As if 2020 couldn’t get worse, recent news suggests President-elect Joe Biden is considering Samantha Power to lead the United States Agency for International Development. This comes after Biden’s choice of Susan Rice as the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, giving her broad sway over his administration’s approach to immigration, health care, and racial issues.
While Biden hasn’t made a final decision, Power’s return would be another signal Biden plans to operate his White House as Obama’s third term, or worse, as the first term Hillary Clinton never won.
Power has been testing the waters for a while. In November, Power said she’d be happy to take up a job in the new Biden administration. Then, a few weeks back, she wrote a long essay for Foreign Affairs titled “The Can-Do Power,” outlining what she thinks should be the future foreign policy of the new administration:
Today, the fact that fewer and fewer people identify the United States as capable of solving big problems should be a major concern for those who believe that U.S. leadership must play a central role in tackling climate change and other shared global problems whose solutions demand both expertise and effective coalition building.
The essay has nine mentions of immigration and migration, eight mentions of climate, and, conspicuously, zero mentions of Libya.
Power is a die-hard proponent of using America’s military might to push leftist values across the world, a worldview she says she internalized growing up fatherless then working as a journalist in the Balkans during the Bosnian war. Born in Ireland, she migrated to the United States but considers it her duty to lead America on moral crusades around the world.
As she wrote in her recent memoir, “The Education of an Idealist”:
I saw early on how few voices in high-level government discussions highlighted the nexus between human rights and US national security. Although government officials did not brand themselves with the labels that academics obsessed over (like ‘realist’ or ‘liberal internationalist’), the realist view— which downplayed the importance of ‘values’—was dominant. Many US officials considered prioritizing human rights to be in tension with, if not antithetical to, our traditional security concerns.
In actuality, that worldview often translated into support for armed interventions — such as in Libya and Syria — without any historic considerations or strategic long-term planning. In a pivotal chapter, she explained how she and Rice persuaded a reluctant Obama to not just provide air support but also destroy the ground forces of Moammar Gadhafi. As there would be no peace with any remnants of Gadhafi’s forces active, the action thereby initiated a classic and predictable case of “mission creep,” ensuring war would continue until Gadhafi died.
As always, the immediate and impulsive reaction of “we must do something!” failed to take into consideration that while Gadhafi was an undeniably awful man, he was the only such brutal authority in the vicinity capable of providing some measure of security and stability for a region comprised of more than 140 tribes and historically prone to chaos.
In international politics, there are rarely perfect or solely good choices — only trade-offs. This is something any historian understands, but it’s a lesson frequently lost on activists who feel a constant desire for their savior complex to be validated.
In the end, yes, the Libya intervention resulted in the killing of Gadhafi. It also destabilized the entire North African coastline, turned the region into a slave-trading hub, and set the stage for a proxy war between NATO allies France and Turkey. The instability created mass migration into Europe, leading to the rise of far-right politics in the continent, even contributing to the Brexit push.
Power doesn’t explore much in her book about what disaster her reflexive-humanitarian instinct caused, other than the cursory “we must do better next time” lamentation. Incidentally, two old men, with some benefit of their age and wisdom, realized how disastrous the intervention would turn out to be, but were both overruled by Clinton, Power, and Rice. The two old men were Bob Gates and Joe Biden.
USAID is the largest tax-funded development aid fund, as well as a tool of foreign policy for the U.S. government. It’s a prime tool of statecraft. China, for example, buys alignments with aid, something that would be unthinkable with Power at the helm.
For a job that requires stoic, cynical realism, Power’s worldview will bring just the opposite. In an era of great power competition, making amoral choices — such as aligning with non-democratic countries to balance China — may sometimes be required. Giving Power such an important job would be a grave mistake.
Instead of bracing for the world as it is, and making the best of it, Power helming the USAID would take us back to the failed and idealistic days of the “Arab Spring” in Obama’s first term, when everyone was under the impression that simply toppling authoritarians was all it would take to transform feudal regions with no experience with true democracy or liberty into Middle-Eastern versions of Switzerland.