Samantha Power’s Problem from Hell

Can a humanitarian firebrand help forge a deal with Syria's dictator?


Samantha Power, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once posed an uncomfortable question about America’s repeated reluctance to confront genocide during the 20th century: "Why does the United States stand so idly by" in the face of mass atrocities? The answer, she wrote more than a decade ago in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is "simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to."

She meant it as an accusation. But it’s become a kind of premonition. Since her arrival in New York last month, Power has become the public face of an administration that has proven reluctant to exercise the full weight of American diplomatic and military might to halt President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of more than 100,000 people in Syria. President Barack Obama, who was voted into office pledging to get America out of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has resisted pressure to take military action, even after Syria introduced chemical weapons into the battlefield, crossing a "red line" Obama had drawn more than a year ago.

But as one of the country’s most influential advocates of humanitarian intervention, Power now finds herself burdened with the challenge of practicing what she has long preached: wielding America’s power on behalf of the world’s human rights victims, in this case Syrians.

As world leaders converge this week on Turtle Bay for the annual U.N. General Assembly debate, Power will face her first major test as the president’s U.N. envoy to put teeth in her boss’s Syria policy. To succeed, she must overcome Russia’s implacable opposition to an enforceable U.N. Security Council resolution that would compel Damascus to give up its chemical weapons, take steps to curtail the killing in Syria, and hold to account those responsible for the massacres. Early drafts of that resolution offer little hope, providing few concrete measures to deter the regime from continuing its slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians through conventional means. And a provision authorizing a prosecution of perpetrators for atrocities in the International Criminal Court has been dropped in the face of fierce Russian opposition. In other words, this is exactly the kind of response the old Samantha Power found wanting in her previous life as a human rights champion.

Power, 43, an Irish immigrant who has risen to one of America’s most visible diplomatic posts, has so far cut a popular figure in New York, where she is juggling Syria diplomacy with bringing up two young children, Rian, 1, and Declan, 4. "Having a one-year-old and Syria together: not a good fit," she joked recently. Her colleagues described her as informal and approachable, contrasting her favorably to her often combative predecessor, Susan E. Rice. One delegate from a small country that rarely attracts America’s attention said that she was pleasantly surprised that Power promised to have a one-on-one meeting, and insisted that they speak on a first name basis. Power has also mended fences with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who she had once derided as a diplomatic lightweight. Power recently showered Ban with praise at a dinner the U.N. Foundation hosted in her honor. She cited Ban’s "doggedness," "bravery," and "independence" in confronting crises in Syria and elsewhere. She praised the Korean diplomat as "a perfect steward" of a host of values and norms the U.N. shares with the United States.

There are times, she finds, when diplomacy can be something of a struggle. A diehard Boston Red Sox fan, Power shared an early outing in her new city to a Yankees game with her husband, Cass Sunstein, and Declan, where a Yankee slugger smashed a foul ball in the direction of their son. "His mother was on her Blackberry emailing [White House chief of staff] Denis McDonough about the Sunday shows; his father was on his Blackberry working on his book," Power recalled at the U.N. Foundation dinner. Luckily, a "bruiser of a Yankee fan" reached out from behind and deflected the ball. "A rare, nice Yankee fan handed my little four-year-old the ball," she said.

Power began her tenure at Turtle Bay last month by casting a glance back toward her activist past: She met with young refugees from Benin and Tibet; chatted with foreign human rights advocates from Cambodia to Uganda via Google +; and has taken to Twitter to support a number of activists and marginalized populations — though her inability to remember her Twitter handle at a recent summit in New York raised questions about just how closely she manages the social media account. "@ambassadorPower," someone shouted from offstage.

(Later, Power’s press aides insisted that she is "intimately involved" in her Twitter account; her staff only spell-checks and adds hashtags to the tweets. "We only wish we could write with the conviction and clarity that has won the Ambassador such early praise for her Twitter account," spokesperson Erin Pelton wrote in an e-mail. "We’d love to take credit for it, but the only Pulitzer winner on her staff is her.")

