Former US foreign policy advisor Samantha Power reflects on her early idealism on a new memoir—and why it has hardened with timeby Steve Bloomfield / October 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
At the height of the Bosnian War—and the height of American government indifference to it—four US diplomats resigned in protest. It was, notes Samantha Power in her new memoir The Education of an Idealist, “the largest wave of resignations over US policy in State Department history.”
Power was then a young reporter in Sarajevo, sending back dispatches on ethnic cleansing and massacres. Watching the horror up close profoundly shaped the way she viewed the world, and America’s role in it. Warren Christopher, President Clinton’s secretary of state, viewed the conflict as a civil war. He referred to the “hatred” between Muslim, Croat and Serb communities as “terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell.” Power disagreed. “If the subject of Bosnia came up and someone innocently described the conflict as a civil war, I would erupt: ‘It is genocide!’”
It prompted her to write a book on the history of genocide in the 20th century, and America’s ambivalent attitude towards it. The book, A Problem from Hell, won a Pulitzer, made Power a household name, and had an enormous influence on a generation of centre-left foreign policy experts.
Power did not just write about past genocides—she raised the alarm about those happening right now. When the Sudanese government began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur in the early 2000s, Power was instrumental in setting up a campaign group, Save Darfur, which swept university campuses and gained the support of politicians.
One of those politicians was Barack Obama. When he began running for president, Obama asked Power to join his team as a foreign policy adviser. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Obama championed an America that would stand up for human rights around the world.
In A Problem from Hell, Power was scathing about “America’s toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view.” Now America would have a president who would tolerate those unspeakable atrocities no longer. And Power, first as an adviser on the National Security Council, and then as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, would be alongside him for eight years, helping him to deliver on that promise.