Enough With Samantha Power's Flowing Red Hair

Your average National Security Council Staffer probably does not attract the level of attention Samantha Power has. True, Power was already a star at her particular crossroads of human rights activism, journalism and academia, winning a Pulitzer long before she had a four-hour dinner with a young Senator named Barack Obama. And now she's been credited with, or blamed for, inspiring intervention in Libya.

But there is something else, what a Times piece today calls "the whiff of celebrity," something Power is wisely trying to downplay these days. The piece adds, "Aside from her Pulitzer and two Ivy League degrees (Yale undergraduate, Harvard Law), she has posed in an evening gown for Men's Vogue and once played basketball with George Clooney. The Daily Beast calls her 'the femme fatale of the humanitarian assistance world.'" (More on that in a minute).

The piece carefully includes a skeptical take on the whole "warrior muses" meme we were treated to last week, with an amusing quote from Power's friend, Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch: "The United States did not go to war in Libya because "there was some dramatic meeting in the Oval Office where everybody tried to persuade the president not to do this, and Samantha rolled in with her flowing red hair and said, ‘Mr. President, I stand here alone in telling you that history calls upon you to perform this act.' " (But that's how decisions were made on The West Wing!)

Other narrators have been less restrained. Let's go back to that Daily Beast piece by Tara McKelvey, who as the author of a book called Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War should and presumably does know better than to start a piece on a national security adviser as follows:

Several years ago at a book party for an anthology about political mass murder, Samantha Power stood near the bar, surrounded by a group of earnest-looking men asking about her own work on the subject, A Problem From Hell. They also wondered aloud whether she would like a glass of wine. Known as the femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world, Power, who was born in Ireland and has auburn hair and pale skin, has been making a splash for years.

This is truly staggering stuff. A few years ago, Power went to a party. At this party, people who happened to be men — "earnest-looking men" — asked her about her work. Within ordering distance of a bar, they took the extraordinary step of asking if she wanted wine. Femme fatale, QED. (I have my own book party anecdote which may say marginally more about Power. Once, at one I helped plan in college, Power approached me and asked me if I was selling books. When I said I wasn't and she realized I was the research assistant, she apologized and gasped, "I didn't mean to instrumentalize you.") Later in the piece, Malinowski contributes a slightly less helpful quote, but which one has to assume did not comprise the sum total of his commentary on her: "She is hot."

The piece tries to cover its ass in two ways at once by pivoting into "It is sexist, or at least silly, to make a big deal of Power and these other women's desire to hit Gaddafi hard and, moreover, to claim that they alone have taken the U.S. to war." In the age of the Internet shitstorm, an easy template is to follow something sexist (or silly!) with an acknowledgment that sexism exists, but you don't really get to have it both ways.

By now, what lingers of the obsession with the women henpecking Obama into intervention has now definitively veered into gender essentialism. It's not the women flipping gender roles to militate, it's the women being soft-hearted yet outraged mothers protecting all the Libyans from being massacred. Where better to find this absurdly simplistic reasoning than Maureen Dowd, who last week wrote,

When President Obama listened to his militaristic muses, it gave armchair shrinks lots to muse about. As one wrote to me: "Cool, cerebral president chooses passion and emotion (human rights, Samantha, Hillary, Susan) over reason and strategic thinking (Bob Gates, Tom Donilon). Is it the pattern set up by his Mom and Michelle - women have the last word?"

Dowd, too, tried to pre-empt criticism of this line of thinking (conveniently illustrated by an anonymous "armchair shrink" with neither known authority nor accountability) by instead criticizing the White House for pushing back at the narrative, seeing their rebuttals as examples of sexism (as if they'd ever listen to a woman) rather than, as is plausible, factchecking. Unlike McKelvey, Dowd has never even given the impression of knowing shit about foreign policy. How convenient that a bunch of women happen to be part of enacting it, and how much more fun for everyone that one of them has long red hair.

Still Crusading, But Now On The Inside [NYT]
Samantha Power's Case For War On Libya [Daily Beast]
Fight Of The Valkyries [NYT]