What was it like to be in the room for some of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration? Samantha Power started as an outsider, a war correspondent who became a voice of moral witness about the failings of the American government. That voice earned her a job in the cabinet of President Barack Obama, helping shape the foreign policy she once criticized.
Both as a member of the National Security Council, and later as ambassador to the U.N., she had the challenge of addressing her own criticisms within the confines of the job. Now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author joins to give a rare glimpse into the experience of navigating those halls of power.
SAMANTHA POWER: There’s no going back to a world of walls and thick borders and so forth. We are connected, and in a world in which we are connected, I think there are reasonable burdens that we can bear in our own interest, but we have to tell that story in a different way, and make it one that people can rally around.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to, “Why is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. There’s this quote by Theodore Roosevelt that you will see very often and it is very often deployed by powerful people, like people that working government or other places. You’ll see it’s their favorite quote. It’s a Theodore Roosevelt quote from, I think, a speech he gave in 1910, and he says, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” Typically macho and brawny. A quote from Teddy Roosevelt.
The reason people in the arena like this quote is because they hate critics. If you’re in politics, people are criticizing you all the time. If you have a public platform in media, people are criticizing you all the time, and there’s this temptation to be like, “Well, it’s easy to criticize. It’s a lot harder to do.” It’s a temptation that I think all of us have felt. I feel it sometimes when people criticize my show like, “Yeah, easy for you to say. You didn’t have to put the show on.” It’s understandable, that impulse, and it’s also understandable the tension between folks that are watching people do things and criticizing them from outside, and the people who have to actually do those things, because doing things always requires compromise. It always requires dealing with the world as it is. Often if you have a position of some agency or power, you’re already within the confines of a bunch of compromises that are for ordains institutionally, and so the Theodore Roosevelt quote is a way of asserting your own moral superiority, the people that criticize you.
It’s really interesting to me when people go from critic to doer, from the person who is in the first part of that Theodore Roosevelt quote saying, “you’re doing this wrong,” to actually having to do it. It doesn’t necessarily happen that much. I think in a very micro way it’s happened with me. I was coming up in the blogosphere Iraq war period where we were all just really invested in media criticism, and the mainstream media, and how the mainstream media was failing us, and now I am in the mainstream media, so I think about myself, the trajectory I’ve had from outside the inside in some ways, and how that colors the way I think about my job. I try to preserve that critic voice in my head all the time. I try to still see myself through the eyes of the 24-year-old version of me as much as possible, even when it’s tempting to excise the critic from your head.
Today’s guest is someone who has a trajectory along those lines that’s really fascinating, and has produced a really interesting book about that trajectory. Samantha Power first made a name for herself when she was in her twenties and wrote a Pulitzer-winning book about America and genocide, and basically the ways in which the American foreign policy apparatus had looked the other way time after time in the face of genocide.
This book came after a year she spent as a war reporter in the Balkans as a young woman in real dicey situations as she writes about in her latest book, getting shelled and things like that, interviewing survivors of ethnic cleansing. She gains prominence as this voice of moral witness about the failings of the American government to affirmatively act to protect people who are in harm’s way, or who are the subject of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
She then gets a gig in the office of a freshman U.S. senator named Barack Obama, where she first starts to go a little bit from journalist, writer, chronicler, critic to doer. She’s now in the arena. She worked for a U.S. senator. Then Barack Obama gets elected president, and she goes and works on the national security council, so now here’s someone who has this very developed critique about U.S. foreign policy, who is now working for the national security council, where she has an opportunity maybe to take that critique and put it into practice. She goes from there to become the ambassador to the U.N., a cabinet-level post, where she has an even bigger platform. She is in the room for some of the most consequential foreign policy decisions the Obama administration takes, including Libya and Syria, which you’ll hear us talk about, as well as Ebola, activities in Central African Republic, and many others.
Along the way, she’s forced to deal with matching her critique to the confines of the job she has. It’s a pretty honest look at that. She’s pretty frank about places in which she falls short, although she also has, at times, almost unnerving consistency, from the time she’s very young in experiencing the war in the Balkans to the time that she’s U.N. ambassador, where the basic framework and worldview actually doesn’t really change that much. I think that that can be viewed as quite praiseworthy or quite criticism worthy, depending on your perspective, but she’s also a very rare guide through the experience of wielding power at the heart of the American imperium, from someone who writes very well, tells stories very well, and was outside of that for a very long time.
It’s a really rare opportunity to read and then talk to someone who has a fairly high degree of self-reflection for a policy maker. A lot of policymakers tend to have that man-the-arena thing about them like, “Hey look, hindsight’s 2020. You could criticize, but we’re doing our best and it’s hard.” Barack Obama even sounds like that a fair amount when you hear him in interviews and he’s asked about things they did wrong. You get a lot of that kind of thing.
Samantha, to her credit, is willing to engage on these questions. She’s written a book engaging with it. To me, it’s a fascinating study in both the ideology of American power and its limitations, but also the more eternal question about how one operates with integrity or moral vision in compromised institutions. It’s also a really fascinating read for a lot of reasons too because she, over the course of the book, talks about this; her upbringing, her father’s alcoholism, her estrangement from him, his very sudden death, her immigrating to the United States, her having one child while working the White House, doing IVF while in the White House, and married to someone else who worked in the White House, having a second child while in the White House. All of which sounds utterly and completely insane from a time-management perspective. She has stories about breast-pumping while on trips to foreign leaders.
There’s just an extremely human aspect to watching someone who’s a very smart and fairly self-aware observer, talk through their movements through these positions of ascending levels of power and responsibility, and what you come away with, I think, is a pretty fascinating view of what American foreign policy is, means, can be, and cannot be.
I want to just start by saying I really enjoyed the book. I flew through it. I’m not a power completist, because I did not read your second book, but I did read “A Problem from Hell” right around the run-up to the Iraq War. I thought maybe I would just start personal. I did not quite realize the chaos and tumble in your early childhood life until I read this book. Your father was an alcoholic, you spent a lot of time in a pub, your mom took you away miraculously against the grain of Irish law at the time to come to the U.S. How much thought had you given that period before you sat down to write this book?
