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Think Again: Two Views of Samantha Power: A Case Study in Conservative Journalism

04/22/2011 12:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2011

Samantha Power, Wikipedia tells me, is special assistant to President Barack Obama and runs the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights as senior director of multilateral affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. She is, I can tell you, a remarkable woman by any imaginable definition in too many ways to elaborate here (though Wikipedia's entry will give you at least an idea of what I mean and this New York Times article will give you an idea of why the role she may or may not have played in convincing the president to intervene in Libya has made her front-page news again).

Personally, I am divided about the decision to intervene in Libya. Even if it turns out swimmingly--which military interventions never, ever do--I think Obama made a grievous mistake in failing to go to Congress to get the requisite constitutional authority to put U.S. soldiers in harm's way for an extended period. But my point today has little to do with the ultimate wisdom (or lack thereof) of Obama's decision or even with the degree and quality of Ms. Power's influence. Rather it's about the nature of conservative journalism.

Inspired by her role in the Libya decision--whatever it may have been--two conservative journals of opinion have offered up new profiles of Power tied to the question of her influence over the president. The first, by longtime neoconservative Jacob Heilbrunn, is titled "Samantha and Her Subjects," and appears in the new issue of The National Interest. The second one, by conservative author Stanley Kurtz, appeared in a recent edition of National Review.

In the former, Heilbrunn takes Power's ideas seriously as he simultaneously takes serious issue with them. He describes her thusly (and to my mind accurately):

Power is not just an advocate for human rights. She is an outspoken crusader against genocide. ... she has made it her life's mission to shame American statesmen into action and to transform U.S. foreign policy. And as she seeks to create a new paradigm, she is becoming a paradigmatic figure. She is a testament to the collapse of the old foreign-policy establishment and the rise of a fresh elite. This elite is united by a shared belief that American foreign policy must be fundamentally transformed from an obsession with national interests into a broader agenda that seeks justice for women and minorities, and promotes democracy whenever and wherever it can--at the point of a cruise missile if necessary. The same century-long progressive expansion of the democratic franchise that has taken place at home is also supposed to occur abroad. She is, you could say, the prophet armed.

Heilbrunn does not like much of what he sees in Power's thinking. Oddly, and somewhat bravely, he takes issue with her refusal to sign up for George W. Bush's Iraqi misadventure. On a 2004 panel, she told him that "The Bush administration was not acting multilaterally and Saddam's actions, at that point, didn't meet the definition of genocide even if they had in the past." Heilbrunn recalls that he "never found [the answer] fully satisfactory, at least for someone who was otherwise championing the cause of stopping mad and bad dictators around the world."

If so, perhaps he should have consulted the speech of a certain young Illinois state senator who exclaimed at an antiwar rally at the time:

I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

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