Room about the U.S. humanitarian mission in Haiti, Power confronted Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon about how there was confusion in the room about the U.S. force’s mission in Haiti. Donilon reminded her, “If you hear nothing else, hear this. You work at the White House. There is no other room where a bunch of really smart people of sound judgment are getting together and figuring out what to do. It will be the scariest moment of your life when you fully internalize this: There is no other meeting. You’re in the meeting. You are the meeting. If you have a concern, raise it.”35 A year later, learning from that lapse, when Power was initially not invited to attend the President’s meeting about U.S. military intervention against the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, she convinced Donilon to get her name on the list.36 In that meeting, Obama heard from everyone at the conference table, as well as all of the backbenchers—including Power.37

Though Power’s self-reflection on her errors, doubts, and hesitations is what makes Idealist persuasive, her feats should not be ignored. In 2003, Power was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her book on genocide. She and her team pressed the administration and the Serbian government to intensify efforts to locate Ratko Mladic, the mastermind of the Srebrenica genocide. Mladic, who had been on the run for fifteen years, had been indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal.38 Power’s team also advocated for U.S. involvement in the crisis inside the Central African Republic, which resulted in the United States helping to deploy peacekeepers to the country and providing over $800 million in humanitarian aid and peacekeeping funding.39 In supporting the Ebola crisis, and because of the overwhelming initial efforts and support provided to West Africa, Power saw the “most unified” session of the U.N. in her time as the Ambassador.40 Thinking back to her years of reporting on atrocities as a war correspondent and her law school course on the use of force, Power conceded that dealing with other nations was not easy, but offered some hope: “ on the occasions when we did push other governments to treat their citizens with dignity—something few other governments took it upon themselves to do—U.S. influence could be profound.”41

Finally, a theme that resonates with us as men and women in the profession of arms and law is undertaking leadership. A former military leader, General (Retired) Ann Dunwoody counseled,

Leadership makes all the difference. People in high-performing teams look for opportunities to excel, and people feel empowered to make a difference. These things don’t happen by accident; they happen because of good leadership—no matter the group, no matter the mission, whether you are running a war or running a business.42

As an ambassador, Power ensured that she had a team of talented men and women because she remembered that her mentors surrounded themselves with people, even if “junior,” who would challenge them and generate ideas.43 Power encouraged her team to focus on and care about the outcomes, not the inputs of just raising an issue.44

As a leader addressing the Ebola crisis, the United States was able to influence other countries to provide the initial wave of monetary and logistical support. However, when the United States started to take an unconstructive turn by threatening to close the borders and impose a mandatory quarantine for all American citizens returning from West Africa, Power reasoned that her advocacy would be more credible if she went to the region and spoke about what she had personally seen.45 Before heading to West Africa, Power talked to her United States Mission to the United Nations (USUN) team and thought how “[u]naccustomed [she was] to offering this form of apocalyptic leadership.”46 Reporting from the ground, Power enthusiastically relayed that the interventions in the region were working, that she had never witnessed such creativity and rapid returns of the U.S. troops’ contributions, and that countries like China, the United Kingdom, France, and Cuba, were donating.47 She urged President Obama not to implement a policy restricting visas because other countries would then follow. Soon after her trip, the continued efforts of the contributing nations—and the region—were able to conquer Ebola.48

The greatest success of Idealist is Power’s ability to go back and forth between her professional and personal life, between monumental personal accomplishments and disastrous missteps, and between moments of joy, particularly when talking about her children, and bouts of self-doubt. Power also does not hold back in her description of the frenzied business of national security, as well as that of her own frenzied mind. She freely offers:

When I met with young women in the United States, I erred on the side of oversharing, describing my self-doubt in the Bat Cave and the tradeoffs between my dream job and the family I longed to see more of. I did not gloss over the challenges they would face if they pursued ambitious careers in public service or foreign policy, but I encouraged them to take the leap.49

But what is most evident is that despite Power’s frequent episodes of self-doubt, her success was a result of her tenacity, hard work, and self-awareness.

In Idealist, a judge advocate will gain an understanding of the bureaucratic machine that is the U.S. government, supported by narratives about recent national security events— including the U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, Libya, West Africa, and Syria. And certainly still relevant for the military, Power talks about the situation in Syria throughout the second half of the book. In particular, Power exposes the convoluted deliberations of the administration in the aftermath of Assad’s first use of chemical weapons against the Syrian population and then later confesses, “Those of us involved in helping devise Syria policy will forever carry regret over our inability to do more to stem the crisis.”50 Power’s memoir emphasizes that there is a place for idealism in the U.S. government. The memoir reaffirms that the men and women in military service serve for the better good of our nation and to help those who cannot help themselves. TAL

 


COL McConnell is currently the Chair, National Security Law Department, The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, Charlottesville, Virginia.



Notes

1.Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist 157 (2019).

2. Id. at 161.

3. Id. at 27.

4. Id. at 39.

5. Id.

6. Id. at 103.

7. Id. at 79.

8. Alan Taylor, 20 Years Since the Srebrenica Massacre, The Atlantic (July 9, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/07/20-years-since-the-srebrenica-massacre/398135/. Bosnian Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica executed 8,000 Muslim boys and men and dumped their bodies into pits in the forests. Id.

9. Power, supra note 1, at 105.

10. Id. at 103. The day before law school started, she let out tears of relief while listening to NPR’s breaking news on NATO air strikes around Sarajevo. Two weeks later, the Bosnian war came to an end. Id. at 106.

11. Id. at 108.

12. Id. at 120.

13. Id.

14. Id. at 96.

15. Id. at 123.

16. Id. at 126.

17. Id.

18. Id. at 157.

19. Id. at 51.

20. Id. at 50-51.

21. Id. at 79.

22. Id. at 98.

23. Id. at 255.

24. Id. at 516, 58.

25. Id. at 251-52.

26. Id. at 464-65.

27. Id. at 191.

28. Id. at 185.

29. Id. at 215.

30. Id. at 215-16.

31. Id. at 217.

32. Id. at 219. Combining the lingo and the process, “Every NSC official who was seen to have ‘equity’ in a statement had to be ‘looped in’ so that they could ‘chop on,’ or edit, the words that went out into the world under President Obama’s name.” Id. at 105.

33. Id. at 223.

34. Id.

35. Id. at 283.

36. Id. at 296.

37. Id. at 297-99

38. Id. at 270-72. See Prosecutor v. Mladić, Case No. IT-09-92, Trial Judgment Summary (Int’l Crim. Trib. For the Former Yugoslavia Nov. 22, 2017), https://www.icty.org/x/cases/mladic/tjug/en/171122-summary-en.pdf. See also Ratko Mladić, Case Info. Sheet, ICTY, https://www.icty.org/x/cases/mladic/cis/en/cis_mladic_en.pdf (last visited Mar. 15, 2020). After 530 days of trial, Mladic was found guilty often out of eleven counts, including for the killing of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys of Srebrenica, and was sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Id.

39. Power, supra note 1, at 394.

40. Id. at 443. The United States and other countries ended up pledging $4 billion in supplies, facilities, medical treatments, and other components of the initial response. Id.

41. Id. at 282.

42. Ann Dunwoody and Tomago Collins, A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General 192 (2015).

43. Power, supra note 1, at 350.

44. Id.

45. Id. at 446.

46. Id. at 449.

47. Id. at 453.

48. Id. at 453-55.

49. Id. at 469.

50. Id. at 514.