How Samantha Power became a neoconservative

The story of Samantha Power, president Obama’s nominee to be US Ambassador to the UN, provides a telling example of how the political and media system filters out those who do not conform to the narrow spectrum of views required to rise in either government or the media.

Power started out having fairly progressive views on human rights, though with a disturbing tendency to be willing to use the US military to solve political problems. But as she sought to get a high position in government, she has started to modify them, becoming what we would label as neoconservative. While neoconservatives care little for human rights, they share with her a willingness, even eagerness, to project US power all over the globe.

But does she ‘really’ believe the neoconservative ideas she now espouses or is it a tactical move on her part? Liberals tend to think that such people need to talk this way in order to get into office and after that they will pursue the things they really believe in. This is a forlorn hope. A person willing to dissemble this way is a person who is a careerist without strong convictions and will inevitably continue to say such things in pursuit of her goal of rising even higher. She will now find herself moving in circles that think along those same lives, distancing herself from former colleagues who disagree with her, until these new views become internalized and she will ‘honestly’ believe them.

A person with strong convictions would gag at the idea of betraying a fundamental principle and would not even be nominated. That is how the filtering system works, by eliminating those with principles that go against the required mindset and letting in those who already agree or are ambitious and malleable enough to adopt those views. Power provides a real time example of that process taking place.

Apart from Power’s by-now obligatory groveling to the Israel lobby and saying nothing about its ethnic cleansing policies that is a requirement for any office requiring senate approval, her testimony to the US senate last week as part of her nomination process castigated what she called ‘repressive regimes’ and said that she would contest “the crackdown on civil society being carried out in countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela”. Her remarks were later endorsed by the state department. Observers quickly noted that her list ignored countries like Saudi Arabia and other repressive governments that are egregious violators of human rights but are either allies or client states of the US.

Venezuela in particular took umbrage at her remarks and canceled talks that has been initiated just recently to ease the tensions between them. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry took this opportunity to lecture the US on its hypocrisy, issuing a statement that said that “the whole world is constantly expressing its concern over repressive practices carried out by the United States.” It continued:

“They include the violation of human rights at the illegal prison in Guantánamo, the killing of civilians by drones, and the lamentable persecution unleashed against Edward Snowden.”

It said the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor had been subjected to “the most fierce repression” for exercising his right to denounce US practices “that violate, among others, the right to privacy of all the world’s people”.

Every word of that indictment is true. But since Venezuela is officially a pariah state in the eyes of the US government and media, these words will be dismissed.


  1. slc1 says

    Shorter Prof. Singham: Samantha Powers is opposed to throwing Israel under the bus, quelle horror.

  2. kraut says

    Israel will turn out to be a failed experiment anyway.
    According to history: If you need a wall to keep either people out, or your own population in -- not going to work.

  3. sigurd jorsalfar says

    Liberals tend to think that such people need to talk this way in order to get into office and after that they will pursue the things they really believe in. This is a forlorn hope. A person willing to dissemble this way is a person who is a careerist without strong convictions and will inevitably continue to say such things in pursuit of her goal of rising even higher. She will now find herself moving in circles that think along those same lives, distancing herself from former colleagues who disagree with her, until these new views become internalized and she will ‘honestly’ believe them.

    Well said. Ignore slc1’s rank dishonesty.

  4. Corvus illustris says

    Really? I see one clause mentioning Israel in the whole piece. In view of Ms Powers’ prospective appointment to the UN post and the recently-announced EU position on Israeli activities in occupied territories, that clause was relevant. Nothing in the piece strays from its topic, viz., the neoconization of Ms Powers. You sure we’re reading the same blog?

  5. Corvus illustris says

    Argh. Ms Power’s surname is neither possessive nor patronymic (except possibly in Welsh?).

  6. slc1 says

    The Hun spouts lies. The fences being erected along Israel’s borders is for the purpose of making it hard for Palestinian terrorists to enter Israel and blow up pizza parlors. In this regard, it has been quite successful as the number of terrorist attacks in Israel in the last 10 years is only a fraction of the number of such attacks in the previous 10 years. Of course, the Hun, like he forebears in Hunland is all in favor of terrorist attacks in Israel.

  7. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Here I am playing devil’s advocate again. It stretches my credulity to think that the woman who wrote the book “A Problem From Hell” is suddenly the ideological equivalent of William Kristol, Richard Perleman, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jon Bolton, to name a few famous neocons.

    The word “neoconservative” seems to be a pretty elastic epithet that can be painted on anyone who has a stronger interventionist tendency than the speaker. I think that calling her a neocon is an exaggeration.

    Samantha Power has long had an interventionist mindset, and it primarily stems from the fact that a massive human tragedy, a genocide in Rwanda, was allowed to be carried out by young thugs in pickup trucks armed with machetes because the great powers of the world exercised traditional foreign policy wisdom: don’t get involved if, to quote James Baker III, “we don’t have a dog in that fight”. Power is right to question such inhuman calculations, and to seek for a way that the power of civilized nations might be able to prevent such criminality from being perpetrated with impunity. But many have tried and failed.

    The kind of neocon logic that led to the Iraq war, the fantasy that the United States can spread democracy at gunpoint, is something I seriously doubt Power would support. There are distinctions that fall between isolationist and neocon. There is a difference between believing US foreign policy might do some good in the world if carefully applied, and believing that American Exceptionalism requires bombastic assertion of American superiority all over the world. There is a difference between a careful approach based on an understanding of the limits of hard power, and the value of soft power, in contrast with the unbounded and hubristic over-confidence of neoconservatism.

    So it seems rather disingenuous to tack the label “neocon” on her. She may be more idealistic than a realist, and more interventionist than Ron Paul style isolationism, but she hardly seems to me a neocon. I would have to see a bit more evidence before jumping to that conclusion. I still believe she has basically the same moral mindset as the author we see in “A Problem From Hell”. But she’s been forced to swallow a lot of pragmatism, realism, and diplomatic needle threading. As repellent as it sounds, the real world of politics and international diplomacy involves a lot of duplicity, feinting, hinting, signalling, tip-toeing, keeping your cards close to your chest, swallowing your pride and biting your tongue. If you don’t play it that way, you don’t succeed. I know this is ugly and disgusting, but it is the way the world is, and no amount of sincere heartfelt appeals for peace and brotherhood and good behavior from all nations is going to change that. In the real world, other leaders will smile and agree, then stab you in the back and take advantage of you any way they can. You can’t force the world to be the way you want it to be (hear that neocons?) and you can’t change it by making wishes.

    I don’t like the groveling to the Israel Lobby, and I don’t know what specific problems in Venezula she’s referring to because I haven’t keep up to date with events there since the passing away of Hugo Chavez. She may have had a good reason for those remarks, and I’m sure she’s entirely aware of the hypocrisy of the United States, and could probably rattle off a more complete list than the Venezuelan foreign minister off the top of her head. She’s not dumb, and she’s not naive, or perhaps she was more naive in the 90s, but she has learned and is still learning hard lessons about how to survive in the big leagues of diplomacy and foreign policy.

    I’m just not sure what you expect her to say. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what would have happened in the confirmation process if she had firmly condemned Israel for it’s abuses in the West Bank, and listed all the reasons the US is hypocritical and fails to live up to its ideals. She would not be going to the UN, and I’m just not sure what good that would have done. The phenomenon you outlined, of the careerist politician or diplomat who gets coopted into the prevailing system is a well known story. There is nothing new or surprising there. What would be new and refreshing would be to hear someone outline the specific steps they would take that current politicians and diplomats are not taking, and back that up with credible arguments for why that would actually succeed given the real state of the world and the complex interwoven and contradictory interests and priorities that a few hundred nations are aggressively pursuing.

    The truth is that UN Ambassador is largely a symbolic position with hardly any power at all. The communications that happen behind closed doors are probably far more important than any public statements she might make. I think we have to give it some more time to see what she will do before completely writing her off as a convert to neoconservatism. It seems to be too early to rush to judgement.

  8. slc1 says

    It is interesting to note that many of the “intellectuals” amongst the neocons and movement conservatives were Trotskyites during their college years. Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and David Horowitz are conspicuous examples.

  9. Mano Singham says

    The evolution of Power will be interesting to watch. The UN Ambassadorship is largely symbolic but it does play a significant role in guiding the discussion in important areas, especially when it comes to human rights.

    My prediction is that Samantha Power sees this UN position as the stepping stone to the goal of becoming Secretary of State (in a future Democratic or Republican administration) and will see this as an audition for that future nomination. Hence she will be careful to cultivate those groups that have the most power to make the most noise and have the most clout with Congress to derail that future nomination. Those groups are not progressives, not liberals, not even Democrats, but consist of the neoconservatives, the Israel lobby, and Fox News. She will not do anything to alienate those three groups but they will watch her like hawks and warn her if she steps out of line.

    You are right that if she had condemned the abuses in the occupied territories, she would not be getting the current job. My point is that even after she gets it, she will continue to say the same things because she not only will want to keep the job but will seek higher things. I was arguing that this is how the filtering system works.

    Let’s watch Power in the coming years and see.