SAMANTHA POWER: Not as much as I’ve given it certainly now to this day. I think that when I, in my twenties and thirties, found myself perennially single and perennially dating men that I referred to in the book as unflatteringly, as lizards, namely those who appear to be present, and then slither away very quickly as you come closer. I did begin to do therapy. I had weird physical anxiety and back pain, and all kinds of things that people, when I couldn’t figure out a physical fix for them or I couldn’t, my ergonomic keyboard didn’t miraculously make the ball go away, I dug into some of that, but what was really different about my process for writing a memoir was that for the first time I had to go back and actually ask the individuals who were involved in the events questions that even, when I was in therapy, I just didn’t even dare to do.
I just didn’t want to introduce something that I knew would be very painful for them. I probably didn’t want to introduce additional layers of complexity for myself. It’s the reporter in me. In a way, I suddenly became my own subject. I had to dig in to find out exactly what happened and who knew, and I should say in the context, this was of my dad dying very suddenly for me as a child. That wasn’t my favorite reporting assignment ever, to make those phone calls, and to sit down, and go back over that with the person he was seeing shortly before he died, with his sister, but it’s really good that I did, because no one lives forever, and now I’ve pieced together a lot more vividly and maybe have, just by doing that rummaging, have excavated some more of all whatever that stuff is that was lying around inside me.
CHRIS HAYES: I was struck in the book, it’s a very frank and honest book about yourself and your life, and I was struck by just the generational trauma and repression that is happening. You talk in the book about severe back pain and this thing you called “lungers,” which were essentially panic attacks. You’re also functioning at an extremely high level. Starting very early on, you’re reporting in war zones, and then you’re working in the administration while you’re raising kids. I just wonder how much the book itself was the process of getting at some of that stuff, where you felt like going into the book, you had grappled with all of that emotionally.
SAMANTHA POWER: I think I had done an awful lot in my thirties. I actually think the year that I worked with, then Sen. Barack Obama, which was 2005, 2006, was the year probably that I did the most digging and the most work. Again without involving people who were involved, because I didn’t want to bring whatever I was going through to them, rightly or wrongly. That may have been a mistake back then, but I worked through a lot of it in part, because again I was, to use the technical term, somatizing something in my physiology, and I went to Al-Anon meetings for the first time for children of alcoholics, and that was amazing just to hear other people. I never felt like part of that community before. I felt like I was living my own life, and I was an immigrant, and I was moving forward one foot in front of the other.
That was an immensely valuable, excruciatingly difficult year. Without doing all of that, I don’t know that I would have been ready when my now husband, Cass Sunstein, mistakenly sent a stray email to the entire Obama campaign critiquing the campaign. We think that then-candidate Obama received the email as well, basically slamming everybody, and I was a recipient of that email, and then I was a recipient of an email from the policy director saying, “Isn’t Cass Sunstein a complete a—–e?”
CHRIS HAYES: “Can you believe this guy?”
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, “Can you believe this a—–e?” There was the serendipity of that, but as a result of that email, I reached out to him and I said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ve all done it, or if we haven’t done it, we’re just about to. Everybody has sent a stray disastrous email of that nature.” Then when I started dating Cass, I think having done that work, I was in a position also to share everything I could with him.
Then interestingly, not what I ever would have wanted for myself, but when I lost my temper on the campaign in the heat of my first ever political campaign, and said derogatory things about then Senator Clinton, and then had to resign the campaign, that was this crazy period where, for the first time, I had nothing on my schedule. I loved the campaign. I’ve always played sports, and there, I was part of this amazing team of people, and we all believed in this insurgent candidate, and suddenly he was doing well and raising money, and he wanted to end wars and engage horrible regimes, but with an emphasis on diplomacy and getting things done. He wanted to take on the shibboleths and sacred cows in Washington. It was all going so well, and then suddenly I had to resign the campaign, and there I was and there was Cass, and I let him take care of me, which I’d never really let anybody do, and just the public shame of that, and my embarrassment over that, but then just relying on someone. I think that helped me kick some of the demons also.
Who knows, I’m probably … 10 years from now, I’ll look back on this interview Chris, and I’ll say, “That was where it was all … I finally came to peace of mind.”
CHRIS HAYES: You cracked.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah. I haven’t been, with really only a few exceptions, I am able, I’m very lucky, but it does give me … just you see the diversity of experiences people have had. It gives me a lot of empathy, I guess, for people who look like they’re holding it all together, but everybody’s got their own, what I call in the book, the bat cave. People are carrying a lot around.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. The reason I’m starting here, I think partly is because last week we talked to Jason Kander, the former secretary of state of Missouri and Senate candidate who was going to run for president or mayor, and then he was like, “I have PTSD and I’m stepping away from public life.” He was one of these people that if you were to say, conjure the ideal vision of someone who is achieving at the highest possible level, you would say this guy, young.
SAMANTHA POWER: A hundred percent.
CHRIS HAYES: I just find it both interesting at a human level, and also important for everyone to understand that we’re all human beings walking around in these instruments that we’ve been given by evolution, and dealing with the stuff that’s going on in our head.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah. My favorite expression that I talk about in the book is “never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.” I think that’s true of so many, and I should say that the reason that I went so personal in part is that right now we’re so divided, we’re so polarized, there’s so much craziness and darkness, and a lot of the students that I meet on campuses around the country, or the students I have the privilege of teaching, they want to do something, and they want to stop climate change, they want to fight gross inequality, they want to rein in horrible excesses abroad. They look at me and think, “Oh, you were the U.N. ambassador. I’m one person. I’m just a graduate student, or I’m a college student.”
I just thought if I want this journey to be relatable, or even the set of aspirations about how we should treat each other, and whether we should see the dignity in the individuality in other people. As corny as that sounds, I’m better off opening it all up. Those are the things that young people can identify with, because that’s what they’re going through. They feel those doubts about whether they can make a difference, especially now, just with the magnitude of the bad news that comes at them. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, I had these ideals,” but if you show where they came from, and how they were tested, and how you yourself doubted whether you could prosecute them effectively, I think that opens up the community of people to whom the story hopefully can relate.
CHRIS HAYES: I thought I would start, because I think this is a useful conversation to have, that I think centers part of the project of the work you’ve done. The formative nature of, I think particularly people your age specifically, of Rwanda and Bosnia, as the echoes of never again, the world’s standing by as people are slaughtered, and fundamentally sins of omission by the American government and policy makers. They refused to do what was necessary to stop a thing from happening. It happened somewhere else. Then people my age, and we’re separated only by a few years, for whom to me the central foreign policy trauma is Iraq, which is a sin of commission, which is that we go into a place, and Saddam Hussein is horrible as detailed in “A Problem from Hell,” among other places. We go into a place and we make things awful, and we kill a lot of people, and we unleash doom that spirals to this day. I guess I wonder how you think about balancing those two things, because that seems to me in some ways the central tension that runs through your work, through your project, through the debates that you have with Barack Obama and others, is the sins of omission on the one hand, and the sins of commission on the other.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, it’s a brilliantly articulated question, and I guess what I would say is first just to go back to my formative experience, which you rightly pinpoint in the Balkans. Absolutely it was a searing experience, not only to cover families who were grieving because their child had just been killed on a playground, but also to have American fighter jets flying overhead and say hi from the sky, and the desperation of the people that I was living with. That affected, I think, all of the journalists who were part of the press corps, and it became a subject subsequently about whether everybody who covered the war, especially if they were in Sarajevo, became too close to it in some fashion.
For me, journalism was a means to an end. It was a means to go there, to learn the language, to try to understand ethnic conflict, to try to understand American foreign policy, and just because of the first job I happened to have out of college, I guess I always had that question coming into my mind, what should we do? What is incumbent on us to do? What is the right thing to do? Not in a merely moral sense, but what is the wise thing to do? There it did seem, and I think history bore this out, that the selective use of military force only at that stage, having tried everything else, would have an immensely beneficial effect on people who were getting killed because of their ethnicity and their religion. When President Clinton intervened, that was the effect it had. It didn’t deal with the underlying problems that gave rise to the war in the first place, as we see even today in the Balkans. I was never pollyannaish at all about what military force could achieve, nor I think out of Bosnia did I say, “And therefore we should bomb Iraq,” or “We should invade Iraq.”
The place that I landed in those years was this idea of the toolbox, and the idea that the United States has a foreign policy of some kind with just about every country on the earth, every minute of the day. Are we integrating concern for human consequences into our thought process, into our decision making? Does the quote, and I put this in quotes, believe me, in scare quotes. Does the mere slaughter of 800,000 people? Again, I’m being ironic there, but does the slaughter of 800,000 people mean that the issue will rise in the bureaucracy where you discuss what you’re going to do, or does the fact that it’s 800,000 Rwandans disqualify it even from consideration, which is what happened I think at the time back in the 90s, and so I thought the toolbox, and I still think, and I used it while I was in the Obama administration, is it doesn’t give you any answers, but it’s a process point. When people are getting murdered by their government or by nonstate actors, we have a foreign policy anyway, can we take that into account?
Can we look to see if at reasonable cost there are tools that we can employ? There was very little tangible cost to the United States of getting involved in the Balkans. If anything, it helped, I think reboot U.S. leadership in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Would there have been a major cost to the United States simply to go around Africa and see if we could get reinforcements for the peacekeepers who are on the ground there? Would there have been a cost if we had done radio jamming just to prevent them from propagating the hate? No, not really.
I mean not by the standards of what we’re talking about today. So then the Iraq War comes along for me and it was equally formative to me as Bosnia in the sense of, you know, here you have a group of individuals who are so convinced of their rectitude and you know, I’m often accused of being self-righteous and I guess when you promote human rights, that’s the curse of the business. But you just have to be so careful that just because you feel like your ends are vaguely noble, you know, that that doesn’t mean that you know what the means are or that you know what the consequences are going to be.
And so here are these people are so sure of how right what they were doing is, and I really struggled with it because I had written about Saddam Hussein’s genocide and in the end, you know, decided that it was a mistake to invade and said as much. It never dawned on me that they would not have planned for the aftermath or that they would take these decisions to gut the infrastructure of the country. Even so, there I was naive, but I still opposed the war and I still think you can learn a huge amount just as your generation did about the perils of hubris and you know, a lack of expertise and an exaggeration of the good that military force can do. And then underestimation of just how dangerous an instrument of American power, war, is. And it always has been. It’s complex. I guess I don’t see it as binary quite as you put it, but I-
CHRIS HAYES: You’re very clear in the book. So there’s a few things I think that you’re arguing or sort of laying out in the book. One that I found persuasive, which is that in some ways you are sort of shadowboxing a little bit people that I think put you into a category of like liberal hawk, and I think you’re very persuasive on the point of this sort of toolbox. Right? So there’s lots of things you can do way before we’re even talking about any military action. You can make a statement that actually gets the attention and says like, “Oh, we’re watching this.” And that can really dissuade and have really tangible effects. There’s ways that you can get allies to do things and you can give money.
But I guess to me it’s like, the theme of the book is the moral attention on these people in other places who are at great peril in some of the most horrifying situations. And like, I want to just play isolationist devil’s advocate for a second, which is just like we’re not the people to save them. And not even in like some gross like I don’t care about those people, I do care about those people. I just don’t trust me and us and our, the thing that we have, this American Republic, to make things better for them.
SAMANTHA POWER: So I guess I’d say a couple of things. I mean, first of all, I mean this is one of the reasons that I really understand where President Obama landed on Syria. You know, you’re just talking about this country. I mean, people don’t have any… even the smartest, even the Arabis among us, you know, of whom I’m not one to distinguish these armed groups from one another to understand the sectarian cleavages and how they map onto sort of tribal alliances and other things. I mean, it’s just, it’s way beyond anybody’s expertise and anybody’s rights.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Yeah, exactly. It’s like definitionally, right? Like in some weird way, like it’s definitionally above it in the same way that like, it’s not Russia’s job to iron out the political disputes in North Carolina.
