The Unintended Consequences of Samantha Power
By David Henderson
After her first dinner with future president Barack Obama, a forty-five-minute meet and greet that turned into a four-hour mindmeld, the then senator from Illinois told Samantha Power he admired her first book, “A Problem from Hell”, an already classic study of genocide prevention. But, he added, it “seemed like malpractice to judge one’s prospects by one’s intentions, rather than making a strenuous effort to anticipate and weigh potential consequences.”
This is from Samuel Moyn, “The Road to Hell,” American Affairs Journal, Volume IV, No. 1, Spring 2020: 149-160. It’s excellent. I particularly appreciate Obama’s bluntness. He seemed to have good instincts on this. Too bad he didn’t follow them.
Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and Professor of History at Yale University. His article has not only good content but also a lot of nice punchy lines. The piece is all about unintended consequences of government intervention.
Another great paragraph:
The overall thrust of Power’s argument is to deny the need for any accounting of how good intentions can drive perverse results in the use of state power abroad. Only copping to forgivable or unintentional mistakes, it pushes back against the possibility of ethical compromise in crossing the Rubicon from government critic to government service. It succeeds in doing so, however, only because it studiously avoids serious discussion of how the wrong idealism in power can lead to the worst kind of unintended consequences.
But not only does Power skirt the entire mystery of “who said Qaddafi had to go,” which was reconstructed insightfully at the time by Hugh Roberts in the London Review of Books.4 When it comes to this improvident decision’s medium- and long-range consequences for Libya, Power is more avoidant than circumspect. “I hoped that Obama would not regret his decision,” Power recalls. But once again she does not address whether she was obligated to do more than hope that the consequences would not outrun her intentions. When a single Cameroonian boy dies inadvertently, seven cars back in her motorcade, Power says to herself, “over and over” in her mind: “First, do no harm. Do. No. Harm.” When a country descends into anarchy intentionally, however, she cannot muster the thought.
Also, the incentives are dysfunctional. Power paid not at all for her input into an intervention that arguably caused the deaths 250,000 people.