Samantha Power

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 Sérgio 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.

22 thoughts on “Samantha Power”

  1. _”She admires him, in large part, because he was willing to confront evil; he ‘negotiated with the Khmer Rouge’.”_

    If i could boil down the reason the left can’t be trusted with national defense to one sentance, this would have been it.

  2. Mark: What’s the UN supposed to do? They have no military power, they can’t stand up to military force. The organization no political backbone. If you’re on the ground, you do whatever you can with your own 2 hands.

    AL, I wouldn’t say the movies had ‘the wrong politics’ as much as they were just bad, over dramatized, and transparently veiled propaganda by people who have no experience being soldiers. There have been some good modern anti-war movies, but not many recently. “Munich” was the last good one I saw (which was more even-handed than many people claimed) and made 130 million.

    I would agree with him that Americans generally don’t like to watch ‘serious’ films, or anything over 90 minutes. That horrible movie “Jumper” has made as much as “No Country for Old Men”, which is darker (& apolitical) but a thousand times better.

    Let’s face it, Americans don’t like serious topics in general. Compare news viewers to American Idol viewers, or Late-night tv, or purchasers of those horrible “People-esque” magazines. My cousin-in-law visits next week, and she could write a 50 pg report on Britney, but can’t give me a basic history of John McCain . Do you know what state he’s from? Ummmm… New Mexico?

  3. A.L., How would you measure results with regards to the UN? What would a bar chart of conflicts that didn’t happen look like? The same holds true if you were looking to measure the intensity or duration of existing conflicts.

    I suppose you could try to measure the # and nature of conflicts before and after 1945, but that would be misleading for a number of reasons. Two world wars and widespread colonialism vs. an increase in the number of unstable, armed 3rd world nations

    You could measure against expectations, but whose? & how realistic were those expectations?

    We know, of course, of every conflict the UN failed to prevent. We don’t know how many it did prevent. It’s impossible to say what conficts might have developed over time if issues hadn’t been resolved during discussions in rooms over on the East River. Nor do we know how much, if at all, any one conflict was reduced in scope because of the existence of the UN.

    I think the success rate and results are unknowable. I don’t see a downside of having a forum in which representatives the world’s nations are able to speak to one another on a constant basis.

    On the difference between feel good liberalism and do good liberalism: the latter can’t exist without the former. Feel good liberalism is the necessary platform upon which any do good liberalism will stand. There would be no incentive to action without passion as inertia is too strong a force.

  4. What’s the UN supposed to do? They have no military power, they can’t stand up to military force. The organization no political backbone. If you’re on the ground, you do whatever you can with your own 2 hands.

    Which raises the question of why a glorified charity has ANY political aspect.

  5. The anti-war films crashed and burned because they told Americans that their values, country, and soldiers were the sole source of evil in the world when all anyone had to do was look back on the images of 9/11.

    The films are a desperate attempt at Orwellian rewriting of history to airbrush out 9/11 and justify Jihad. Justify murderous terrorism to enforce Sharia world-wide on Danish Cartoonists, obscure Dutch pols, and thousands of New Yorkers.

    THAT is why the films failed. Because they were moral, political, and artistic garbage.

    Americans have (Ghandi) and will in the future watch serious films. But they must make sense to Americans and not tell them “Truther” lies … which I’m sure Power’s book is all about.

    And that line of negotiating is all about how Power tells herself lies. Lies such as ruthless men can be “negotiated with.” What sort of “deal” can be made with Ahmadinejad? “Allow” Israel to be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust? Well Power would be happy with that one. [She hates Israel because anti-Semitism is “fashionable” among her smart set.] How about Osama? Or Mullah Omar? Or any one of a thousand jihadi groups here in the West and in Muslim lands?

    The UN has done nothing but launder money for dictators (see Kofi Annan’s net worth in the half a billion mark), act as an anti-American Islamist platform, and a megaphone for Ahmadinejad, Arafat, Khomeni, Osama, Chavez, and the like. Lacking any military force it is irrelevant to crises on the ground. Lacking any political will other than easy anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism of it’s Islamist and Third World tyrants, it’s a cesspit of corruption and enabling of anti-American dictators.

    The US should dump the UN out of NYC and withdraw. It’s a total waste of money — other than providing feel-good Third World melodramas and personal feelings of redemption to rich smug yuppies like Power.

    NATO is no better. The only nation that has any appreciable military force is the US. The Royal Navy for example has descended to training luxury yacht crews for money, and there are more luxury super-yachts than RN ships. Pathetic.

    America is alone. The rest of the world would prefer to surrender piecemeal. Power certainly would. This negotiation and that one — ceding liberty for us to do and say as we wish by inches.

  6. “The US should dump the UN out of NYC and withdraw. It’s a total waste of money” — Not so fast there, Big Jim. We, in NYC, are more than happy that thousands of highly paid diplomats live here. They eat out a lot, tip well, and keep lots of restaurants & their staff going. And the parties!!!! Man, the stories, I could tell…..