SAMANTHA POWER: Right, right, right. As the North Carolinians would make very clear very quickly.
CHRIS HAYES: Like whether they can understand their role or not. Right?
SAMANTHA POWER: No, exactly. So I do think that there are conflicts and crises around the world that when allowed to fester, they do come back to haunt us in different ways. The Bosnia crisis, as you know, was formative, as I said, for me. It’s also where al Qaeda operatives hung out and trained and took advantage of the failed state and so forth. And then that came home to roost in other ways. Take the refugee crisis or the conflict that gives rise to the refugee crisis. My own view is that we should be generous and that we’d benefit as a country and that refugees are the most, certainly the most resilient and often the most dynamic and ingenious, and I mean just what it takes to even get yourself to this country. And I think it shows in terms of how many of them take hold and what they add to our communities.
And so there’s a sort of self-interested piece of that. But then there’s also the kind of negative version of the argument about what happens when the United States does as we’ve done, which is turn our back on the largest refugee crisis since World War II. We lead no matter what we do. So now we’re leading the international system to say, “Slam the door, turn your back.” And as a result, now you have just the concentration of refugees, far less, far fewer resources. I guess what I experienced as U.N. ambassador is we can be really catalytic, and for the true isolationist like all of these arguments, I think, need to be made. And I think we need to make them far more persuasively than we’ve made them for the last many decades.
But you know, it is the case that had Ebola been left to fester, had Barack Obama said to himself: “You know, I don’t know. We don’t know that… we may know a little bit about Liberia because we have some history there, but we don’t know jack about Guinea. So I think we should hang back. You know, I think, let’s see what happens. You know maybe we reduce the number of travelers coming from the region. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
CHRIS HAYES: And there were people making-
SAMANTHA POWER: Not just people, they were Democrats.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean insane arguments. I happened to be, I read that part of your book with great interest because I was hosting a cable news show at that period. In some ways I think it really predates Trump, like the collective madness. Like Chris Christie’s got a nurse in a tent, and then there’s like a press pack covering running around and she’s taking a g—–n bike ride, and there’s a guy who ate meatballs, and it’s like, have you people all lost your fricking minds? Get it together.
SAMANTHA POWER: That’s the question for all of us, right? Is where is that line? And it really amounts to, again, use a very wonky term that I get from my husband, he uses it all the time, but you know, it’s a cost benefit. And so the question is if at no cost to yourself, you know, given that we have empathy for people who are experiencing misfortune in our own society above all, and then far away as well, if at no cost you could help them you probably would. We’d give humanitarian assistance. I’m sure you favor that. You know, investing in vaccinations and girls’ education. Right?
Then, you know, again you get into the Rwanda case and we’ll probably see it very similarly that well if we have a global resource like international peacekeeping for all of its flaws, if people from around the world and thanks to President Obama, many more developed countries now are willing to put their soldiers’ lives in harm’s way to prevent the mass rape of women, to prevent mass atrocity, to prevent child soldiers, to prevent people from getting arms hacked off. And our contribution to that is to pool our resources into a fund at the U.N.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
SAMANTHA POWER: Right? And you know, when we see ISIS beheading journalists and attacking people of different faiths all over the world and going after Americans and radicalizing people in our own communities, you’re probably for mobilizing a coalition to fight that. The truth is, President Obama did it a different way. Right? In part, sort of predicated on, you might remember David Petraeus, his counter terrorism manual, counterinsurgency manual back in the day, which was, you know, better that the locals do it badly than that we tried to do it ourselves in effect. And you know, there are a lot of flaws, I think, in the approach that we in the Obama administration and then subsequent the Trump administration took, in so far as in relying on the locals, you’re relying on people who are hardly steeped in the Geneva Conventions and the sectarian dimension of the fight against ISIS and the atrocities that have been committed in the wake of that.
CHRIS HAYES: Plus they’re all like rightly furious and filled with the fury of revenge if people have committed horrible atrocities to them. I mean right?
SAMANTHA POWER: Correct, correct. No, all of that. But what I’m saying is, I guess you ask yourself, do we have an option of doing nothing? Then you ask yourself, okay, what in the toolbox are we going to do? This decision to try to have multiple lines of effort where you’re trying to raise money to rebuild towns that have been recaptured from ISIS in the Obama administration. You’re taking refugees as well in order to lighten the load on the countries in the region, but also in order to enrich our own communities. And there’s a military component, but you’ve decided you’re not going to put ground troops back in Iraq and you’re going to, you know, try to work with local forces, try to train them, and all of the downsides of that we see, of course, also playing out in Afghanistan. where you see the limits of either approach. Right?
And yet, is there an option in Iraq again, circa 2014, of just letting that… knowing that the locals can’t do it themselves, that’s one of those toolbox moments. And President Obama made the judgment that we’re not going back. We don’t think it’ll work. We don’t have the expertise to operate on the ground. We put our young men and women in impossible situations where — imagine what that would feel like. Right? That’s not an experience I’ve ever had to have of manning a checkpoint where you don’t speak the language and you’re, you know, you see a fighting age man coming towards you and you’re terrified. I mean, you know the moral hazards that we export to our soldiers, it’s terrible.
CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about Libya and Syria specifically, but also the decision making process overall. And we’re going to get into that right after this break.
You’ve got a great line where you talk about what you become a U.N. ambassador and you will sort of gently chastise a staff member for admiring the problem, I think is the phrase. I sort of liked that and I sort of pondered over that. Like you write in the book, like what would you do if you were Obama? That’s something you had sort of directed at yourself earlier in your career. Right? Like here’s all the reasons this is thorny. Here’s all the reasons this is a wicked problem, and you’re boxing it every time.
But like you got to do something. And I guess the question is like, the driving nature of the American experience as the world leader is that that is always the question that hangs over us. Like what do you do? But am I naive to think like that’s part of the problem? Or I just worry that the do something just in my experience covering these debates, is that the do something tends to fill these vacuums, and tends to put people who I don’t necessarily trust in positions to act in ways that I worry about.
