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.”
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