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The Education of an Idealist: Samantha Power’s riveting insight into the Obama years

Book review: Samantha Power’s memoir is a timely reflection on the United States’ global role

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
Author: Samantha Power
ISBN-13: 978-0008274900
Publisher: William Collins
Guideline Price: £20

Diplomat, immigrant, journalist, mother. Samantha Power occupies many roles. Born in Dublin in 1970, she rose to become one of the most senior figures in the Obama administration, appointed US ambassador to the United Nations in 2013.

She first emerged on the public scene with the publication of A Problem from Hell, a work inspired by her time as a war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia. The book is an intellectual tour de force, breathtaking in its analysis and argument, as it chronicles key episodes in 20th-century history exposing how the United States' foreign-policy establishment stood by in the face of genocide. Although the book cemented her stardom – a young senator from Illinois called Barack Obama invited her to work for him after reading it – it also proved something of a poisoned chalice. Once she became a policymaker Power was bound to be scrutinised for her adherence, or otherwise, to the ideals she so passionately espoused in her book.

The Education of an Idealist is an attempt to answer her critics and set the record straight on some of the most contentious foreign-policy issues of the Obama era. The result is a uniquely personal and absorbing account of her time at the heart of US foreign policy.

The book begins with Power’s childhood in Ireland. The sad, looming presence of her father, who died at 47 from alcoholism, is one of the themes of the book, as the adult Power grapples with the legacy and paradoxes of a brilliant, talented man who brought his children to Hartigan’s pub, off St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, as he drank throughout the day.


As Power describes her move to the United States with her mother, who had retrained as a doctor, we see the young immigrant embrace the unbridled optimism of her new home, as she thrives in American life and culture, attending high school in Georgia and then university at Yale.

Power's book gives a riveting fly-on-the wall insight into the Obama administration's foreign-policy decisionmaking and the inner workings of the United Nations

Her time as a freelance reporter in Bosnia, in the early 1990s, ignited the relentless curiosity and moral certitude that were to underpin her career. But it was her relationship with Obama that was to change her life both professionally and personally. She joined the Obama White House first as an aide and then as UN ambassador, having previously worked for Obama when he was a senator. She also met her husband, the Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, on the 2008 campaign trail.

Power’s book gives a riveting fly-on-the wall insight into the Obama administration’s foreign-policy decisionmaking and the inner workings of the United Nations. From the mundanities of the federal-bureaucracy machine to the sometimes unpalatable compromises and choices that grease the UN machine, Power’s book chronicles an important moment in world affairs.

She also tackles the issue that clouded Obama’s second term and her period at the UN. The president’s decision not to intervene in Syria after Bashar al-Assad crossed a red line by using chemical weapons on his people is seen by many as a major foreign-policy failure of the Obama administration. That Power stood over this, despite her previous calls for action in the face of mass atrocities, was viewed as all the more incredible.

Power, who remains loyal to the president in the book even as she grasps the inevitable distance that grows between them once he becomes president, stops short of blaming the president for the Syria decision. But she is clear where she stood. The president “was right to have decided to respond to the August 21st attack with air strikes” she says – a decision he ultimately abandoned, instead choosing to seek congressional approval, which he failed to secure. “By coming so close to punishing Assad only to pull back, the US government had moved farther away than ever before, telegraphing that we would likely never do so,” she writes.

It was a decision that was to tarnish the rest of her time at the United Nations. She recalls a heated conversation with John McCain, who told her she should resign, but she never really considered doing so, despite the pressures on family life.

Throughout the book she describes the challenges of balancing work and family. She recalls darting out from the White House for IVF treatment while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was discussing intervention in Libya. At another point she is frantically breastfeeding her daughter at her UN apartment while speaking by phone to John Kerry.

Power’s book is an honest, probing account of the challenges facing policymakers and a timely reflection on the limits and responsibilities of the United States’ role in the world. Ultimately, Power’s youthful idealism survives despite the challenges and frustrations of political power. As she concludes: “People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world, but they can change many individual worlds.”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent