Power’s book has been lauded widely in the mainstream press and understandably so. For what it tries to achieve, it is close to pitch-perfect. It narrates an engrossing life story with a confessional and at times intimate rhetoric. It purports to explore how far ethical idealists can take the reins of state power for the sake of good, and it concludes that they can do so with no compromises.
Power’s memoir narrates her role in some policies that genuinely “made the world a better place,” as one of the signature phrases of our times demands and the target audience for the book expects. Yet Power is not above acknowledging error and tragedy, notably when her convoy in Cameroon runs over a small boy and kills him. And Power’s story vindicates the nobility of public service, especially for women. Indeed, it accurately reminds readers of continuing exclusions in the male foreign policy elite, even while affirming the feminist possibility of having it all—including the marital bliss and motherhood of two portrayed in recurring scenes. These vignettes, along with anecdotes about Power’s always more than transactional relationship to her family’s cook and nanny and her affection for various sports teams, effectively humanize her throughout the book. Yet at its core, The Education of an Idealist is a deft ethical dodge.
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.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor