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Transcript: Samantha Power talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

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In this episode of Intelligence Matters, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and senior Obama administration official Samantha Power speaks with host Michael Morell about a wide range of topics, including how the promotion of human rights bolsters global stability. Power and Morell discuss the value of public service and the importance of the rule of law. They also review some of the key foreign policy decisions made by the Obama administration. Power shares anecdotes from her latest book, "The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir."


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Samantha, welcome to Intelligence Matters. I'm very glad you could join us.


Thank you, Mike.


When we served together in the Obama administration, Samantha, I found you to be a remarkable person, authentic, principled, passionate, honest, reflective. And I could actually go on and on. And now that I've read your book, I know why.

Your book, The Education of an Idealist, is not only all of those adjectives that I just mentioned, but it's also extraordinarily well written. It's lyrical. The words grab you and they don't let you go. It's tough to put down. So all of that to say

congratulations. And I really hope my listeners go to the book store or go online and buy it and read it. Because it really is a remarkable book.


Thank you so much, Michael. That means the world to me. Thank you.


Samantha, maybe the place to start is to ask you to define what you mean by an idealist in the context of the book, in the context of yourself.


I think my definition is pretty broad. First let me say what it doesn't mean. I think it doesn't mean looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. It doesn't mean utopianism or believing there is some absolute perfection available to us given that we are mere mortals and humans.

But what it does mean is that the world is in need of repair and reform and

improvement. And that in order for any of that improvement to occur, human beings who are part of the world need to show agency and take risks and make themselves vulnerable to failure for starters in order to try to bring about the improvements that we know are needed: less cruelty, more decency and kindness. And so it's really a combination of just not being that happy with the world as it is, and then taking that second step of believing that there's something we can do about it.


And would you say, and I assume the answer is yes, that that's always the condition, that the world can always be made a better place? And you never get to some end point where you can stop?


I think that it's hard to imagine a world of equal education for all and end of hate and intolerance, or an end of injustice. I think  

it's our lodestar. Our compass should take us in that direction so we should never lose sight of what equality and full respect for people's rights and peace on Earth, what that would look like.

But I guess I start as somebody who started my life in Ireland where The Troubles were roiling the country and there was a great sectarian division. I then later in life was a war correspondent. So I saw carnage and the perpetration of atrocities up close.

So I start with a set of dark assumptions I think about the inability to perfect the human condition. But definitely alongside seeing some pretty unappealing things, I've seen so much good done, so many people standing up for what they believe in and making a difference that I think the space I inhabit is more as Obama I think began to say toward the end of presidency, "Better is good. And better is often a hell of lot harder than worse." And so I guess I'm

dedicated to not making the best the enemy of the good.


So as an idealist, Samantha, do you feel lonely today? And maybe another way of putting that is, "How do you assess the state of idealism today?"


Because the term is so fungible and means a lot of things to a lot of people, I want to just stipulate that I think many, many people who go into public service who aren't human rights lawyers like me or aren't motivated principally by humanitarian issues, might be motivated by more traditional conceptions of U.S. national security, preventing nuclear proliferation.

I believe individuals like that, soldiers who serve our country abroad, our diplomats who represent us and with our soldiers are trying to keep our country safe, our intelligence officers, I think they're all

idealists. They're all trying to enhance U.S. security, look out for the welfare of the American people.

And so there are a lot of idealists still serving in our institutions, whether our domestic agencies or those institutions that are dedicated to promoting our security. And then there are a growing community of people outside government who are activating like never before in response to what they see as very serious slippage in terms of our values and our ideals.

And so whether it's people fighting within to maintain an integrity to our national security process or as we've seen in the whole Ukraine military assistance scandal, individuals who believe that standing up to Russian aggression remains in our interest, believe that following the law and the legislation that Congress passed is what is required by being a public servant.

Whether it's those individuals or crack journalists on the outside, people who have now just in recent days decided they're going to run for office for the first time because they don't like what they see, whether in Washington or in their local communities. I think that there's been a really healthy counter-reaction to the perception that the elected leaders are not delivering the kind of integrity or sense of purpose and principle that a lot of Americans I think pine for.

