Michael Dobbs

Obama, Samantha Power, and the ‘problem from hell’

Obama, Samantha Power, and the ‘problem from hell’

There is an interesting back story to Barack Obama’s call today for stronger action to prevent genocide that directly relates to the subject of this blog. The president’s speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum announcing new sanctions against perpetrators of mass atrocities was shaped in large part by senior aides with first-hand experience in places like Bosnia and Rwanda.

The key person here is Samantha Power, now a senior foreign policy advisor to Obama, who was a young reporter in Bosnia in July 1995 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, seething in frustration at the failure of the international community to take effective action against the likes of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. As the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, Power provided much of the intellectual heft for a growing genocide prevention movement that has sought to pressure the United States government to live up to the slogan "Never Again."

In her book, Power states that she returned from Bosnia "haunted by the murder of Srebenica’s Muslim men and boys, my own failure to sound a proper early warning, and the outside world’s refusal to intervene even once the men’s peril had become obvious." She noted pointedly that the United States "had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred."

Other Obama foreign policy advisors who cut their teeth on the biggest foreign policy failures of the Clinton administration include United Nations ambassador Susan Rice, who is haunted by her experience on the National Security Council at the time of the Rwanda genocide. Repenting of the government’s inaction over Rwanda, Rice later swore "that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."

Of course, as both Power and Rice have discovered, there is a huge gap between striking a high moral tone as a commentator and the practical constraints of government. While the Obama administration (prodded by Power, Rice, and their allies) played a key role in the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi last year, it has been unable to contribute in any meaningful way to a reduction in violence in Syria. Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel drew attention to this contradiction today in introducing Obama to the Holocaust museum audience by noting pointedly that Bashar Assad is "still in power" in Syria alongside "number one Holocaust denier," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

"Have we learned anything?" Wiesel asked plaintively, an echo of his April 1993 speech at the opening of the Holocaust museum, when he told President Clinton that he was "unable to sleep" because of the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia.

Obama’s (and Power’s) answer to Wiesel seems to be that there is a spectrum of action that the U.S. government can take in response to mass atrocities that falls short of military intervention. Obama announced one small step today in the form of a presidential order targeting companies and individuals that assist the governments of Syria and Iran in supplying technology to crack down on political opponents and human rights activists.

Other steps include the formation of a presidential Atrocities Prevention Board chaired by Power that has its first meeting this afternoon. The board is meant to coordinate action across the entire government on stopping genocide and liaise with the NGO community. The intelligence community has been instructed to make intelligence-gathering on mass atrocities a priority — a contrast to Bosnia and Srebrenica when it was an afterthought.

All of which sounds fine in theory, but may not do all that much to address the critique at the heart of Power’s seminal 2003 book, which is that U.S. policymakers are adept at calling for action to stop "genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment." This rings true at least as far as Darfur and Syria are concerned.