The doctrine of Power

The new US Ambassador to the UN wants America to intervene in the world’s humanitarian tragedies. Has she converted the President to her cause?
July 17, 2013

President Barack Obama has described the Irish-born Samantha Power as “one of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy” © Reuters

On 5th June, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Samantha Power stood next to President Barack Obama as he named her as his choice for the next US Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, one of the top American diplomatic posts—and in the past, one of the most controversial. “One of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy, she showed us that the international community has a moral responsibility and a profound interest in resolving conflicts and defending human dignity,” said Obama, introducing what to many has seemed a surprising choice. A striking figure, tall and lean, Power was dressed in a dark sea-green dress that complemented her long red hair, an image that newspapers and television cameras were quick to seize.

For her, this was the culmination of a long journey, from her upbringing in Ireland to her arrival in the US and a career that led through journalism to academia and finally politics. To her supporters, she represents a chance to suffuse American foreign policy with a moral idealism. Her reputation as a tough-minded and passionate defender of human rights captures the image the Obama administration seeks to project. To her critics, and Obama’s, the President has appointed a “bleeding heart” who will urge America back into humanitarian missions around the world that it might not be able to afford. Although Power is widely expected to be confirmed in her role by the Senate, she will probably face a grilling from Republicans during this summer’s confirmation hearings.

Power rose to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s as a war correspondent reporting from the Balkans and Africa for the Economist and Boston Globe, and for her academic work on genocide. Troubled by America’s failure to prevent crimes against humanity, she developed her own strong view of the role it should have in the world. “US foreign policy should inject first-order concern for human rights into every policy decision,” she wrote in a much-discussed 2003 article for The New Republic. “American decision makers must understand how damaging a foreign policy that privileges order and profit over justice really is in the long term.” Power charged American politicians to submit every decision to “full cost accounting in which the harm to and welfare of foreign citizens would constitute a key variable in the cost-benefit calculus.”

As UN Ambassador, she will face the challenge of applying those principles in practice. Many Americans know little about the UN but among those who do, a sizable number question its importance. The position of UN Ambassador is frequently accorded cabinet-level rank, although John Bolton, who held the post under George W Bush (and was a fierce critic of much of the UN’s activity), publicly opposed this move, arguing that it “overstates the role and importance the UN should have in US foreign policy.” Nonetheless the post remains a key member of any president’s foreign policy team. In peacekeeping operations, to take just one area, the Permanent Representative has unique responsibilities.

One of Power’s central tenets is her support for the UN’s responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P, in the jargon of the UN corridors). This is the principle that if a regime violates the norms of governance (by failing to protect its population from genocide, ethnic cleansing or war crimes, for instance), then the international community is morally obliged to intervene to protect civilians at risk—using military force if necessary—after peaceful measures have failed. The doctrine was agreed upon in 2005 at a summit of world leaders and approved by the UN General Assembly in 2009. But it is an idea regarded with suspicion by those, including many in the US, who think that sovereignty should be absolute.

Power’s vocal support for liberal intervention and the responsibility to protect remain controversial, and her new role might put her ideals under strain as the US continues with drone strikes and targeted killings abroad. When she arrives in her new office in New York, Power may find herself chafing against the increasingly entrenched mood in Washington among both parties to avoid intervention abroad that could be costly in money or lives. As the national debt continues to rise, Power will have to balance her support for a proactive foreign policy with the need for the US to put its own fiscal house in order.

But Power is a popular figure in Washington. She has friends on both sides of the political aisle—an increasing rarity after years of bitter partisan fighting—including Senator John McCain and Richard Williamson, former UN Ambassador under George W Bush. “I have a broader range of experience representing the US at the UN than anyone in American history,” Williamson told me. “There is no question in my mind that Samantha is up to the challenge, and if confirmed, will do an excellent job.”

Nonetheless, Power will face opposition from critics who fear she is too inexperienced, as well as sceptics in the military and Republican establishments. In July, a group of nearly 50 former military and national security leaders sent an open letter to Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, to protest against Power. “In light of her low regard for our country, her animus towards one of our most important allies, Israel, and her affinity for those who would diminish our sovereignty and strengthen our adversaries,” said the letter, “we consider her to be a wholly unacceptable choice for this sensitive post and urge you to reject this nomination.”

Idealism is a word that comes up time and time again in discussions about Power. In 2004, she sat next to the journalist Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, at a dinner in Boston. “At some point that evening, she leaned over to ask me what was my ambition in life,” remembers Bowden. “I assumed she meant professional ambition, so I said, ‘I want to write good books.’ Then I asked her [what her ambition was]. Power said, ‘I want to change the world.’”

Born in 1970, Power grew up in Castleknock, a suburb of Dublin, before moving, aged nine, with her parents to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Yale University in 1993, Power travelled to Berlin to teach English for six months, a trip that set the foundations of her professional career. The fall of the Berlin Wall four years earlier had brought new life to the city, which was bustling with art, nightclubs and tourists. But the most striking aspect for Power was the number of refugees—Bosnian Muslims escaping from the ethnic cleansing taking place in the Balkans. “The people who tumbled into Berlin were fleeing for their lives,” said Power in a speech at Swarthmore College in 2002. “They were filthy. They were needy. And they were angry. Many were reliving the horrors they had experienced: concentration camps, rape camps, little boys and girls picked off their bicycles by Sarajevo snipers.”

“I saw only people I had no capacity to help,” she told the audience. But arriving back in Washington to begin an internship at the Carnegie Endowment think tank, she met Mort Abramowitz, a former US Assistant Secretary of State, who was to become a consistent mentor. He encouraged her not to walk away from the Bosnian horrors. Revolted by the crimes and by her country’s indifference to them, she resolved to become a war correspondent. Although her only previous reporting experience was covering women’s volleyball at Yale, she moved to Bosnia and for the next two years wrote hundreds of thousands of words for international newspapers and magazines.

The height of the Bosnian conflict in 1995 finally galvanised international consensus on the need for humanitarian intervention. Power’s views on the responsibility to protect also strengthened during her reporting from Rwanda, Cambodia, and East Timor. She returned to the US in 1996 to study law at Harvard and in 1998 became the founding Executive Director of the university’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy, where she began researching the book that introduced her to a wider audience: her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

In the book, published in 2002, Power looked at the Ottoman massacre of the Armenians, the Holocaust, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds. In each case, she argued, America’s lack of response to the slaughter—despite many early warnings—was immoral and emboldened the perpetrators of such crimes. “It was not surprising that we didn’t send troops, but that we didn’t even denounce killings while they occurred,” she wrote. Top-level government officials spent little time debating what to do, instead delegating to subordinates with less influence.

In 2004, when she was 33 and teaching at Harvard, Time magazine chose her as one of its 100 Most Influential People. Her class had waiting lists. Her authoritative demeanour at the podium was matched by the equal confidence in the values she articulated to graduate students, many of whom—like me—had served in the Balkans and witnessed the war there or had been recalled to military duty in the wake of 9/11. Power’s persona as a passionate and informed intellectual was a magnet for those who had experienced the horrors of war and policymakers working on theories of just war. Infusing human rights into the decision-making process was a refreshing and bold idea for many of us more familiar with the attitude of “might makes right.”

Power briefly left the bully pulpit at Harvard in 2004, returning to Africa to cover the government-backed slaughter of Sudanese civilians. In a graphic article for the New Yorker, she told the story of the crisis through one family’s experience. She wrote of a young mother who saw friends and family members brutally murdered, dismembered and stuffed, piece by piece, into a water well. Power described how the woman dug through bloody arms and legs to find her son’s head separated from his body. The traumatised woman fled with the head to the mountains. With 400,000 casualties, Darfur was, for Power, another tragic example of America’s failure to prevent ethnic cleansing.

Power’s foreign affairs expertise led to her 2005 meeting to discuss Darfur with then Senator Barack Obama. They spoke for over three hours, forming an instant connection. “They really hit it off,” says Mort Abramowitz. While serving as a foreign policy fellow on Capitol Hill in 2005-6, Power was credited with deepening Obama’s support for the doctrine of responsibility to protect. Her influence as an Obama confidante has increased over time.

“Her view of the responsibility to protect is grounded in her personal experience of seeing war up close, almost as close as the combatants themselves, having friends killed and sharing the intense suffering of civilians caught in an inferno not of their making,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Harvard Law professor and now close friend of Power, who was until 2011 the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and previously the Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy. “The media loves to portray that sensibility as a ‘bleeding heart,’ but in Samantha’s case she understands the deadly logic of violence and revenge all too well and is deeply versed in the realities of politics. Her support for R2P is strategic as much as humanitarian, grounded in the view that it is almost always easier to prevent violence than to stop it once it has escalated.”

