Obama’s ‘Power-ful’ advisor on the qualities of leaders

Yesterday I went to a talk that key Barack Obama foreign-affairs advisor Samantha Power gave at the New America Foundation on her new book, Chasing the Flame, a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello. De Mello was the charismatic Brazilian UN official who was the first head of the UN mission in post-invasion Iraq (UNAMI), and was one of the 18 or so UN staff members killed in the August 2003 bombing of their headquarters there.
But given Power’s high-level role with the Obama campaign, many of the people at yesterday’s event had doubtless gone with an eye to learning something about that, too. (Though I should note that Sam Power is also an intriguing, very smart and charismatic person in her own right.)
The Obama angle suffused much of the event. In the Q&A period, some of the questions were explicitly about him, his foreign policy, and her own foreign-policy views. Even when she was talking about De Mello, it was sometimes hard to say whether she was talking only about De Mello but also about that other charismatic guy, the one she works for now. (She also worked for him as an advisor when he first entered the U.S. Senate.)
So here is how she described five key learnings that she judged De Mello had acquired during the course of his 34-year career as a UN diplomat:

    1. At the beginning, he had entered with some very firm judgments and prohibitions. But then he evolved, and thought you had to find a way to deal with people. But he evolved too much. He became too obsequious to people like Milosevic and Karadzic…. He spent considerable time looking for special gifts to take them… He became too accommodating to state power in general. So then, between 1994 in Bosnia and 1999 in Kosovo, he learned he had gone too far in being friendly with them. And after that, he sought a balance between being in the room with such people, but also being very careful about being clear about his own positions while he was with them.
    2. He learned the great importance of human dignity as an organizing principle for what makes people tick. He described it as the axle at the center of the wheel of all other human rights. In East Timor, when he was the UN Viceroy there, he was quite clear that what the Timorese people really wanted was to govern themselves, not have him there.
    3. He had great a real humility, especially about how much he really did not know. But then, how do you deal with that and still engage? So what he had was a real commitment to empiricism, to constantly checking to see if what he was doing was actually working.
    4. He would stress the importance of living a life that is not paralyzed or distorted by fear… He would often say, ‘Fear makes a bad advisor.’
    5. He had a really strong commitment to the idea of service. He didn’t want to go to Iraq. but he saw the commitment to serving the institution of the UN as an instinctive one.

Later, she was asked how she would describe the essential qualities of a good political leader, in general. She replied with this list:

    1. This should be someone committed to checking the effects of his or her own actions, someone committed to empiricism.
    2. It should be someone unafraid of thinking outside the box.
    3. It should be someone who is well centered and has a strong sense of his or her own self. (She drew a distinct contrast there with Bill Clinton in 1992 who, she said, had certainly seemed like someone who craved and needed an lot of attention from others.)

At one point, asked about the current nomination contest, she said, “Well, the good thing about going up against the Clintons is that you do get some good practice!”
She made some intriguing comments about the situation in Darfur and the debate that raged in much of the human-rights community in recent years over how important it was to get President Bush and other political leaders to publicly define the Sudanese government’s actions there as a genocide. (Power’s most famous earlier book– for which she got a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize– was a study of US policies toward all the well-known genocides of the 20th century.)
She noted that back in 2003-04, when that debate was at its height, she had argued that getting Bush to actually name it as a genocide was not really worth very much, and might even be counter-productive. She characterized her argument at that time in these terms: “If Bush says that Darfur is a genocide, then everyone else in the world would oppose that and spend a lot of time parsing what he said. And then, what happened after Bush did say it,was that the UN set up a commission that worked for six months on investigating whether it was or wasn’t a genocide. So the whole step of naming it became not a catalyst for action but a substitute for the kinds of action that were needed, which were to pay a lot more attention to intervening, providing airlift and training for the AU forces, and so on. Also, it is kind of hard to be for waterboarding on a Monday and then against genocide on the Tuesday…
That was a great line.
Anyway, I bought the book on De Mello, and have been reading it with interest.
(Gotta get back to my own book. We have page-proofs. The publication date is May 15. Did I tell you that already?)

6 thoughts on “Obama’s ‘Power-ful’ advisor on the qualities of leaders”

  1. Samantha Power barely mentions the US role in East Timor, where every American President from Ford to Clinton (until 1999) collaborated with the genocidal Indonesian occupation. She says nothing about Guatemala, where the US was involved in supporting murderous regimes, one of which was genocidal. Reagan gave his blessing to the general in charge when the Mayan Indians were being slaughtered in the tens of thousands.
    If Samantha Power told much more of the harsher aspects of the truth about the US human rights record, she’d be relegated to the margins of the debate with people like Chomsky. Much of what she says is actually a form of flattery–the US has been bad because we haven’t been willing enough to intervene and stop bad people from doing bad things. The foreign policy community in this country loves to be told it is guilty of sins of omission, of not being willing enough to go overseas and intervene. (And maybe sometimes we should intervene, as in Rwanda.) They don’t like to be told that they are guilty of much more than that.
    She apparently did say something about Israeli war crimes at Jenin and has been criticized for it. Good for her, but if she starts doing that kind of thing consistently (criticizing the US and its close allies as harshly as they deserve), she’s going to be marginalized.

  2. Donald’s observation raises the troubling question of what is the most moral path if one hopes to change or prevent a bad situation — complete candor or tactical actions.
    The easy answer is we usually need both approaches, but that doesn’t really address the moral dilemma for the individual.
    Any insights, Helena?

  3. I heard her on democracy now. I wasn’t impressed. sounds like a typical lib- erventionist who after all, are the ones we have to blame for where we are today aren’t they? Clinton, powell, all the nice guys who sold us on these evil wars

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