SAMANTHA POWER: No, I mean again, I think it’s very case specific but I think you’re basically right. I think the other dimension, or at least I share some of those concerns and having, as I said, been in the rooms. Those concerns are not abated even though I think we had a great process and you know, a lot of valuation of expertise. Because what tends to happen in government, this’ll scare you even more, is that of course when you’re with the president you tend to the most senior people in the room, but being the most senior likely in many cases will remove you from actual familiarity with it.
CHRIS HAYES: They know that… by definition they know the least. In some ways they have to because-
SAMANTHA POWER: Well almost, they’re generalists, right? Because you’re manning the whole glove.
CHRIS HAYES: Well they have to do a lot of stuff.
SAMANTHA POWER: Exactly, and so Obama would be like, “I’m sick of hearing from you people at the table. Like let me hear for the backbenchers who actually, you know, have lived in these countries and know something about these countries and have really thought through what the consequences will be for us vis-a-vis being involved in these countries.” But I guess the other dimension, I think your question sort of brings out is, it’s like why is it always us? And I think the American people feel that way. I think part of the privilege of being U.N. ambassador was to try to leverage whatever commitments we the United States were making. So try to get other countries to do 80% of what we were doing. And the problem actually, or a problem with something like the anti-ISIS campaign is that you of course have the foot soldiers in Iraq and the Syrian defense forces in Syria, you know, doing the really hard work and taking huge casualties to fight ISIS on the ground.
But internationally, you know, from our closest allies, some of them were active with us and involved militarily, but many are like, you know, we’ll give you the funding for girl’s education after the battle has been won. And my point is that at its best it certainly isn’t about being world’s policemen in 2019, if it ever was. And I don’t think it ever should have been. But it is about recognizing that as in any group there is a collective action problem. I mean we would have these conversations in the Obama administration, you know, with our soldiers on their fifth and their sixth and their seventh tours.
You know, why is it that like no one looks to China to lead the anti-Ebola response? Answer, because they won’t get a response. But when the United States makes in that case a modest, very risky, but a modest investment, I’m then able to go to the Chinese Ambassador and say, “Well, what have you done lately? And you know, you have aspirations to be part of a P2, you know, of us two countries together. Well, what skin in the game are you going to place?”
CHRIS HAYES: You just talked about President Obama and meetings and stuff, and I thought your description of him in the book was really interesting, in two ways. One, the arc of your relationship, which I found fascinating and very honest. He sort of brings you in and he reads your book and you’re quite close sort of personally, even if you feel a little underutilized in the Senate office. And then you go into the administration after this, the Hillary Clinton monster moment, yada yada. You know, you cut loose and then you come back, you’re in the administration, and all of a sudden it’s like he’s the president. It’s hard to get to the president, and you feel a little frozen out.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, big time. Not a little. Hey, where’d he go?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, no, it’s really… that part of it that I found fascinating just because it hit home to me a little bit how like the President of the United States can’t be a real person anymore in certain ways. And the points of access to him or her has to be so managed that that becomes this kind of overwhelming force in both that person’s life and everyone else’s life around it, and in the life of the nation, of who gets to him or her.
SAMANTHA POWER: Completely, and that’s why, I mean it really, like I did understand that rationally.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes and you’re clear about that. You don’t whine.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah. I mean emotionally I didn’t really understand it, but I could see the essential importance of systems and of delegation. And yet, I still you know, five minutes before I could read an article and say, “Hey, on the campaign, let’s get out on this. Let’s put pressure on the Bush administration to do X or Y, let’s say for Iraqi refugees or this or that.” And then suddenly I’ve got all these layers and it’s worse, you know, of course because there’s power involved and access is power and time is power, because there’s both the natural systems and then there are all the people who don’t actually… who aren’t that inclined for him to hear you because they may not agree with what you think we should do about Darfur, or what you think we should do about whether we should restart engagement with some military unit that committed human rights abuses.
Like if you’re the person who wants that military engagement to occur, why would you want Samantha there saying, “No, they’re a tainted force. They’re likely to use American weapons to do terrible things to people.” So the access is a natural consequence of a proper order of things, but it’s also a fundamentally substantive set of decisions and choices. And so yeah, I was kind of, “Oh, where’d he go?” And then you just say, “Okay, I work at the White House. I work for Barack Obama, this individual who I never would’ve dreamed five years ago could find himself in this position, whose values so aligned with mine or vice versa.” And I just got to work. I got to make myself useful and know some things and have some ideas and be creative and try to sort of break past everything. I’m sort of the skunk at the lawn party anyway, because I’m the human rights advisor and you know, he’s meeting with other individuals who might have a very different perspective.
And so I’m the one kind of saying, “You know, there are these people.” And-
CHRIS HAYES: That really comes through. There’s a moment in the book in which you haven’t sort of seen him personally for a while and he says to you something like, “We should get together so you can tell me all the things I’m doing wrong.”
SAMANTHA POWER: Yes. That’s a definite.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s so cutting.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, no, yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly. But even beyond that, when I wasn’t seeing him and I first sort of saw him, there are all these things that are happening in the world and I don’t know what’s reaching him initially, like I don’t have at that time access to the PDB, the President’s Daily Brief, where I know how the information is being presented to him or being filtered to him. And so I see him and I’m very pregnant, which is one of the other themes of the book is being pregnant several times, or a couple of times in the book, and sort of managing that whole thing.
And so he just comes up to me so kindly and starts sort of wanting to talk about baby names and this and that. And I haven’t seen him and all I want to talk to him about was the issues that I care about and where I’m not getting traction in the system. And so I start trying to talk to him about our Iraq policy, and I just watched his shoulders slump and his face, you know, kind of cloud over. And then he just pretty much, I mean quite abruptly walked away. And as soon as the words were coming out of my mouth, I just thought like, “The guy just wanted one conversation about baby names.”
