I recently read The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. To remind you, she was U.N. ambassador representing the United States during Obama’s second term as President. Prior to that she worked in his administration on the National Security Council. Hers is an interesting story. She was born in Ireland and lived there until her mother, unable to access a divorce in Ireland, took her two children and immigrated to America. Power’s and her mother’s journey is worth reading about. Not surprisingly, the issues raised in the book have spurred questions for me.
Some observations after reading the book:
It seems that immigrants have a clearer understanding of this country’s founding principles than many native-born Americans. Samantha Power and her family are examples of that. Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, NSC officials who testified in the House impeachment hearing, are two more examples.
Many of the events Power describes happened only four or five years ago, but I barely remember them. Or, more accurately, I remember the incident (for example, Assad gassing his own people in Syria or the killing of U.S. embassy staff in Benghazi) but have forgotten the specifics – if I ever knew them. It makes me wonder if it is information overload or a short attention span or not paying attention in the first place. Whatever the case, it is disturbing because how will we learn from these events if it all becomes an incomprehensible jumble swept under the rug.
As a person who has grappled with the causes and lasting impacts of the Holocaust, I was surprised to learn that Power made a name for herself by researching and writing a book about genocides in history (‘A Problem from Hell’ America in the Age of Genocide). I will look for it next time I’m at the library. She was a reporter covering Bosnia in the 1990s and viewed her role as bringing the war crimes there to light so that the world would respond. I have always appreciated the importance of journalists educating us about events in far flung places, but this renewed my understanding of how crucial the press is. They may get things wrong or not tell a complete story but having eyes and ears on the ground is essential.
Reading about our conflicts with Russia, over its invasion of Ukraine and Assad’s actions in Syria, which Power had direct experience with at the U.N., brought into sharp relief the differences in values between our two countries. I studied Russian history (Soviet history at the time) when I was in college. I have some understanding of their single-minded concern with national security and their view of the world as an ‘us against them’ equation. They also have no legacy of democracy so when the Soviet Union crumbled it didn’t have a democratic tradition to call upon. Human rights never enter the equation for them. In the Russian scheme of things, what a country does in pursuit of its interests is not subject to any limitations – they don’t appear to apply a moral compass to the behavior of themselves or other nations. Power recounts her negotiations with Russia’s ambassador and those interactions illustrate very clearly that they are not our ally. We need to coexist with them, and we need to find opportunities to cooperate, but we cannot be confused about who they are. This reality makes Trump’s respect and affinity for Putin that much more frightening.
Another point that is driven home in the book is the power of politics. According to Power’s narrative, much of our country’s government action or inaction in foreign affairs is driven by perceptions of opinions/support of Congress, which, in turn, is driven both by their polling of their constituents and the influence of special interests. For example, Power describes Obama’s failure to act when Assad crossed the ‘red line’ in using chemical weapons, as mostly a political calculation based on lack of Congressional support for an air strike and fears of long-term engagement. After reading her analysis, in which she supported a military strike, I came away thinking that this was a failure of leadership on Obama’s part, but I have a better understanding of the factors that led to his inaction.
The notion of polling constituents or relying on phone calls/emails from constituents to gauge public opinion, raises a bunch of questions, some of which I thought quite a lot about when I was a school board member. The issues I faced were thankfully not life and death, but the fundamental question was the same: is my role as a representative to poll my constituents and vote accordingly; or is it to use my best judgment based on the information I have (which the public may not have) and apply my values to that data? Both paths are fraught. If I take the first approach, do I really know how my constituents feel? How many have I heard from and is it just the squeaky wheels? Do I poll on every issue, knowing that polling is not a perfect science?
If I choose the second approach, using my judgment, then I may be limited by the information I have and those who have provided it likely have an agenda. In the case of Congress, a lot of the information they rely on is supplied by special interests.
Whichever approach an elected official takes, representative democracy is flawed in some respects.
In my school board service, I generally went with the second approach. We didn’t do polling at that time, and I would have had some issues with it if we did. For me, it comes down to information, facts, data, analysis. If I could pull from different perspectives and look at data, I thought my decision-making would be stronger than basing it on a poll. Ultimately, the community would have their say in the most important poll – the voting booth. If they didn’t like where I came down on the issues, they would vote me out. Of course, I wasn’t terribly concerned about being voted out of a volunteer position. The challenge of taking my approach, relying on the data and applying one’s values, is that these days no one can seem to agree on a common set of facts or data. To make matters worse, there are those who benefit from exploiting the cynicism about science/data. At some point, we need to evaluate the information to assess its credibility and then trust in something!
So as not to leave you on a downer, I will share an example of the positive power of politics from the book. As Power describes the efforts to control and thwart the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a few years ago, the United States had the political will and resources to lead the way in addressing a terrifying public health emergency. This seemed to be a case where the data and science were believed, and political leaders overcame fear to do what needed to be done. One can only hope this problem-solving model can become the norm.
If you are interested in recent political history, and want to consider how values fit into public policy, I recommend reading The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. By the way, I am not the only one recommending the book. It appeared on President Obama’s year-end list, too.