So I guess the shorter answer to your question, Michael, is I feel conflicted. I feel crushed on a daily basis by some of the policies that are being pursued, wasting four years on an issue as dangerous as climate change, blowing the Iran nuclear deal without any conception of how you're going to replace it.

Believing in a lot of places in punishment for punishment's sake rather than any kind

of theory of the case as to how you're going to actually advance our security. Betraying people who fought alongside our service men and women in northern Syria in order to end ISIS caliphate. Walking away from those partnerships and both the cruelty of that and the coldness of that, but also the lasting legacy of that for our foreign policy and our ability to make such partnerships in the future.

All of that is terribly dispiriting. But then you just see so many people standing up and just saying, "This is not the way it should be." And sometimes it takes a crisis to draw people into the enterprise of governance and of politics and of service. And maybe that's the moment we're in.

I think the verdict is out as to which of these forces are going to prevail. But I must say that the pride that I felt and also the gratification I felt seeing intelligence officials, civil servants, foreign service

officers testifying under oath, telling the truth, speaking up for a set of values and principles that I had thought until recently were enduring.

And I do believe will be seen to be enduring over time. But also imagining all those faceless individuals who weren't testifying, but how they felt to see themselves in their community and the integrity of the enterprise embodied in those individuals who now have become more known in ways they never wanted to be known.

So I think that also offers the American public a glimpse into the world that you know so well, that I had a taste of for just eight years but became so impressed by. And the more exposures we give, again, I keep using the word integrity, but without sounding corny, the kind of purity of conceptions of service I think that motivate people every day.

I think the more we lift the veil on that. That's why I wrote the book in the way that I did. I think that's why you wrote your book is to open up that world and make it attractive. Make it not just the sum of the sound bites.


Draw others to it.


Yeah, and draw people into that cause.


So Samantha, maybe we can get to the education piece of the idealist in question here, which is you. I need to ask you two questions about that. And the first is your mom and her story and how that impacted you.


My mother grew up in County Cork in Ireland, one of five sisters. She grew up wanting to do two things, number one, one day become a medical doctor. She always just knew that that's what she wanted in her heart of

hearts. And the other thing she wanted to do pretty much every day of her life to this day, she's now 76, is hit a ball, some kind of ball.

Whether it was a tennis ball, a golf ball, a squash ball, a racquet ball, a field hockey ball. She was an amazing athlete. And she grew up in this family and was deterred. She was the first female member of her family. She had a brother as well. She was the first to go to college.

And when she went to college, again, she wanted to be a doctor. But her own sister said, "That's so self-indulgent. It'll cost so much money, this, that." So she was deterred. And it was probably the only time in her life that I know of any way where someone was able to talk her out of something she wanted.

So she went and got a basic science degree, went on to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry in

London. She had to leave Ireland really to be able to do that. Because girls, young women, weren't really encouraged in the sciences in those days. And she still just wanted to be a doctor.

And so in what was then a later stage of life, in her mid-20s, it sounds like a kid to me but, she went back to medical school and ended up becoming an MD. To this day is a kidney doctor at Mount Sinai in New York. She married my father, gave birth to me, and somehow managed the juggle of finishing her Ph.D., the dissertation part of her Ph.D., and attending classes for medical school, and being the top squash player in Ireland, and continuing to play field hockey.

She's an amazing juggler. But her marriage to my dad frayed. He was a big drinker. And he began I think almost to live vicariously through her achievements. And he began to spend and more and more time in the pub. Tensions intensified. And eventually she

decided she wanted to split with him and be with another Irishman, a doctor, also a kidney doctor.

And in Ireland in those days, Michael, there was no divorce. It's a relatively recent addition to the law books. And she didn't really have an option for being with the man she wanted to be with, leaving my dad, separating in a kind of clean way. So she decided to emigrate to America and fought within the Irish court system at a time where the Catholic church was supreme, super influential.

Amazingly, partly because of my dad's drinking, she won custody of my brother and me to bring us to America. Under the terms by which I would continue to be raised as a good Irish Catholic. I would be home schooled in Irish, which she would have to do, not her favorite. And thirdly, of course, that I would go and see my dad during all of the holidays.

But to imagine her setting off on that airplane in 1979. I was nine, my younger brother was five. The responsibility she must have felt, the rupture in, again, a Catholic family to be making a break like that. The guilt which Catholics do very well, but also a sense of adventure I suppose in starting this new life with this new person who has been in my life ever since, Eddie Burke, my stepfather.

