So Weds night, I went and saw Samantha Power at the LA Library’s great ALOUD reading series.
She is Barak Obama’s primary foreign policy advisor, and the author of the great book ‘A Problem From Hell’. She was touring to promote her new book, about SÃ©rgio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat who was murdered in Iraq by a truck bomb.
She was interviewed by Terry George, the filmmaker, who has optioned the book and is planning to make a film of it. Some comments about that will follow…Power’s talk focused on de Mello; he was a charismatic, seductive (literally, apparently – she cracked a joke she said was prevalent in the UN that you couldn’t throw a rock in Sarajevo without hitting one of de Mello’s children…) driven man, who she obviously deeply admires.
She admires him, in large part, because he was willing to confront evil; he ‘negotiated with the Khmer Rouge’. His heart was always in the struggle to save people; as he progressed from being a ‘soixante-huit‘ (one of the students in the Paris antiwar/anti capitalist riots of ’68) to a pragmatist working the levers of national governments to try and save a few more refugees she felt that he maintained his high ideals.
And he personalized those ideals; he used Un vehicles – in full defiance of UN regulations – to smuggle civilians out of areas where they would have been slaughtered. He helped a Kosovar cleaning woman at UN headquarters find and save her son. He supported his east Timorese cleaning woman long after he left Timor.
He also worsened the situation in East Timor by handing over political control too soon; and she alluded to other failures of his humanitarian missions. I wonder – and will try and do some homework, and would ask all of you to provide any pointers you can find – if he rally improved conditions.
What I walked out with was the sense that she admired him because he was morally righteous; he stood on the side of the angels.
The problem, of course, is that moral righteousness without results is the province of saints and religious figures; from our political leadership, we are allowed to demand results.
And my admittedly casual impression is that UN humanitarian aid – other than feeding refugees – hasn’t shown much in the way of results. Again, I’m interested in what others know about it.
And it was interesting that Power both acknowledged that (indirectly) and still was impassioned about it. And that passion is a big part of what pulled her to the story.
She also saw it as a way to humanize the UN. For the first half of the discussion, she talked about how important the idea of the UN is while acknowledging it’s shortcomings; in the end, in response to a question, she made me feel much better by acknowledging that as long as the UN consistently acts against the interests of the US, the US will be emphasizing other multilateral organizations – she used the example of NATO in Afghanistan – to resolve our issues. She ended by acknowledging that while the UN may be helpless in peacemaking, and in confronting evildoers, it’s useful for providing humanitarian aid,
Confronting evil – and I liked it that she used that word frequently in her discussion – was never going to be the UN’s metier.
So my view of her swung over the course of the talk. In the first part, as she idealized de Mello’s failures, I was profoundly cynical. In fact, walking out of the talk, I began to think out a better critique of ‘feel good’ liberalism as opposed to ‘do good’ liberalism.
But by the end, as she talked about the need to pragmatically confront evildoers – and acknowledged that they exist – I felt better.
There’s a longer piece on the nature of the humanitarian impulse, and why it is that the blue helmets are always stalwart in standing up to the Israeli army, and not so much at standing up to Hezbollah.
Terry George was funny, as witty Irishmen tend to be. But he made a few telling comments, and there was an interesting thought bubble that popped up as he talked.
He was devastated that there was no audience for ‘political’ films today; he talked about the corpses of the anti-Iraq war films that were made this year. I thought about asking him – during the question and answer section – if that might be as attributable to the fact that the films had the wrong politics as to the fact that they were political – but I wimped out.
And it’s interesting to me how the media indirectly shape our discourse – Power could write the book in part because she had a deal to sell the film rights. And George was intimately involved in the process of writing the book – looking at the drafts as they came off her computer.
For very little money – in film terms – but a lot of money – in journalistic terms – he managed to have a hand in shaping the story she wrote, and indirectly, shaping the political discourse about the UN and humanitarian aid, and America and Iraq.
In business, I’m always looking at those discontinuities – where what would be a small investment in one context becomes a meaningful one in another.
And I think there is probably a very meaningful one here, as writers about events and politics may have an incentive to shape their stories – and hence our perceptions – to meet the worldview and demands of Hollywood.
Did she change my views on Obama or my concerns about his foreign policy? No.