  7. This is a coincidentally timely post for me. I watched Hotel Rwanda starring Don Cheadle for the first time last night. I put off watching it because I knew how angry and disgusted I’d be at my own people (the liberal West). And I was. I had a similar reaction to the movie as I do to people who advocate abandoning Iraq – at its heart, today’s anti-war movement is a direct descendant of the West that abandoned Rwanda. Maybe not even a descendant – it’s the same people.

    Related, I wrote this column for my school newspaper last year: “When Anti-War is Anti-Peace”:http://www.columbiaspectator.com/node/23957

  8. Eric, so how do you feel about the Darfur/Chad situation? Shouldn’t we be in there stopping the on-going slaughter right now? And Tibet? How can we stand by and let that situation continue year after year after? What about the poor souls in Zimbabwe?

    By the way, my offer for that beer still stands.

  9. _Let’s face it, Americans don’t like serious topics in general. Compare news viewers to American Idol viewers, or Late-night tv, or purchasers of those horrible “People-esque” magazines. My cousin-in-law visits next week, and she could write a 50 pg report on Britney, but can’t give me a basic history of John McCain . Do you know what state he’s from? Ummmm… New Mexico?_

    However, this same national electorate who despise serious topics and choose *Idol* and *Scary Movie* packed it in for *Saving Private Ryan*. There is a difference between Spielberg’s epic and the recent spate of Iraq antiwar films.

    Notice how the American soldier is depicted by Spielberg in the Good War versus how the American Soldier is depicted in Hollywood’s antiwar fare? Spielberg’s movie was deadly serious. And it was a smash.

  10. bq. Ummmm… New Mexico?

    Hey, NOW! There are real people from there. And Juanita is from Arizona, our richer sister state to the west.

    As Richard Bradford put it in his book “So Far From Heaven” – “Poor New Mexico, so far from heaven, so close to Texas.”

    I agree with Mr. Rockford, the UN is useless. They have allowed themsleves to be the shield that Hizbollah hides behind while rearming BOTH North AND South of the Litani river in Lebanon.

    And mark – you said:

    bq. …so how do you feel about the Darfur/Chad situation? Shouldn’t we be in there stopping the on-going slaughter right now? And Tibet? How can we stand by and let that situation continue year after year after? What about the poor souls in Zimbabwe?

    Why cannot someone else take Darfur on? GB? If we go in there, then we will be blamed again as the imperialist aggressor or if we don’t as the rascist who cares not about the people being killed. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    Tibet? How can the Tibetans stand and continue year after year? When are they going to stage a popular if most likely futile uprising? Well, waiting……

    [crickets chirping]

    Zimbabwe? Hell, let Africa sink. Decades of booty for the kleptocrats has just made them richer and done Africa 0% good. Until they rise for themselves and learn to fight their own fights they will continue the downward spiral.

    Or were you just being snarky?

    As the the anti-semitism of Power that has never been a debate for me. Liberalism as a political agenda is inherently racist.

    [ducks and runs]

  11. I’ll give de Mello points for getting personally involved, and directly helping individual people even when it broke the rules. That’s a form of doing good, not just feeling good.

    In terms of the larger policy decisions – yes, they must be judged on results, and those results are generally poor. Of course, de Mello’s advocated actions and the UN’s policies may not have been one and the same. An examination of his personal record can and should take that into account.

    mark says:

    bq. “We know, of course, of every conflict the UN failed to prevent. We don’t know how many it did prevent. It’s impossible to say what conficts might have developed over time if issues hadn’t been resolved during discussions in rooms over on the East River.”

    Actually, we can. Conflicts don’t come out of nowhere. The list is rather clear, and anything that might even potentially be resolved there is identifiable long before the UN is involved. It is quite possible to go through a list of these conflicts, note their resolution, and work from the record to note the ones the UN has helped to resolve.

    One may also note the conflicts the UN has dismally failed to deal with – or exacerbated or even fomented. Or even the genocides it has actively enabled.

    The idea of the UN is inextricably bound with its real-world shortcomings. The two are not separable; it cannot be other than the corrupt pest-hole for and enabler of kleptocrats, dictators, bureaucrat parasites, and criminals given its composition. Which is why Powers’ worship of it, and advocacy for it, remains creepy.

    The UN is a political body, and political bodies who claim to be in the conflict resolution business have clear records. Naturally, mark would prefer to leave the UN’s record entirely unexamined, because the results of that examination don’t fit his agenda.

    There’s a name for a political entity whose record is deemed outside the allowable realm of examination. I’m sorry that it’s mark’s ideal.

  12. Alchemist (#2), What’s the UN to do? How about be honest about their actual worth, and go out of business? We can only hope, pointless though it may be to do so in this case.

    Glen (#5), We can only hope. (Hmmm, seems to be a useful phrase tonight.)

    :-)

    All joking aside, despite my many policy disagreements with Mr. BrzeziÅ„ski, I strongly doubt he would return the Syrians’ affections.

  13. I think if I had said “What’s a UN officer to do?” that would have made more sense. I can see a understand a UN officer bargaining with the devil because it’s the only tool he has. What else is he going to do? Threaten them?