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, 30 seconds on baby names.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, like just can you give me that power? And the thing is the bubble gets created around him where virtually everyone he sees, he knows he’s going to see ahead of time. Much of what he hears, he gets briefed that he’s going to hear ahead of time. If you’re caught off guard and you’re surprised by something that’s bad staffing. But what I didn’t realize until that moment and it just hit me hard was, there’s no such thing really anymore as a casual conversation about foreign policy or throwing ideas around, because everything that I say about something that’s happening in the world conceivably is something that someone is making a demand on the president.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s an ask. Everything you say is an ask.
SAMANTHA POWER: Everything is an ask.
CHRIS HAYES: And he knows that, and all his entire life is asks.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, and he’s just like, “Baby names, come on sister.”
CHRIS HAYES: Well, so I found one of the most interesting parts of the book was your description of the decision making processes behind both Libya and Syria. It was a sort of in depth a look at President Barack Obama’s decision making styles, almost everything I’ve read. How would you describe his decision making style?
SAMANTHA POWER: Well, the, our very first dinner, when he was still in the Senate and just actually arrived in the Senate, he said with the humility for which he’s not always known, but I think he actually has, I think, is a good sense of his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s a strength of his to know that, but he said, “You know, I’m not some big original thinker. I’m a synthesizer. I want to get the people who are actual experts on issues in a room. Basically I listen well, and then upon synthesizing and formulating a path forward, I can usually communicate what we want to do.” Now, it turned out that for whatever reason, I mean partly because the media environment changed beneath our feet and maybe we didn’t catch up with it quickly enough, but communication actually ended up just being a huge challenge for us over that decade.
And not because he wasn’t an effective interviewee or Lord knows not because he couldn’t give an effective speech, he could. It was just very hard to be heard. But as a decider, I think what I saw was a little Socratic, you know, like his law school classroom back at the University of Chicago. I imagine knowing that they’re in the situation room, you have a bunch of different vectors, each of whom bring their life experiences and filter the so-called equities from their institutions. So, you know, for example, the defense department would be, on Iraq, would have a sense of this sort of the risk of the sunk cost fallacy. You know that you’ve invested so much, you don’t want to see that slip away. So on Iraq, a very forward leaning posture, you would see something like that. And Obama would be very alert to-
CHRIS HAYES: To that fact.
SAMANTHA POWER: -to that kind of disposition ahead of time on Syria, almost no knowledge or background initially. So when ISIS had a foothold in both places, much less comfort on the part of DOD with operating in the Syria theater, and then the recognition that it was is going to be a safe haven. The work that we did and that the U.S. military and others did in Iraq was not going to be nearly as effective if we didn’t have a counterpart in Syria. Everybody’s bringing their stuff into the meeting and he’s trying to hear the kind of cacophony and then find a path forward. He’s extremely well-prepared and paper, you know, in government, before Trump, was the lifeblood of the policy process in successive administrations. So he would have read everything. This admire, the problem phrase that I use, that I really get from him. George Packer writes about this a little bit in his book about Richard Holbrook. If you went on about the state of play, God forbid if I ever talked about, for example, the effects of chemical weapons on individuals or…
CHRIS HAYES: Right. It’s like, I know that.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, not only I know that, but how is that… like we all have the same values here.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
SAMANTHA POWER: We all care about whether children are getting gas, we all don’t want to get involved in another quagmire in the Middle East.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, right. Don’t berate me on that.
SAMANTHA POWER: Like let’s just stipulate. Yeah, like stipulate a bunch of things.
CHRIS HAYES: Or famously, “We’ve all read your book, Samantha.”
SAMANTHA POWER: We’ve all read your book, Samantha.
CHRIS HAYES: Which is a line that he says and it’s just like-
SAMANTHA POWER: I’m thinking, “Really? I’m not sure everybody here has read my book.”
CHRIS HAYES: “Actually, if you would just give me a second I can give you…”
SAMANTHA POWER: So then once he hears it all there’s none of that analysis meets agonizing. I mean very decisive, often extremely careful not to disclose even in front of his cabinet because there could also be backbenchers and so forth around what his actual decision was. Often we’d give you his thought process but not his decision because of the risk of leaks. I can’t tell you how many times, whether it was on the Afghan policy review or on the Syria chemical weapons episode, where leaks actually had the effect of, I think even, you know-
CHRIS HAYES: Changing things.
SAMANTHA POWER: Being a new variable in the decision making process as a whole. So, you know, I think the team of rivals thing is pretty sound. It wasn’t rivals like necessarily Secretary Clinton had been when the phrase first got introduced. But if he’s hearing what sounds like students trying to get an “A” from the teacher about how well everything’s going, deep skepticism immediately. Especially when it comes to the battle against ISIS or the war in Afghanistan where the temptation is to say, “Oh, Mr. President, we’ve trained this number of troops and we think we’re turning the tide.” He’d be like, “Wait, I think I read a New York Times piece that…” So that kind of got purged, I think, from the human desire to want to do well by your boss. You know you want to take a burden off of him.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. You want to give good news and you want to-
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, right. I want to talk about two decisions that are both treated in the book… Decisions that you were in on, which is the Libya decision, in which there was a U.N. security council resolution. The Arab league supported some kind of military intervention. First it was called the no fly zone and then it became clear that something more than a no fly zone would have to happen because it wasn’t Gadhafi’s airplanes that were doing the threatening, the people of Benghazi, who were sort of about to be laid waste to by his forces. My question is, sitting in the room making that decision, if you had and you didn’t have the flash forward view of Libya now, which is, you know, it’s not Iraq under ISIS-
SAMANTHA POWER: But it’s horrible.
CHRIS HAYES: But it’s a bad… It’s in terrible shape.
SAMANTHA POWER: It’s horrible.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s in terrible shape. Would you have advocated for the same decision?