She's an amazing woman, a real trailblazer, and always left in me the sense that if you can dream it, you should at least try to do it. It doesn't mean it'll work. But put yourself out there. And if you put yourself out there enough times, good things will happen.


So Samantha, you're an immigrant. And so what's going on in our country with regard to how we view immigrants must have special meaning for you.


It does. As an Irish immigrant, I have been extremely fortunate. I experienced as a kid nothing other than a warm welcome in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, initially. And then I went to high school in Atlanta, Georgia. The climate that immigrants and refugees are being greeted with today, depending I think on their religion or where they come from, is totally different than what I experienced.

But I think one of the things that I often think about is, wow, in 1979 when my mother was trying to bring my younger brother and me here to this country, if the mere fact that someone had carried out a terrorist act in my homeland meant that my whole religion was branded or meant that my country was somehow put on a visa ban or a travel ban list, I wouldn't have come here.

If we practiced collective guilt or guilt by association in that way where we lump

individuals together on the basis of some immutable characteristic that they can't control, that would have abetted all kinds of injustice. And it would have deprived this country of many individuals who've made tremendous contributions to the sciences, to our communities. Even our athletic fields have been sprinkled with people who've come from--




--all over the world. Yeah, people used to say the San Antonio Spurs were like the United Nations of NBA teams for example. But whatever field you consider, and of course as you know, Michael, the national security community, and as we saw even as these officials in these recent days were testifying on the Ukraine matter.

Fiona Hill from Scotland, Masha Yovanovitch, an immigrant, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, an  

immigrant. These people who at the first occasion they have to pay back their country, they choose to go into public service. We just see that throughout the infrastructure of our country, whether at the local, state, or federal level.

And so it's heartbreaking. And it's completely counter-productive from the standpoint of again our communities, our economies. Not far from where I grew up in Georgia, there's a town, Clarkston, which when I lived in Atlanta, I never would have dreamed would become known as the Ellis Island of the South. It's a little town that has been completely rejuvenated by immigration and very specifically by the inflow of refugees. I think 40 languages are now spoken in little--




--Clarkston, Georgia. And that community is

at the forefront, as is Buffalo, New York, and other places that had not been doing well really in recent years economically, but now have come to rely on this influx of energy and innovation. Think about particularly refugees, what it means to be a refugee, what it took for any refugee to make their way to the United States.

The resilience, the determination, the drive, this is why the CEO of Chobani who's himself a Turkish immigrant, he very early on as part of his business model realized that if he could find immigrants and refugees in the community, then this wasn't charity from his standpoint.

He just saw how they worked on the assembly lines and in the board room. Just again, the energy often motivated not only by the desire to feed their young families and to provide for their immediate families here in the United States who might have come then, but often tending to the needs of dozens of

members of their extended family back home in refugee camps or who are struggling elsewhere to make ends meet. And so this redefinition of what America is I think will do all of us a great disservice if it persists.


Samantha, the second piece of the education that I'd love for you talk about, and you mentioned it once already, is your time as a journalist reporting from places like Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan, all of the vacation spots, right. How did those assignments impact you?


I think they left me with a bias toward getting close, getting out there to talk to individuals who've been affected by conflict or who've been affected by foreign policy choices that are made in dark, window-less rooms 3,000 miles away or 5,000 miles away.

Just to really think in terms of the human

effects of decision-making. I think also by virtue of being a journalist, early on I began to ask myself the question, "Am I doing a good enough job bridging the gaps, bridging the distances between the people I'm interviewing, let's say somebody who survived a rape camp or somebody who is living under occupation?"

As I hear their experiences, am I doing a good enough job remembering that if they're lucky, my readers will not have had experiences like this. So what is it that the individuals that I'm interviewing and whose travails I'm myself reacting very strongly to and feel are very powerful to hear?

Am I conveying their experiences in a manner to which other people with very, very different life backgrounds and experiences are going to be able to relate? And if I'm not, I'd better go back to the drawing board because it's the universals that are going

to pull us together, that are going to trigger empathy and maybe even action.