    On that note:

    I think WW2 movies have a different connection than other wars, just because it’s also a very recent cultural milestone. People like my parents who where kids during or shortly therafter WW2 have deeply passionate about it ever sense. A good movie like “Saving Private Ryan” really tried to reach out to that generation. I think if you could get a breakdown of SPR ticketbuyers, it would most likely be them.(They would probably be most likely to also own Band of Brothers, as my father does too).

    Then again, “Pearl Harbor” made just as much money. So again, the peice of crap soap opera tuned in as many people as the great war film.

    ‘Platoon’ also did preety good(20 years ago) and that was definately not a pro-war movie. Also, I don’t think anybody watched Baghdad ER, which was supposed to a great documentry (& neutral), but really bloody.

  14. BTW: I forgot to mention No Man’s Land. It’s a dark comedy (very, very dark, and BARELY a comedy) about the Bersnian-Slovakian war, and the UN’s inability to do anything. IT’s also extremely good, but draining.

  15. I just went over to Box Office Mojo and pulled some numbers. Here’s the BO for the recent war films:

    The Kingdom – $47.5 million US/$38.8 million foreign
    Rendition – $9.7 million US/$13.3 million foreign
    Into The Valley of Elah – $6.8 million US/$17.3 million foreign
    Lions for Lambs – $15 million US/$41.9 million foreign
    Grace is Gone – $50,800 (actual) US/$0 foreign
    Redacted – $65,400 (actual) US/$433,000 foreign
    Charlie Wilson’s War – $66.5 million US/$36.6 million foreign

    Interesting patterns; I want to noodle a bit and may post something.

    A.L.

  16. Joe,

    “Naturally, mark would prefer to leave the UN’s record entirely unexamined,…” How do you figure that one, Joe. A little bit of mind-reading go on there? Never said such a thing; don’t have any such preference.

    “…. because the results of that examination don’t fit his agenda.” Could you remind me again, what my agenda is? I’ve forgotten.

    “[the UN] cannot be other than the corrupt pest-hole for and enabler of kleptocrats, dictators, bureaucrat parasites, and criminals given its composition.” Talk about an agenda! Of course, kleptocrats, dictators, bureaucrats, parasites and criminals were totally unknown until the UN came around and created them.

    Look, the UN is without question an imperfect institution, one that parallels the imperfections of humanity. But I think the world is a better place than it would be without it. I think a higher percentage of the world’s population has a modest degree of self-determination than would otherwise be the case had the UN not been in existence over the last 50 years. Unless you have some fondness or nostalgia for the political condition of the world pre-1945 — or believe that the UN has retarded progress than would otherwise have been accomplished — it seems to me that you are just banging a stick against the human condition.

    I’m all for examination of the UN; I’m all for intelligent reform; I’m all for scrapping the UN if there’s a better model to put in its place. I do think the UN did a reasonable job of sheparding a lot of 3rd world nations through the post-colonial phase; to expect that we could have gotten from there to here without significant bloodshed and corruption is naive.

  17. De Mello was basically one of the first modern trust-fund disaster tourists. Sometimes people like that (like Raoul Wallenberg) can do a great deal of good; sometimes their meddling does a great deal of harm. Mostly it makes little or no difference, as the tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka and indonesia can attest. Obama’s foreign policy team, like his volunteer staff, is riddled with such people, who hector us all about Palestine after a trance-rave in Bali, or about global warming after…well, a trance-rave in Bali. People like Samantha Power would be merely amusing if they weren’t so potentially dangerous. I find it hard to believe, given your history here, that you’re taking Obama’s candidacy at all seriously–if he wins, I assume you will be changing your nick to ‘Disarmed Liberal.’ Your night out should at least have made you into a forewarned one.

  18. The excellent “trance-rave in Bali” quip put me in mind of this recent piece from The Sunday Times, which was perhaps already discussed here. Here are two highlights from “The truth about European Union election observers in Venezuela” (disco references to be left in situ for Kierkegaard’s personal delectation):

    “Our destination is … the Caracas Palace, an ugly icon of upmarket Altamira, the suburb where many of the wealthy elite live. The hotel is described in my Lonely Planet guide as being “set to provide some of the ultimate luxuries Altamira has to offer – at a price”. To be precise, $160 a night. This isn’t what I was expecting. Democratic assistance, it seems, needs capacious hotel suites, deep carpets, an endless supply of Danish pastries, espresso machines, fridge-like air-con, white bathrobes, club sandwiches, saunas, hot tubs and swimming pools. …

    [And from the article’s conclusion:}

    “The mission is over. It will be my last. Policing democracy is a necessary and noble endeavour, but you have to employ the right people, trust them to do their jobs, and avoid the temptation to collect useless data. The Ecuador mission has cost about €2.5m. It has been a missed opportunity from the point of observing the country’s election but a godsend for Europeans who like to travel and don’t mind a bit of form-filling. In 2006 the EU ran 14 such missions, at an estimated cost of €35m. What it amounts to is an exotic and wasteful box-ticking exercise.”

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article3319910.ece

  19. unless believe that the UN has retarded progress than would otherwise have been accomplished

    Most assuredly I do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>