She delivered a keynote speech to a gathering of young activists seeking the capture of the Ugandan mass murderer, Joseph Kony. "These are the voices I will carry with me every day as I go to work," she said in a speech, urging the assembled youth to be part of a broader movement to demand "a just foreign policy."

In her confirmation hearing, Power invoked the spirits of two former U.N. envoys, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, fervent foes of totalitarianism, who took pride in turning the U.N. stage into a battleground in defense of American values.

Power — who declined to be interviewed for this piece — said she would also be "a blunt, outspoken champion of American values and human rights." She vowed to loudly contest crackdowns on civil society perpetrated by the likes of Cuba, Iran, Russia and Venezuela. Responding to reports that Sudan’s leader Omar Hassan al Bashir, who is accused by the International Criminal Court of sponsoring a campaign of genocide against tribal groups in Darfur, "Such a trip would be deplorable, cynical, and hugely inappropriate," she said. "We would suggest that given that he is under those charges, and that the ICC has indicted him, again, on genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity charges, that it would be more appropriate for him to present himself to the ICC and travel to The Hague."   

Power’s humanitarian fervor, however, has been tempered by four years of service in President Obama’s National Security Council, where the pursuit of human rights has been made to vie for influence among an array of competing security, political, and economic interests, according to her former colleagues.  Those who expect the firebrand of her earlier years to reassert itself at Turtle Bay may be disappointed. "I don’t think we can expect she will always put human rights foremost, as much as I would like her to," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. "I don’t think anyone pretends the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations sets policy on her own. There are certain areas where the ambassador has some discretion. I would expect Samantha would use her discretion to push human rights. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves."

Others argue that it is unfair, and unwise, to expect the new U.N. ambassador to apply her personal advocacy at Turtle Bay. "Whatever Power does, she will probably disappoint some ardent readers … who wish she was still a journalist rather than a policymaker," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. "But to fight mass atrocities you need effective diplomacy as well as fine prose. As ambassador to the United Nations, Power cannot and should not simply be a humanitarian advocate. She also has to help craft diplomatic responses to national security challenges including the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs."

In truth, Power’s views about intervention have never been as black and white as her reputation would suggest; for her, it’s not simply a question of whether or not to send in U.S. Marines. She has written of a continuum of intervention — from strong public denunciations to sanctions, peacekeeping, and diplomatic entreaties to influential neighbors — to dissuade countries from committing excesses. But American troops stand as a last resort. "Given the affront genocide represents to America’s most cherished values and to its interests," she wrote in her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, "the United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers in the service of stopping this monstrous crime."

In the view of critics, the Obama administration’s response to Syria has been lackluster: a strategy high on rhetoric, humanitarian relief, and feckless diplomacy, and short on concrete, decisive action to protect civilians or to topple the government the White House says must go. For more than two years, the administration has progressed along the continuum of intervention — denouncing Assad, imposing sanctions, and drawing a red line in the sand on chemical weapons use — as the death toll has steadily risen. "I really have a lot of respect for Samantha Power, who has distinguished herself with her stance on genocide," said Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative for the Syrian National Council, an opposition group. "Generally speaking we hear a lot of good statements and positions from the U.S. administration, but sometimes they are not matched by action."

Last month, as the president prepared to strike the Assad regime, Power unleashed a broadside against Russia, Syria’s primary patron. Moscow’s persistent opposition to a Security Council action reining in Syria, she alleged, had emboldened the regime to use chemical weapons and forced the United States to move outside the Council to act. On Twitter, she linked to a 12-minute-long video montage of images of children writhing in agony from the apparent effects of toxic agents. In Washington, she told an audience of foreign policy wonks that the "costs of not taking targeted, limited military action are far greater than the risks of going forward."  

But Power’s case, like the president’s, was drawn narrowly around the use of chemical weapons, which have killed a tiny minority of Syria’s victims. "The United States cannot police every crisis," she said, assuring her audience that there would be "no American boots" on the ground in Syria. In the end, the administration has settled on a deal that offers the hope, if not the certainty, that Syria can be persuaded to destroy its entire chemical weapons arsenal. If it succeeds, the deal could mark a major landmark in efforts to contain the use of chemical weapons. But opposition figures fear it provides more false hopes, providing Assad’s government with another opportunity to buy time while he continues his military campaign against the opposition.