And so that task, when I look back at our years in the Obama administration, I ask myself could I have done more of that bridging. Some of what we were doing that I think was doing significant good in the world is not to this day really all that well understood.

And I think the question of how you bridge different worlds. Again as a war correspondent it was a world of war with a more peaceful world. But in general as we seek to create an enduring, or to grow an enduring constituency for U.S. leadership in the world or for international engagement, we really need to find a way to translate what you and I may know to be in our interests or in the common good, but which may not look that way to somebody who's focused on their next paycheck or whether their health insurance premium is going to

go up.

And so I think at least an intentionality and attention to those large, large gaps in life experiences that can make translation challenging. I think that's something I'm left with as well.


So Samantha, you become a member of President Obama's national security team, a senior director on the National Security Council staff. Tell me what was it like for an idealist to walk into what is typically a very pragmatic environment.


I think the biggest challenge is to break down a sense that there's that dichotomy. And I don't know that I succeeded. On a good day, maybe every now and then I'd have a good day and would succeed. But I think there's no question, as you and I've both experienced, that there are at times trade-offs between, for example, the need to

confront a terrorist threat that is brewing and the recognition that the more that a government that we are partnering with is abusing human rights, the more likely they are fueling long-term threats and even long-term extremism.




But yet, that doesn't necessarily help you on the Monday that you have to make the decision about whether to partner with that military. And so I don't want to pretend that those trade-offs weren't real or that they didn't confront me. I certainly knew that they were coming.

But I think the point that I would just come back to again and again was the linkage. And I do think that this is something that President Obama agreed with and that the people he chose around him by and large embraced, even if it was often in a crisis

situation sometimes hard to bring to the fore.

But you don't just respond to an Ebola epidemic in West Africa because you don't want to see three countries in West Africa suffering unimaginable pain and the loss of hundreds of thousands of people. You definitely don't want that. But you also lead a coalition and get dozens and dozens of countries at the UN to be part of that coalition to tend to that crisis because you don't want Ebola getting on an airplane and coming into American cities or European cities.

And you don't just push the Iraqi government to be more inclusive. And in the wake of again the previous regime change and the end of Saddam Hussein's regime, there was a major effort to de-Ba'ath-ify, to get rid of individuals who'd been part of that regime.

And it ended up sweeping up many, many

millions really of Sunni citizens where they too felt disenfranchised and discriminated against in part again after years and years of resentment by Shia feeling as if they never had a chance and had suffered unimaginable repression.

But you don't engage the Iraqi government about the need to be more inclusive because just in the universal declaration of human rights or because it's a nice way to be. You do it because you recognize that exclusionary governance is inherently destabilizing. And certainly now, Michael I think you'd agree, we look back and see the rise of ISIS as very linked to--




--Iraqi governance--




--and the human rights abuses carried out. And certainly we knew at the time the Syrian atrocities and our inability to figure out how to mitigate them. And so what I'm saying is kind of conventional wisdom at an abstract level. But it's hard in those meetings.

And I found it hard to get that long-term recognition of the integration to break through that more ingrained sense that human rights are not a luxury. The promotion of human rights, even if it's incremental, over time is going to be indispensable to the more stable world that we seek and that we need.


Samantha, I want to ask you a question that I bet you have not been asked on your book tour.

CIA is not particularly popular with the human rights crowd for some good historical reasons I think. And I'm kind of interested

in what your view of the CIA was going in to government and what's your view of it coming out.


It's hard to flash back to my pre-government self. I guess I was a student of cold war coups, covert operations. I was somebody who, while I was in college, went back and read some of the really important reports from the 1970s, the Church Committee report and the kind of after-action of operations that went too far. Assassination operations and--


From their moment of conception went too far.


From the moment of conception, exactly. Although my not being in any way a scholar of the intelligence community, my emphasis would have been on some of what happened in Latin America and so forth. And so I would h

ave known that history. I think also then remember when we, the Obama political appointees, came in in early 2009.

It was in the wake of black sites and rendition and so all of that I suppose very much would have colored my understanding of what the CIA was doing. Then you come into government. I think one of the most amazing perks of being in the positions that I was in, first as the president's human rights and multi-lateral affairs advisor, and then as UN ambassador, was my briefer.

