Interview: Samantha Power

NS interview with the self-proclaimed "humanitarian hawk" who - until her resignation for calling Hi

Not that long ago Samantha Power was trudging through the winter wastes of New Hampshire with Bill Clinton's former national security adviser, Anthony Lake, canvassing door- to-door and phoning potential supporters in what she calls a "very mom-and-poppy operation". "Almost by definition there was a sort of expectation that he was going to lose," she says of Barack Obama, whom this Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor advises on foreign policy. "Going into Iowa he was down 25 points. So anybody who joined his team was, for the most part, prepared to lose for something, or someone, they believed in."

A group of idealists battling through New England blizzards in support of an inspirational but surely doomed candidate: it sounds like Josh, Leo and Toby doing their best for Jed Bartlet in The West Wing, which is where Bartlet, of course, ends up. "We're not there yet, baby," laughs Power. "It's pretty unglamorous, all cheeseburgers and Cheetos so far."

Not there - but nearly. We meet in London, the day before the Texas and Ohio primaries, which could signal the end of Hillary Clinton's candidacy. "Fuck!" she shouts. "I'm here, I'm in the wrong place." If she sounds relaxed, humorous, it's because she's clearly confident. Plans have already been made for Clinton's withdrawal. "If he does well," she says, "one of the questions will be how to integrate the Clinton people. Because we want to maximise our technical expertise and be welcoming." Not all will be greeted with open arms, however: veterans of Bill's administrations, yes; others Power dismisses in pretty uncomplimentary terms. "We don't want to end up in a lowest-common-denominator operation, which is what, I think, actually, really hurt her." Twenty-five people on every call when setting policy, she explains, and too many people ready to caution "No, you can't say that".

Power, 37, is part of a group of five senior foreign policy advisers to Obama. As a columnist for Time magazine (which named her one of the 100 most influential scientists and thinkers in 2004), author of an award-winning book on genocide, as well as reporting the war from the Balkans in the Nineties, she is perhaps the most media-prominent. Certainly, people assume that what she says is what Obama believes. The circumstances of their meeting suggest an immediate connection: he called her out of the blue to ask about her genocide book, after which they had a lengthy lunch and she decided to take leave from Harvard there and then, in 2005. "There's no one else I would even consider moving into a hotel room for," she jokes. This Irish-born, self-proclaimed "humanitarian hawk" has the senator's ear, all right.

The key to what she - and Obama - thinks is to be found in her new book, a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy to Iraq, who died when the organisation's building in Baghdad was bombed in 2003.

"I gave a talk in California last week all about Sergio and the guidance he could give us for our time," she says. She mentions talking to dictators; promoting the concept of "dignity", possibly over democratisation and human rights; freedom from fear; humility about the world's complexity, but still rising to its challenges. "A number of people came up to me afterwards and said, 'Wow, that's the Obama doctrine,' and I was like, 'Oh my god, it is.'"

Her book gives an insight into the workings of the UN since the 1970s, not least because Vieira de Mello managed to get himself sent to nearly every flashpoint from Beirut in 1982 to East Timor in 1999 and, last, Iraq. More than that, though, it is a guide to Obama, for Power makes ceaseless comparisons between the two. Obama, she writes in her acknowledgements, is "the person whose rigour and compassion bear the closest resemblance to Sergio's that I have ever seen".

In the world

Over coffee at the Waldorf Hilton, she continues: "What unites them is that they both spent a lot of time in broken places. They both have these gargantuan intellects that enabled them to hold very complex thoughts, but also this amazing charisma that let them market whatever they ended up with in terms of policy judgements. Both of them understood that by being in the world, whether that's Indonesia or Kenya or inner-city Chicago, there's a great deal more proximity to pain than most politicians have. I haven't ever written a 500-page book about anyone else, and I haven't ever quit my job at Harvard to go and work for anybody else."

Like Vieira de Mello, Obama is "comfortable crossing boundaries". They also have in common a willingness to talk to dictators; and here Obama needs to be careful. When the former Yugoslavia was disintegrating, Vieira de Mello was so obsequious to the Serb leaders Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic that he was nicknamed "Serbio".

"In his relationship with evil, he almost got a little seduced," she admits. The way to do it, according to Power, is "to be in the room with the bad guys but not to check your principles in at the door". Obama would engage with Iran's President Ahmadinejad. He would sit down with North Korea and Syria. Is there anyone he wouldn't talk to? "Not among elected heads of state. He won't talk to Hamas, but he would talk to Abbas."

This seems inconsistent with America's talk of spreading democracy - after all, Hamas is a democratically elected government, and Mahmoud Abbas's party, Fatah, lost the last popular vote. "Well, Abbas is the head of state, so he's going to talk to heads of state." Don't you have to trust to the democratic process? Not necessarily, seems to be the answer, as Power cites US dealings with Algeria, where Washington remained silent when the army stepped in after an Islamic party won the 1991 elections, and Egypt, where full democracy remains as elusive as the Sphinx. "You know, there is a long tradition in the US of, um, promoting elections up to the point that you get an outcome you don't like. Look at Latin America in the Cold War." Take Salvador Allende, the Marxist elected as president of Chile in 1970 and overthrown in a CIA-backed coup three years later. "We were trying to figure out if we could promote that election, but we certainly didn't love the outcome. We played a role in assassinating an elected leader."

The odd fib

Power's demeanour is so different by this point that I don't believe she's convinced by what she's saying. Dissembling does not come at all easily to her, and if she is to be part of an Obama White House she will have to learn to deliver the odd fib more persuasively. I think she agrees with her friend Sergio (they didn't know each other well, but she has a biographer's affection for him) that you should talk to anyone, literally anyone, so that you leave open the possibility of improving relations; and if that ultimately fails, at least you have the measure of your enemy. "Obama has talked a lot about the importance of moving away from electocracy," she says, trying to move on to more comfortable territory, and suggesting that the way people actually live is more important than the "reification of elections".

"In terms of how radical the shift will be, I think it's very hard. There's going to be a huge foreign service and civil service that he will inherit, senators and congressmen who have already been elected. So I think he is one guy, trying to steer this ship of cacophonous agendas into a new place."

In other words, promising to shut Guantanamo Bay, ban extraordinary rendition and pull troops out of Iraq within 18 months is fine. So is striking at al-Qaeda positions in Pakistan without the government's consent, an Obama line widely thought of as a gaffe when he delivered it last August.

"There will be situations where the priority is self-defence," she says, indicating that a preference for multilateralism only goes so far. "President Obama, like every other leader on earth, is still going to be looking out for national and economic interests. States don't cease to be states overnight just because they get a great visionary as their new president." But it is politically impossible for Obama to talk to Hamas, even if he wants to. She can't say that, though, especially when vicious internet smears are making lurid allegations about his "Muslim past".

In Nevada, Power was recently asked if it was true that Obama's father had died when a suicide bomber chained 300lb of explosives to him (he actually died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982). "Emails like that get blasted through the country. It's nonsense, just pure nonsense, but it circulates around Democratic voters." Others have suggested that Obama was educated in a madrasa and is advised by anti-Semites - a reference partly to Power, who has been fiercely attacked by bloggers objecting to her questioning the US's axiomatic support for Israel on security matters. "So much of it is about: 'Is he going to be good for the Jews?'"

The next president, says Power, is going to have to "do a lot of rehabilitation" on this issue. "All we talk about is 'Islamic terrorism'. If the two words are associated for long enough it's obviously going to have an effect on how people think about Muslims. But I think Obama's going to do wonders for closing those chasms. Even just opening up a conversation is going to get us some of the way. And it's not insignificant that he spent time in a Muslim country, that he is half Kenyan - a lot of barriers have been bust through."

Ultimately, Power thinks that these smear tactics can be overcome, but only by constant battle. We talk about the Swiftboat veterans who besmirched John Kerry's distinguished Vietnam record (he was decorated for bravery and won three Purple Hearts for being wounded in the line of duty) in 2004. "That lost him the election. There's no question. Nobody benefited more from that than George Bush, but nobody could ever tie him or Karl Rove to it. So you're dealing with these Deep Throats running around meeting people under oak trees in the capital. It's 'Would you do this for us, because we don't want to be degraded by this kind of slander? But we would love the slander to happen.'" That's what's been going on, she thinks. Fast rebuttal is the answer. "The lesson we got was that the only thing worse than John Kerry being Swiftboated was his being slow to respond. God love him, he must have thought that having got shrapnel in his ass out there bought him some credibility. It didn't."

Tough love

More grist to the mill of those who wish to tar Obama with any association that could hurt him was provided on 3 March when a long-time supporter, Tony Rezko, went on trial for corruption charges in Chicago. Question marks already hung over Rezko's head when Obama involved himself in a property deal with his old associate. Although there was no suggestion of impropriety on Obama's part, he has since called the decision "bone-headed", and the Clinton campaign was not slow to raise the spectre of dirt, if not actually throw it.

Why did Obama have anything to do with Rezko? "We've talked about Rezko as a phenomenon in politics," says Power, "but I've never said to him, 'Why did you do this dumb thing?' I'm all for tough love, but that just doesn't seem constructive." It's difficult to keep an eye on all the sources of financial donations, she says, adding evenly: "I don't think it's a good idea for the Clintons to get into a competition over who's got the most unsavoury donations, you know what I mean?"

Refreshingly unsmoothed by politics, Power - and, by extension, Obama - is advocating a nuanced form of foreign policy that takes "the world as it is" but seeks its betterment. It is a pragmatism informed by principle, as well as a certain briskness. At one point, discussing the UN, I say "not to criticise Ban Ki-moon" and Power butts in: "Oh go ahead, please do." She opens her hands wide at the UN secretary general's name. "Is that all there is?" she asks. "Can we afford to do without a global figure, a global leader?"

Sergio Vieira de Mello is sadly no longer available to fill such a role. But Samantha Power knows a man who is.

"Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World" is published by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press

Power: the CV

1970 Born in Dublin

1979 Emigrates to the US with her mother

1988 Studies history at Yale University

1989 Tiananmen Square protests: decides not to be a sports writer

1993 War reporter in the former Yugoslavia

1995 Harvard Law School

1998 Founder executive director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard

2003 A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide wins Pulitzer Prize

2004 One of Time's top 100 thinkers

2005 Adviser to Barack Obama

2007 Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard

Research by

Alyssa McDonald

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

***

In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt