On March 18, President Obama explained his decision to mobilize the United States military for international intervention in Libya. “Left unchecked,” he said, “we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners.” (As if it hasn’t been already?)
That last sentence was a Realpolitik, national-interest justification for the U.S. intervention. But it rang hollow. Regional destabilization would be likelier to center on Egypt, where a nascent and fragile democracy’s first vote reflected growing power for the Muslim Brotherhood and marginalization for young secularists; or on Yemen, where an important ally in U.S. counterterrorism efforts is following a script uncannily similar to Egypt’s, but with greater sectarianism; or on the tiny kingdom of Bahrain, where all the elements of a perfect Middle East storm — Sunni vs. Shia, Arab vs. Persian, and American-backed vs. anti-American — are cooling America’s relations with Saudi Arabia, and threatening the cold peace between the latter and Iran; or even on Syria
, where a regime that kept Israel’s northeastern border relatively quiet for 40 years is endangered. The citizens of Benghazi, on the other hand, are hardly essential U.S. allies or linchpins of geopolitical stability.
The real motivation animating the intervention was humanitarian. At a private conference with foreign-policy experts last week, President Obama’s advisers reportedly admitted as much. In justifying a “limited humanitarian intervention,” White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross explained to the conference that “We were looking at ‘Srebrenica on steroids’ — the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it.” That allusion has been common (a Wall Street Journal op-ed was subtitled, “Benghazi would have been the president’s Srebrenica”). And it is especially apt for one reason: Samantha Power.
Power, who is the senior director of multilateral affairs for the National Security Council, says a formative experience in her life was her attempt in early July 1995 to file a report with the Washington Post about Gen. Ratko Mladic’s approach toward the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. She had gone to Bosnia fresh out of Yale, and now wanted to sound the alarm in order to inspire international intervention. Her report was rejected, and the next day Mladic ordered the systematic executions that would send more than 8,000 Muslim boys and men to mass graves.
Power later rose to intellectual prominence with a book inspired by that experience. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is a sustained examination of America’s and the international community’s responses to the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge massacres, Saddam’s chemical warfare against the Kurds, Hutu versus Tutsi violence in Rwanda, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. She describes herself in public appearances as “an old-fashioned human-rights person,” or “a genocide chick.” The ironic inflection conveys that she is (1) conscious that her ideas might seem basic, simple, even clichéd, and (2) no less committed to their fundamental goodness and truth. And she’s no provincial liberal: She has extensively praised American evangelicals’ international charity and takes shots at the lit-department Left’s apologists for human-rights abusers in Third World countries.
On a wave of critical acclaim, Power went on to prestigious appointments in human-rights advocacy groups and academe, eventually becoming the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Power became well ensconced within the halls of influence. While at Harvard, she invited her students to dinner with Marty Peretz, Niall Ferguson, and other heavy hitters of public intellectual life. She’s also charismatic. She towers vertically, with a looming brow and a booming voice. Men’s Vogue profiled her as “a rare Harvard brainiac who can boast both a Pulitzer Prize and a mean jump shot.”
So it was only natural that, in early 2005, Power got a call from then-senator Obama. He had just read A Problem from Hell. The two met up in Washington, and by the end of a four-hour conversation, she was completely taken with him. She joked later, “I said, Why don’t I leave my job at Harvard and come work as an intern for you?”