It was just having a briefer, whether it was a daily briefer or a weekly briefer. And just for your listeners who may never have this incredible experience, it's just somebody who tries to curate all of what we know about is happening pretty much everywhere in the world gleaned from our intelligence sources, gleaned from open sources, gleaned from all of our intelligence agencies in the various ways in  

which they collect.

And then you have an individual who I assume is him or herself representing a team of individuals who are just there to staff you and to try to help you basically develop the latest understanding of conditions in countries that in many cases aren't making the newspaper.

Especially as foreign bureaus close, the importance of our intelligence community is even greater. You don't even have news sources in so many parts of the world now, at least that you feel you can trust. And so that was my first experience, "Who are these people? Why are they being so nice to me? Don't they have jobs to do? Why are they spending so much thinking about me and what I'm interested in?"

And then you realize this sense of team and this sense of higher purpose that I talked about earlier and that your career of course  

embodied. And what they are trying to do is to ensure that people who are in a position to make policy decisions have at their disposal the best possible situational awareness in order to inform those decisions.

And I must say after all of the sort of after-actions about the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the intelligence community that I got to know was one that was hyper sensitive about avoiding policy judgments putting a thumb on the scale in any way that would be seen to be political.

And I don't know what it was like before. Because I wasn't in those rooms before. But just bending over backwards to just make sure that what they were conveying was independent judgments unmediated by a sense of what the boss wants to hear, but really rooted in a belief that their job was to provide what the boss needed to hear, which are two very different things sometimes.

And so of course, President Obama moved to redress many of the issues, not only in the CIA but also in the military and elsewhere that I had found very problematic on the outside. And so I became very, very dependent on this community of professionals. And I'm left with a great respect for what goes on behind the curtain while also I think people like you and John Brennan and Jim Clapper and others that I worked with in the intelligence community probably have the same view.

But we have learned painfully through our history how easy it is to slip and how important it is to have checks and balances on all of our institutions. And how really the rule of law and not a politicized conception of the rule of law or a fluctuating conception of the rule of law. But some pretty hard and fast principles, that those principles need to be the ballast or the foundation for the work that goes on

on behalf of national security.

Because when it's national security, especially the temptation, because the immediacy of threats is so real and because the dedication to keeping our citizens safe is so consuming, I think it's precisely in those circumstances that those checks and balances and those constraints become all the more important.


So Samantha, maybe to finish up here, let me ask you about two issues that occurred on President Obama's watch. One where I think we did put human rights, human dignity high on the agenda and one where quite frankly I don't think we did. And I'd love you to talk about these two from that perspective. The first one is Libya, and the second one is Syria. How do you think about those two in the context of what we're talking about here?


I actually am not sure that I would embrace the premise in the sense that, and maybe I'll just go in a round-about way to answering your question and come back to Libya. But on Syria, I don't think that one can say that it was an insufficient attention to human consequences that led us where we went or where we didn't go.

My feeling, and I write about this in the book, is that Obama, if I had to guess, and this isn't something that he's confided in me. But if I had to guess, he probably had more sleepless nights about the torture going on in Syrian prisons that the Caesar Photos revealed.

The chemical attacks, not just the high profile chemical attack in August 2013, but other attacks. The use of bunker-busting bombs, incendiary weapons. I think nothing made him feel less empowered in a funny way than Syria and very specifically the devastation being wrought on the ground.

I think that's one reason, you witnessed this I'm sure, that he was often very testy with me on Syria when I would raise something that was happening. At one point, "We all read your book Samantha. You don't have to remind me that this is a human catastrophe."

And I really do think that that's something he carried with him and carries with him. I'm not using that as an alibi for policy. But I don't think it was that human rights didn't matter enough. I think a combination of the invasion of Iraq and all that followed. And the loss of faith that even when you're maximizing your deployments, putting hundreds of thousands of American lives at risk in pursuit of a policy goal in such a messy and sectarian neighborhood, you barely make a dent.

And remember, it wasn't just how badly the Iraq war went on a lot of different

dimensions. But it's also the Syria crisis is happening and indeed helps fuel the grow of ISIS. So just the time we are managing Syria or Obama is seeking to manage Syria, U.S. forces are being pulled back into Iraq having finally been withdrawn.

And so there's just a sense of, "Ugh." We finally did in the end leave Iraq in a stable enough place where we felt like we could draw our troops down. And that you could make the case that there was a stability and there were elections and that people had the chance to build their own destiny.

