Power, the Fight: The President’s Pick for U.N. Has an Honorable History of Standing Up for the Dispossessed

President Barack Obama and Samantha Power. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama and Samantha Power. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States Senate will soon confirm Samantha Power as our ambassador to the United Nations. She will be feted at the usual Park Avenue, Central Park West and Sutton Place residences in which money brings proximity to power. Or what power there is left in the morally compromised organization.

I once wrote an article in The New Republic arguing that New York City, instead of pandering to the steadily expanding international amoeba, should expel this pompous but pathetic remnant of Eleanor Roosevelt’s illusions and open its now tax-free real estate to profitable commerce, socially useful enterprises and public space. The U.N. could start anew in, say, Durban, where the real soul of its pretensions actually lives. No takers! So we are left with the ethically compromised likes of Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, now assiduously faking it in the catastrophe still unfolding in Syria.

I should confess up front that I was the publisher of Ms. Power’s first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell, but not before it was turned down by many of the more chic houses. Ms. Power and I had a rocky but not really stormy relationship after that, and she wandered off into more fashionable liberal circles. Still, I was proud of having published the book, because it was both a critical and a commercial success. And it made a stringent moral case for American (and international) power against the “life is cheap” movements and regimes of the world, as was the case in both Rwanda and vanished Yugoslavia. She was not afraid to take on her own government, the government of Bill Clinton, who seemed, because of a tactical disaster in Somalia, allergic to interventions anywhere. Perhaps everywhere. Until he changed his mind in Bosnia. She also took on notable women in his administration, especially Madeleine Albright and Susan Rice, the Africa hand morally compromised in dealings with several of the continent’s truly atrocious tyrants. Shockingly, Ms. Rice is now President Obama’s appointee as national security adviser. She is lucky the post requires no confirmation. She may be canny, but she has no charm. And certainly not in the flashy getup she wore at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

This is not the case with Ms. Power, who immediately evoked for me—and still does—Maud Gonne, the flamboyant redheaded poet of the Irish revolution who was the longtime inamorata of another poet of Irish nationalism, W.B. Yeats. Passionate, intense, argumentative, beautifully intellectual, Ms. Power may be the only person I know in Mr. Obama’s tent who dares argue with him. (I assume that Larry Summers also argued with him. Arguing with power is a matter of temperament.) Now, the truth is that Ms. Power was entranced by Mr. Obama long before he announced his first candidacy for president. The Irish are loyal to their causes. And people can become causes even if they fail to live up to their adorer’s expectations.

I can imagine Ms. Power’s frustrations and arguments with her boss about Darfur, about Libya, where she carved out an ephemeral victory for her interventionist instincts, and certainly about the Syrian nightmare, which clearly does not trouble the president’s sleep. Rumors slip out of the White House every so often, and we know of her frustrations. Which makes the president’s nomination something of a tribute to himself. After all, we know he doesn’t like dissenters around him. Even so, has he ever once convened his cabinet so that he might hear what his political comrades really think?  The cabinet—which served so well from our early history through FDR and Harry Truman, Ike and JFK—is now a moribund institution, replaced by the people “around” Mr. Obama, his “yes” chorus.

Everybody in Washington knows that Ms. Power is not a singer in that chorus. She is incapable of the role. Obviously, the Senate battle over her nomination is part of the Republican struggle against the president. Still, much of it revolves around silly quotations from her own past. The sillinesses are compounded by their heavy-handedness, itself exaggerated by the Irish instinct for grandiloquence. Of course, Pat Moynihan also suffered this tendency. Yet he never let it slip into his comments on Israel or, for that matter, on any other foreign policy issue.

In a rambling interview with a slightly goofy Berkeley interviewer 12 years ago, Ms. Power actually seemed in a trance, talking sloppily about Israel and “Palestine,” as if the latter might be victim of an invasion requiring a multibillion-dollar defense by the U.S., and “actually investing in the state of Palestine.” She has so intently abjured these sentiments that they are likely not to play any role in her confirmation hearings. Actually, her full record on Israel is so much more comprehending of its history than any and all of Obama’s bromides on the region, even his latest epiphanies about the ideals of Zionism, which he had somehow never mentioned in his cocky days as the West’s self-appointed emissary to and interpreter of Islam.

More troubling to Ms. Power’s supporters are some of her remarks about America itself, one in particular that appeared, alas, in a 2003 issue of The New Republic. I do no recall how it got in or who edited it. In fact, I’d not recalled it at all until the last few contentious days. Here is the uncomfortable quote: “Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors. When [German Chancellor Willy] Brandt went down on one knee in the Warsaw Ghetto, his gesture was gratifying to World War II survivors. But it was also ennobling and cathartic for Germany. Would such an approach be futile for the United States?”

I concede that the words and the obvious analogy are, well, obscene. And the harsh truth is that sentiments such as these are still legion in the liberal academic culture of America. But I am writing a memoir, and I rebel at the thought that I will have to examine every public word I ever uttered or published, and I am sure that Secretary of State Kerry would also not relish a comparable review. After all, my friend John said some pretty silly things in those days too. But our generation and Samantha Power’s later one have learned something in the last decade or two, and it is that the United States, though not always exemplary in world affairs, is still very much on the side of freedom, economic development, humanistic learning and scientific advancement. The struggle for these values will not be easy. If Ms. Power speaks for them at the United Nations, perhaps Barack Obama will also be listening.