Politics & Policy

What Is Samantha Power Thinking?

The charismatic Obama adviser believes that stopping “genocide” is the United States’ top foreign-policy priority.

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?”

She got her chance a couple of years later as a foreign-policy adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign. On the trail, she met Cass Sunstein, the law-and-economics guru who later became an Obama regulatory czar. Soon, the serendipitously named adviser became half of the ultimate Ivory Tower–Beltway power marriage: Sunstein had Obama’s ear on domestic policy, she on foreign. On the campaign trail, Power took some flak from the Right for too much moral equivalence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And she took more flak from rival candidate Hillary Clinton, who, Power claimed, caricatured her and Obama’s contentious view that it is advantageous to sit down and talk even with evil regimes (Ahmadinejad’s in particular). Power responded with a Kinsley gaffe, calling Clinton “a monster,” and was forced to resign from the campaign.

But the next time she seized the spotlight, it was in cooperation with Clinton. Right after Obama announced his intention to engage the U.S. military in Libya, a story line emerged: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen both opposed military action in Libya, but they were outmaneuvered by three women: Clinton, Power, and Amb. Susan Rice.

For some, Obama’s decision proved what they had long suspected: The charismatic Power had special influence with the president. The things that made her controversial on the campaign trail — Israel and Iran — aren’t a factor in Libya, and the ideas on which she founded her career suddenly were paramount. Samantha Power’s focus on genocide — which she defines to include mass murders that are not inter-ethnic, such as the Khmer Rouge slaughters — as a particular and unique evil, and the modern geopolitical problem for which international institutions exist, seems to be the intellectual basis on which intervention in Libya was justified within the administration.

The evidence here is circumstantial, but there is a lot of it. Conservatives have spent the last week teasing Obama over his reversals. Appealing to an America that was tired of W.’s wars, Senator Obama told the Boston Globe in 2007, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” So whence last week’s sudden reversal, this return to Responsibility to Protect norms for the United States? Meanwhile, liberals have contested the moral basis of humanitarian warfare. If the goal is to save lives, the argument goes, couldn’t we do so more effectively, sans collateral damage, by fighting malaria? Maybe. And, if so, what’s the moral basis for saving Benghazi instead of sub-Sahara unless we think, as Power does, that genocide (as she defines it) is a unique and particular moral evil, and the fundamental geopolitical problem?

Power is obviously an impressive intellect, and her ideas cannot be easily dismissed. Her philosophical point — that beyond national interest, foreign policy should comprehend a moral imperative to stop mass murders — and her historical archaeology — which shows how the U.S. could have done more to stop genocides past — are difficult to contest. But there are some patterns of her thought which may be inapplicable to current policy regarding Libya. For example, in A Problem from Hell Power argues that there is a set of ideas that get repeated in, and hence enable, each genocide. The first is the belief that there is an ambiguous and morally complex conflict between rival groups where there is in fact a simple relationship of victimizer and victimized (policymakers, she complains, “render the bloodshed two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal”). In some cases — like the Holocaust — her view is obviously correct. But it is less obvious in Libya. Observers from security expert George Friedman to New YorkTimesman Thomas Friedman have pointed out that Libya’s sectarian conflict has been painted over by media-savvy Libyans and intoxicated Western journalists to portray a unified democratic uprising against Qaddafi, where there are in fact strong elements of tribal power rivalries.

Samantha Power also condemns those who argue that humanitarian interventions can have unpredictable consequences that could eventually add to the harm. Policymakers, she writes, “insist that any proposed U.S. response will be futile. Indeed, it may even do more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims and jeopardizing other precious American moral or strategic interests.” This, she implies, is an excuse for moral cowardice. Maybe so. But maybe it’s also true.

Whether right or wrong, Samantha Power’s ideas seem to be the animating spirit behind U.S. policy in Libya. Our assessments of the two must rise and fall together.

— Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley fellow at the National Review Institute.  


The Latest