Power rose to national prominence on the weight of her writings on genocide, particularly her blunt, often damning accounts of America’s repeated failures to confront mass murder over the past century. Those works have made her "an atrocities prevention rock star," according to Simon Adams, the director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.

But in her current position she has highlighted the limits of American power.

"Unlike most U.N. ambassadors, Samantha Power has lived war — was a witness to its horrors," added Jordan’s U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who first met Power in Bosnia in 1994, when she was working as a freelance journalist and he served as a U.N. political officer. "No one doubts she will represent the U.S. faithfully and ably," he said. "Although it is her exposure to the atrocities of the Balkan wars many years ago, and her academic and public performance since, which gives her a moral standing of some distinction among her peers here, opening the way for her to fix, ultimately, her own personal signature on the work we do at the U.N."

But Power has her critics, who feel she has learned all the wrong lessons from her years witnessing war. David Rieff — an American writer who, like Power, covered the Bosnian conflict — sees Power as all-too-willing to devote U.S. firepower to causes it has no business being in. In that way, Rieff said, Power wasn’t all that different from Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Rieff, a fierce critic of humanitarian intervention, recalled an encounter with Power back a book festival on the UCLA campus in which she took issue with that assessment: "She said ‘I’m not Paul Wolfowitz.’ And I said, ‘actually, you know, you are.’ And I actually do think she is. Paul Wolfowitz was sincere, too."

In her voluminous writings, Power defined her own brand of American exceptionalism, making the case that the promotion of human rights is compatible with broader national security interests. A great power like the United States, in her view, must exhibit the intellectual honesty and courage to come to terms with its past failings to remain truly great. It must dispense criticism equally to our friends and foes. Why for instance, she asked, do we upbraid the Palestinians for abusing human rights, while turning a blind eye to the excesses of close allies like Pakistan or major world powers like Russia?

"We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States," she wrote in a 2003 article in the New Republic. "A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors." President Bill Clinton’s apology to Rwandans for failing to do more to halt the 1994 genocide, and the former German Chancellor Willie Brandt’s apology to the Jews for the Holocaust, as cathartic gestures that gratified the survivors and elevated the moral standing of those offering the apology.

Of course, it’s easier to make that point as a writer than as a presidential aide or cabinet officer. During her stint on the National Security Council, Power has curbed her instincts for the kind of candor that produced the New Republic piece — or landed her in hot water during the 2008 presidential campaign, when she described Obama’s then-rival Hillary Rodham Clinton as a "monster."

Under questioning by Senator Marco Rubio (R-N.J.) and other Republican senators at her confirmation hearing, Power repudiated some of her strongly held views, reciting her love for country again and again like a mantra: "I, as an immigrant to this country, think that this country is the greatest country on Earth," she said. "I would never apologize for America." On Israel, a country that she had criticized as a scholar, she assured American Jewish leaders and the Senate that she didn’t really mean everything she had said. "The United States has no greater friend in the world than the state of Israel," she assured the Senate. "I will stand up for Israel and work tirelessly to defend it."

Adams said that many of Samantha Power’s most ardent fans were taken aback by the performance. "Their jaws dropped," he said. Adams said he was less troubled, noting that this is what one has to do to get confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He said he believes her appointment to the top job is "amazing."

Assessing one official’s influence on an administration’s policies is always difficult to nail down, given the confidential nature of internal deliberations. Power has been credited with establishing the Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency body that was created in April 2012 to make sure that the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities was a priority at the highest level of government.

But the Obama administration’s record has been more mixed.

The United States did little to halt the killing of more than 70,000 people in Sri Lanka. Power has been identified as advocating for military action in Libya, where the United States, after some initial hesitancy, led a NATO air campaign that toppled a bloodthirsty Libyan regime.

Syria has proven to be a bridge too far, however. "I know most Americans don’t want to think about war and rightly so but it’s the responsibility of figures like Samantha Power and other to make the case to the American public and to the world," Ghadbian said.  "This is something that must not be allowed to go unpunished, and I believe she is in a position to make a difference."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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