And I think from the standpoint of the president, almost no sooner do you leave than another threat of cataclysmic proportions takes hold and U.S. forces are drawn back in. And just sort of a sense that we had, whether the most robust version of the tool as you'd seen in Iraq or some of the less robust tools.

But that still would have required using military force in a very aggressive way, namely the kinds of things that I would have been recommending like a no-fly zone or civilian protected areas. None of those were without very substantial risk. And so I think there is a difference between actually coming together and saying, "Hundreds of thousands people are dying.

"Team, present me with options for how I can fix this or how I can mitigate this." Seeing that you've done all the diplomatic, economic, and other things that you normally would do in such a circumstance, and unfortunately largely because of Russia's veto on the security council, and thus the fact that none of those sanctions or diplomatic actions are enforced comprehensively.

There are coalitions of the willing, economic sanctions. And so thus they don't

have the kind of biting effect where they could have actually over time changed the Assad regime's calculus. He feels he used every tool in the toolbox short of bombing the Assad regime.

And he comes to that precipice and says, "I see the loss of life. I am not convinced that if I do this, I'm going to mitigate the suffering. I do think that I will incur other risks, especially at a time when the American public and the Congress and others want no part of this."

So the calculus there I think was more along those lines. I would argue, as you might remember, that we need to do a better job, not of comparing the current circumstance in Syria with the risk of a no-fly zone or whatever. But rather we need to extrapolate what are the long-term costs of Syria. What is that going to mean against that risk?

And then if we had internalized those

longer-term consequences, maybe the cost benefit calculus would have cut for him in another direction. But again, when I went at the UN on his behest to build an international coalition to use limited military force in response to the chemical weapons attack of August 2013, you remember how many countries volunteered to be by our side.




Two, initially, the U.K. and France. And we were left with one after the U.K. bailed. And you remember what happened with Congress when we went to Congress to see if they supported.


They bailed too.


Exactly. And so that's that. On Libya, that's a particularly challenging one to lo

ok back on retrospectively. But you're absolutely right. You hear a lot of conspiracy theories about, "Oh, Obama went into Libya because of the oil. And it was only that that caused." No, you remember those meetings. I don't think anybody--


Right. I don't think oil--


--mentioned the oil.


--ever came up.


I don't it, at least in any meeting I was in, ever came up. And what you had was the world, at least by 21st century standards, united. You had a security council prepare to authorize a civilian protection mission. Russia knew full well what it was walking into. There's a lot of revisionism there as well where Putin is acting like he wasn't part of that choice.

You think Medvedev is going to anything without Vladimir Putin's hall pass? Not in this lifetime. And Russia was a part of it. The Arab League asked for it. Libya's own ambassador to the UN defected, turned to the member states of the UN and begged for the lives of his countrymen to be elevated and for the security council to take the action that it took.

So the challenge there is that the very Libyans who wanted help preventing Gaddafi from carrying out a large massacre in Benghazi and from reclaiming some of the other cities that were under opposition control, those same Libyans after the Gaddafi regime was dislodged didn't want any international security presence in Libya.

They wanted to manage their affairs themselves. It was the first time many of them had any occasion to be part of governing the country. And so there's a lot of talk of, "Did we plan properly?" You

remember the planning processes. We had plan after plan.

Somebody will FOIA, use the Freedom of Information Act, to get ahold of all of our Libya plans. There were so many plans. But in the end the Libyan authorities and even the Libyan factions, really one of the few things they all could agree on was no--


They didn't want --


--international security help. And so that's not an alibi again for us. The consequences of Libya's implosion are being felt by Libyans, by others in the region. It's immensely destabilizing today. But I personally don't look back and see a scenario once the revolution has started and the denial of human rights.

This is another example. We should learn from the Arab Spring that we have an interest in evolution and not revolution.

That incremental change and reform and respect for human rights and again political governance that is inclusive, those are in America's interest. We can all agree that upheavals of the kind that knock out institutions are very, very disruptive and dangerous. But when you deny people's rights for so long, revolution is often what follows.


The author is Samantha Power. The book is The Education of An Idealist. Sam, thanks so much for being with us.


Thank you, Michael.


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