The path Power has taken, from Ivy League advocacy to the highest levels of the policy world, is not uncommon in America. But the switch to politics can be a bruising experience, as she learnt to her cost in 2008 when, serving as an adviser to Obama on his primary campaign, she called his rival candidate, Hillary Clinton, a “monster.” The comment provoked a storm of complaint and Power resigned from the Obama campaign soon afterwards. She publicly apologised and in 2009 was appointed to Obama’s National Security Council, where she served until March 2013.

When Power arrived at the National Security Council in 2009, she, like others who were new to the administration, "had a steep learning curve," according to Rosa Brooks, a long-time acquaintance of Power’s and former counsellor to the Pentagon’s third-in-command, Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, Michèle Flournoy. Early on, there was a perception at the Pentagon that she was naively pushing for an agenda without understanding the broader context of the intervention, in spite of the fact that top military leaders later called collective operations there a "victory." Power’s relationship with the State Department was also “complicated at times because of structural tensions,” says Brooks, explaining that the State Department operates with some independence from the White House.

So what, serving under Obama, has been Power’s recent track record on the issues about which she has been so outspoken?

In 2010, speaking at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Power gave a public address: “What, concretely… should we be doing—and what should we be doing differently—in order to further reduce the likelihood of crimes that shock the conscience?” She pleaded for all actors to “systemise prevention.”

Her signature effort at the National Security Council sought to answer this call. Power served as the first Chair of the Atrocities Prevention Board, a White House task force created in 2012. The board has so far kept a low profile, protecting its annual report for the President. It works to forecast the risk of atrocities across the globe. In its closed-door monthly meetings, the board has sought to address the wave of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and helped secure inquiries into alleged violations of human rights in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Kyrgyzstan. Critics claim the lack of transparency taints its credibility, while others question its efficacy, for example, on preventing atrocities in Syria. But supporters, including Mike Abramowitz, director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the National Holocaust Museum, cautioned that the conflict in Syria had already progressed before the board’s inception.

“The Atrocities Prevention Board is an important development,” says former UN Ambassador Richard Williamson, who argues that it helps keep “the various arms of US bureaucracy attentive” to future dangers and makes it easier to present the President with a list of practical early steps to end atrocities before they begin. “Is it the answer to atrocity crimes? No. But only pompous pontificators with no experience in politics or making policy from the inside would dismiss this new tool as less than helpful.”

Another key area of Power’s work under Obama has been Libya where, in March 2011, she allied with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to persuade Obama to support a Nato-led military intervention. Although Libya is still in turmoil, the military action, as alluded, was hailed as a model intervention by Nato’s then Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis. Such a well-orchestrated multilateral response is rare, though it is the ideal that Power is likely to seek as the international community continues to grapple with containing the violence in Syria. But “no one with proximity to [Obama] or without it has been all that successful” with devising a strategy for Syria, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution told me.

In public, Power has been muted about intervening in Syria. But she has not been silent in the White House. Her early argument for more robust action in Syria—such as arming the rebels—has been adopted, and at the UN she will seek to play a more prominent role in orchestrating multilateral efforts.

However, those expecting Power to speak out on every humanitarian issue and lead every campaign for liberal intervention not only overlook the limitations of her position, but also fail to understand how her outlook has become increasingly pragmatic over the past two decades. “She is not just an idealist,” says Mort Abramowitz. “She works like hell, pays enormous attention to detail, tries very hard to understand every situation she gets involved in, and will seek other views.” He adds: “Over the years she has come to understand complexity and the difficulties of decision-making. She can change her mind and some of her early writings have been rethought.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican on the Armed Forces Committee told me that "being a human rights activist and being tough are not mutually exclusive," adding that Power is Obama's pick and "is qualified, honest and capable."

Joseph Nye, who was Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government when Power set up the Carr Centre there, agrees. Regarding Power’s reputation as a liberal hawk, he says, “I think she will be much more pragmatic than people think. She has a bum rap about being a dogmatist. I didn’t find that.”

Whether a US President believes a UN ambassador can actually accomplish anything has often been signalled by his choice of nominee. It has been said that George W Bush picked Bolton precisely because he was sceptical about multilateralism and knew his famously confrontational new ambassador would reflect that. Obama seems to take the position more seriously, but some critics, such as former Republican Congressman Allen West, suggest he has selected Power because of her loyalty. Yet her closeness to Obama is a crucial asset, believes Nye. “What matters is not so much the office as it is the relationship with the President... and contacts in the White House,” he says.