  10. Jeffrey Johnson says

    There is an age old question here, which is can you change the system from the inside, or must you try to change it from the outside?

    It seems you lean to the view that it can’t be changed from the inside. I have some optimism that change can come from within. Despite all the enticements seemingly designed to tempt the reformer to capitulate to conformity with the status quo, they don’t necessarily corrupt the individual. There is another force at work other than pure corruption, which is waking up to the reality of how hard it is to change the system, how much momentum and inertia there is, and how complicated the task of meaningful change, and how impossible it is to make progress if you rub powerful people the wrong way. Even the most incorruptible individual must make some compromises in the short term to get to a longer term goal.

    I agree, most idealistic people with good ideas who seem like they may really change or transform things end up succumbing to one or both of these overwhelming forces. There is always disappointment, and I’ve had some disappointment in Obama. Also I did not get my hopes up too high. I have seen positive change while he’s in office, and I doubt he was in a position to do a lot more. I think a change in our approach to national security, though, was one of the areas he ought to have had the most direct control over, so the aggressive actions against whistleblowers and the continued secrecy is extra disappointing.

    It’s far easier to retain idealism from the outside, but it’s even harder to really change things that way. It requires a kind of perfect storm, for example the progress of the Civil Rights Movement in the US in the 60s. If Martin Luther King had been born 20 years earlier, he would have accomplished much less.

    An interesting side note: perhaps many who knew Edward Snowden before he pulled off his famous leak were talking about what a disappointing sellout he was. His actions perhaps included long range planning, stealth, and deception from early on in his national security career.

  11. Mano Singham says

    It is not that Obama has been universally bad. I think his support for same-sex marriage, though belated, was significant. I also do not blame him (too much anyway) for pursuing policies that I did not support but that he campaigned on (like expanding the war in Afghanistan). He also should be credited with not actually invading Iran though his policies there are still awful. What I fault him for are the things he campaigned on and then reversed.

    MLK is an interesting example because he did his work mostly from the outside, where he could speak as he wished. Counterfactual histories are always tricky but it is interesting to consider what would have happened to MLK if he had come along later, say now. Would he have mobilized on the streets to solve the current pressing problems of poverty and massive incarceration and police harassment of all people, but especially of young black men? Or would he have sought a street in Congress to make change from inside? And which strategy might have yielded better results?

  12. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Another thought on this subject: I often read the blog of Ta-Nehesi Coates over at the Atlantic. He has written recently on several occasions about his discovery of what privilege is like, that his increased visibility as a writer comes with certain privileges that he used to view from the outside, that he never imagined having access to, and that it has the potential to change a person.

    At the same time, I noticed that he wrote with a great deal of circumspection on the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial, moreso than he did back when the shooting first occurred. He still has deep insights and made some remarks that added much to the national conversation. But it seems maybe he has reached a place where he recognizes he has too much to lose if he allows himself to be smeared with the “angry black man” stigma, or makes any ill-considered or intemperate remarks at the public level. It’s a subtle shift, but it seems real.

    I think this is natural and understandable. It’s like manners and protocols. Very few people manage to retain a position of influence and respect if they break those rules. Very few people even remain part of a social circle if they break the rules of decency and decorum accepted by the group. The same holds true of a professor at University, even with tenure there are boundaries you don’t cross.

    Sarah Palin is another interesting example. She was once considered a serious force in national politics. Now she is a kind of laughing stock, except in the political entertainment industry for a core of devoted groupies. But she can’t be taken seriously as a national candidate. And I don’t think it’s only because she doesn’t know anything. It’s because she was too far outside the mainstream of conservatism. Ron Paul comes to mind as well. He survived in his district for a long time because his views matched his constituents, but he never had a large impact on national scene beyond a relatively small core of devoted followers. Perhaps Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders are similar examples on the left. There is a kind of glass ceiling for politicians that are a certain distance from the center.

  13. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I think the stimulus did a lot of good (read Michael Grunwald on the New New Deal), and Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, despite the fact that they aren’t enough, are positive changes. They are addressing very hard problems, and they met with a great deal of political opposition from only one party. That was quite a lot in one Congressional session. There is actually a pretty long list of promises Obama made that he has fulfilled or at least made some progress on. It think this list is longer than the list of promises broken. And the broken promises aren’t always that he neglected or reversed himself on them, but often that he met insurmountable political opposition (Guantanamo for example).

    I figure given the complexity and diverse range of opinions in our pluralistic polity, if a President is in accord with an individual’s personal political preferences 60% of the time or more, that’s victory. To expect 80% or 90% is pretty unrealistic, and bound to always lead to disappointment.

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