SAMANTHA POWER: I don’t know, for the following reasons. I mean today’s situation is horrific and the country is thoroughly divided along tribal lines, among secular Sunni Muslims and Islamists. I mean every which way, basically, it’s divided. The reason I hesitate to say, “Well because of that, therefore nothing did any good,” is I think it’s quite possible you’d have exactly what you have today plus Gadhafi slaughter of tens of thousands of people in Benghazi. And not just Benghazi, it was a handful of other cities that were named in the security council resolution. I also don’t know what it would have meant for… This is an intangible and maybe it certainly doesn’t belong, maybe on the same level of… Partly because it’s so unknowable, but what would it have meant for U.S. leadership for the United Kingdom and for the alliance, for the United Kingdom and France to come and be pushing this resolution for the United States to say “no” and then for maybe the kind of slaughter that Gadhafi had promised, or at least the kind of chaos that we then would subsequently see in Syria to unfold.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
SAMANTHA POWER: Like in other words, in the same way that many people, I think unfairly in many cases, but sort of plop all of the consequences of Syria on Obama’s lap as if, you know, he’s orchestrating the conflict in Syria. As if there aren’t actors on the ground or as if there was a panacea to Syria that somehow he, you know, just overlooked. You can imagine if it plays out, where we pull back and just let events unfold. I don’t think Gadhafi regains control of the country. I don’t think the fissures that we see today sort of somehow don’t emerge. And in all likelihood, that maybe becomes a question of US leadership and US credibility in a different way. So I don’t know, but I know-
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, it’s inherently a kind of… Obviously a hypothetical. You don’t have that-
SAMANTHA POWER: But it’s a very fair question. I think what’s hard is that the ideal way that it would have played out, that it just couldn’t have played out in light of who Gadhafi was, in retrospect, is you enforce the terms of the resolution in order to protect civilians who were incredibly vulnerable. If you want to know how vulnerable, look at Misrata. Look at the pictures of Misrata, which was a town that did get pummeled and ravaged by Gadhafi and his forces. So that takes hold. Gadhafi sees the writing on the wall and there’s a negotiation.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
SAMANTHA POWER: Some kind of political transition, you know, flawed, screwed up. Papering over these longstanding divisions, papering over the fact that Gadhafi had gutted all institutions for decades. But that didn’t happen. Gadhafi held on and thus, yes, there was a transitional counsel, but fundamentally a void and no timeline and no enthusiasm on the part of Libyans to have any kind of ground presence by the international community. That would never have been an American presence anyway and there would not have been a lot of takers, by the way, even had they wanted it. But on one level I think you can look back and say Libyans got the chance to sort of have their politics play out after Gadhafi, and start to build something new. On the other you could say, well, had we not done that Gadhafi would have suppressed it. I just don’t see how there’s… There’s no going back to the pre-revolutionary Libya that people who-
CHRIS HAYES: Okay, but here’s the darkest thought that I have sometimes, which like when I argue myself around this circle that I end up in-
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, I do the same.
CHRIS HAYES: Which is you can look at Iraq, Libya and Syria where it’s like, to me, Iraq is we launch a war based on lies and it’s a disaster. Libya, we intervene militarily in a much more limited way with a U.N. Security Council resolution with all the allies in place with the Arab League, like as sort of justifiable one of these from an international law perspective as you get.
SAMANTHA POWER: Definitely.
CHRIS HAYES: And it’s not great there afterwards.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: In Syria, we don’t militarily intervene even though we do, the CIA is active there and we’re funding some groups, and it’s a disaster. The thing that I end up arguing myself to sometimes in my darkest moments on, say, Libya and Syria, is like, what if we had just let Assad win the war very quickly and hundreds of thousands of more people would be alive and the ruins of this, one of the worst wars in recent memory, wouldn’t have happened. The dignity and liberty of the Syrian people would have been snuffed out, which is horrifying because Assad is an absolute monster at an almost inconceivable scale. But maybe that would have been better. I don’t know.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah. I mean, I think the only potential flaw in the way you pose the question, which of course I think is a reasonable question, is we let Assad win, because there’s still all that agency as if we were the ones prolonging the war. You could say that these programs or that we gave-
CHRIS HAYES: We did. We did do some things tangibly at the margins. We did not militarily intervene, but we did tangible things…
SAMANTHA POWER: I guess the bigger lesson that I would take from… It comes back to dignity and agency and all the things, again, we cherish for ourselves, but people in these societies and these countries have minds and wills.
CHRIS HAYES: No, there is a Syrian revolution and people were fighting the Syrian revolution for their dignity.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And I agree, like it wasn’t, we were-
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah. I think to get the outcome you seek, which is not that you seek, but that you sometimes are attempted to seek.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, like the stability overall. It’s basically a view that I generally find disgusting, which is like stability overall. Like, you know, he’s an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B., and we’ve got Mubarak in Egypt and we’ve got these all these tyrants and like it’s better than a bunch of militias running around shooting each other. I’ve always thought like that’s a horrible world view. And there’s some small part of me that is much more tempted by that worldview in the wake of Syria.
SAMANTHA POWER: I guess as the United States, rightly or wrongly, I think the idea of neutrality in the face of what was unfolding in Syria would have been an untenable position. And indeed, you know, I think we can look back and say, why did we call on Assad to go if we weren’t prepared to employ the means to effectuate our stated policy objective? Answer, because he was using napalm and incendiary weapons against these people, and it became untenable for the leader of a democracy and for Barack Obama with his values to say, “No, actually, he retains the legitimacy to govern.”
So it’s just, we are America, we do have a set of values. Often we have, and Trump is returning to those dark days, of supporting stability no matter the practices of brutal regimes, or cozying up to people like Kim Jong-un who murder American citizens. I mean, those of us who are critical of the current president, that is the genre you’re kind of potentially… Not you, Chris, but that that way of thinking, I think, leads us toward, which is just that how a regime treats its own people has no bearing on how the United States interfaces with them. I guess I just come back to the toolbox and say we are not the world’s problem solver, when as you know, especially when we use military means, it often has backfired terribly. But there may be ameliorative steps we can take at the margins.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Yes.
SAMANTHA POWER: And that’s what I try to argue in the book, is that we are still the most powerful country in the world. We are going to be either abetting, you know, providing assistance to regimes that are doing things that we abhor or perhaps, through our diplomacy, through our sanctions, through our mobilization of global pressure, maybe we can deter, you know, certain practices. And by the way, this conversation is going to become all the more relevant with China’s rise, as you, in principle… right now we don’t, but have two very different models for not only how you should govern at home and whether you should have independent institutions and the rule of law and respect for human rights, at least as aspirations and at least as goals to pursue… Two very different models there, but also what are the values you’re promoting internationally and whether you’re even urging other countries to-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, their deal is, “We’re not going to peel behind the curtain and we’re not going to tell you.”