Bruce Riedel at Brookings believes the role is critical. “US ambassadors do matter,” says Riedel, citing Thomas Pickering’s influence on rallying the UN Security Council’s response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and Madeleine Albright’s decisive support for intervention in the Balkans. “If you are a friend of [the President with] long-standing and years of intimacy, you can be very influential. [Power] has that clout. Add to that her connection to Susan Rice [now Obama’s national security adviser] and it’s a powerful dynamic.”

But can Power influence the international response to the Syria crisis? “A key problem in Syria is the total lack of support in the Congress and public for US intervention, without which any mission will be unsustainable,” says Riedel. “Power has little experience with either. Perhaps she can generate support for a robust policy but it will be a tough sell.”

Power’s own views of the UN are complicated. She has strongly criticised the Security Council, the body charged with maintaining international peace and security, whose five permanent members with veto power include China and Russia. “The UN Security Council is anachronistic, undemocratic, and consists of countries that lack the standing to be considered good-faith arbiters of how to balance stability against democracy, peace against justice, and security against human rights,” wrote Power in 2003. “But, for all of the flaws in the international system, it remains a fact that securing international consent or participation increases a policy’s legitimacy in the eyes of others.” Power supports more extensive US involvement with the UN in order to start “restoring the legitimacy of US power.”

Power is also explicitly against American unilateralism. Instead, she wants the US to take a lead in shaping international institutions. Discussing the International Criminal Court—which the US has not joined, and which has been criticised by many American politicians for threatening to override US law and judicial procedure—Power wrote that “only US resources and leadership can turn such institutions into forces for the international stability that is indispensable to US security. Besides, giving up a pinch of sovereignty will not deprive the United States of the tremendous military and economic leverage it has at its disposal as a last resort.”

What size “pinch” of sovereignty she is willing to give up remains to be seen. However, comments like this make her an easy target for Republican hardliners. So, famously, did her “mea culpa” doctrine—that US officials should consider apologising for “the sins of their predecessors” (her words, although she did not specify which sins she was thinking of). In June, Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas, posted on his website: “No nation has spilled more blood or sacrificed more for the freedom of others than ours, and yet Ms Power has publicly embraced the need for America to continue apologising to the world for perceived transgressions, going so far as to explicitly urge ‘instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa.’”

Power’s views on Israel have also landed her in trouble. While Jarrod Bernstein, a former liaison to the Jewish community for the White House, commends Power’s diplomatic work with Israeli officials, some critics have rebuked her for her supposed hostility towards Israel. In 2002 she gave a now-infamous interview in which she suggested that, in a hypothetical situation where a human rights catastrophe was occurring in Israel-Palestine, it might be necessary to send in an international protection force to impose peace. She issued her own mea culpa for her statement shortly thereafter, though she maintains that more should be done for the peace process to prevent “major human rights abuses” against Palestinians. Lindsey Graham, who has spoken to Power many times, insists that "she has gone out of her way to assure support of Israel".

Can Power manage the much broader portfolio the UN will present? Ambassador John Negroponte, who began his appointment to the UN just seven days after 9/11, thinks so. “The UN maintains a major focus on many human rights challenges across Africa, including the use of child soldiers and UN peacekeeper sexual violence toward indigenous women, for which Power has a deep appreciation and personal connection,” he says. “These issues won’t be lost on her.” But, he added that Power will have to spend time mastering hallway diplomacy, “jaw-boning and holding hands” with the other permanent members on the Security Council if she really wants to gain traction.

Most importantly, Power is going into the job without rose-tinted spectacles. “She knows the UN’s strengths. She knows its weaknesses,” said Obama when announcing his nomination of her. But despite the pragmatism that she has developed since her days as a reporter, Power still chose to sound an idealistic note when accepting his nomination. “The question of what the UN can accomplish for the world and for the US remains a pressing one,” said Power. “I have seen UN aid workers enduring shell-fire to deliver food to the people of Sudan. Yet I’ve also seen UN peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia. As the most powerful and inspiring country on this earth, we have a critical role to play in insisting that the institution meets the necessities of our time. It can do so only with American leadership.”