SAMANTHA POWER: Well, and they may even be going further and exporting authoritarian tactics. I mean, I think they’re on the fence.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, yeah. “We will share with you our facial recognition technology. You can build your own…”
SAMANTHA POWER: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: “Uighur internment camps for whatever disfavored minority that you have.”
SAMANTHA POWER: Correct. And so as that model spreads potentially, is that something that we have no interest in? I think we have an interest in it, which doesn’t mean, again, that military force is so rarely going to be part of this conversation-
CHRIS HAYES: Or should rarely.
SAMANTHA POWER: But also should rarely.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s the fear.
SAMANTHA POWER: Absolutely, nor should it, but at the same time, we have a foreign policy every day. Does it matter to us? Do we want to stand up for people who are aspiring to enjoy their rights?
CHRIS HAYES: Has something broken in the world order through both us electing Donald Trump and the way that he has conducted himself on the world stage, and the kind of ways in which these sort of populist movements have gained power and political followings? Is there some kind of epochal fissure at this moment, in your mind, that we’re going to have to like confront and create something new or can we kind of stitch together some version of what essentially was the post World War II order as constructed chiefly by the US and its allies?
SAMANTHA POWER: I think the rising tide of populism is, if it hasn’t peaked already, is going to hit the same wall that other elected leaders have hit. Namely a real challenge delivering and meeting the human needs of the people who in their despair turn to scapegoats. I mean the scapegoating works in the sense that it gives people who feel that they’re being left behind someone to blame. It works for as long as you can blame those other individuals. But if you blame those individuals, if you stop letting them come into your country, if you deny them jobs and you still can’t make ends meet, I just think there’s a shelf life.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
SAMANTHA POWER: Like this is about human consequences and there’s nobody better to judge whether a leader is delivering for them than the individuals who elected those leaders thinking that they were electing them in order to change the conditions in which they’re living. So I think there’s going to be, and I think you’re already seeing it in some of-
CHRIS HAYES: Like backlash to the backlash, basically.
SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah, backlash to the backlash. That said, it’s a governance challenge, right? Of how to, in an era of balkanized media and God knows social media and a lack of responsibility taking or a lack of accountability for these unelected, unaccountable entities. You know, Facebook now has more adherence than Christianity, is worth more than 137 countries in the UN. We don’t get a vote, you know, on how things are done. Amid all of that, and as we get more divided and as we sort of stew in our echo chambers more and more, how do we get what are some legitimate differences of viewpoints? How do we get our institutions to function to deliver when we have people who come back into office who aren’t about scapegoating, but who are about trying to redress the economic inequality, or trying to figure out what a fair trade agreement is, or how to deal with the job transition after automation and so forth?
The problems are hard enough, and when it comes to the international system, which I think is at the heart of your question as well, for the foreseeable future, while we have to figure out how to deal with nonstate actors, not only like terrorism and you know, rising temperatures, but nonstate actors, like large companies that have more impact on our lives than local, state and federal government in many countries. But it is the powerful countries of the world that can make the international system work or make it come to a complete standstill.
With Putin’s adventurism and his desire to disrupt the international system, with president Trump’s complete retreat from playing this catalytic role on behalf of really anything identifiable, and with the fact that the democracies are now… We talk a lot about populism within democracies, but also what gets less attention is within an organization like the U.N., the democracies are no longer teaming up on behalf of shared values because the captain’s gone. With China, with America’s absence, you just see them trying to actually shape international institutions more in their mirror image. So the rules of the road that, again, I think have served the American people pretty well over the last seven plus decades, even if there are real questions about globalization and the trade rules and so forth, but the larger Corpus of the rules of the road and the norms, which are basically our norms instantiated in international institutions, China would like to rewrite all of that. You think the world order sort of feels a little fragile right now, imagine a China-led world order. One of the reasons, again, just to come back to the book, that I wrote it the way that I did is I wanted to be as relatable, as accessible. You know, on both the right and the left, there is a lack of faith that the United States can do good.
I think the Trump view that when we engage in the world, we somehow get ripped off is widespread on both sides of the aisle. What I tried to do is to show that with humility and I hope self-criticism and learning, but also a recognition of how connected we are. There’s no going back to a world of walls and thick borders and so forth. We are connected, you know, and in a world in which we are connected, I think there are reasonable burdens that we can bear in our own interest, but we have to tell that story in a different way and make it one that people can rally around. Because really since the end of the Cold War, there hasn’t really been even a conversation, never mind the building of a constituency, for the kind of global engagement that will actually bring about other countries coming and stepping up and contributing their share.
So I think there’s still a perception that Trump has taken advantage of and others have as well, that when we lead, that means we do everything.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
SAMANTHA POWER: I try to show like actually we invest a little, we can get other countries to do a vast amount of the work.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s a bunch of stuff, more stuff I want to talk to you about that we can’t, so I’m just going to say that people should read the book for the breast pumping during Aung San Suu Kyi’s-
SAMANTHA POWER: Bilat with the president.
CHRIS HAYES: -bilat with the president. The really remarkable friendship that you struck with Vitaly Churkin who’s the U.N. ambassador for Russia and you had him to your family home… The first person accounts of the war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo, which are really incredibly well-told. Among many other great, great points in the book. It’s a really great read. Samantha Power. The book is called “The Education of An Idealist.” It is out now. She also wrote “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” back in 2003, which won the Pulitzer. She was the ambassador to the U.N. from 2013 to 2017. Now a professor of practice at Harvard Law and the Harvard Kennedy School. Thank you Sam.
SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you so much Chris.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again. Great thanks to Samantha Power. The book is called “The Education of an Idealist,” and that first book, which won a Pulitzer, is called “A Problem from Hell.” You can always tweet us with your feedback at #withpod or email email@example.com.
“Why Is This Happening” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBCnews.com/whyisthishappening.