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Samantha Power: A crusader for human rights
Obama's nominee for U.N. ambassador is a passionate advocate for U.S. intervention abroad
 
Samantha Power wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide in 2002.
Samantha Power wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide in 2002. JOSHUA ROBERTS/Reuters/Corbis

What is Power's background?
An intellectual and a crusader, Samantha Power comes to international diplomacy from the worlds of journalism and academia. She was born in Ireland in 1970, and immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 9. After graduating from Yale in 1992, she got newspaper assignments to cover the wars sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia. There she quickly earned respect for being what a fellow journalist described as a "flame-haired, freckled girl with guts." Deeply affected by the atrocities committed in Bosnia, Power became known for haranguing senior American officials for failing to stop massacres and pushing her editors at The Boston Globe for more space to tell Americans about the horrors she witnessed. "She was a force of nature," said fellow reporter Barbara Demick.

How did that experience shape her?
Power was haunted by the war in Bosnia, especially United Nations troops' failure to prevent the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. She returned to the U.S. determined to take an active role in preventing such tragedies. After earning a law degree from Harvard, the self-styled "genocide chick" set up a human-rights center there while continuing to report on atrocities in Sudan, Zimbabwe, East Timor, and Kosovo. She brought insights from archives and war zones alike to her 2002 book "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, in which she argues that American leaders have consistently chosen to look away from genocide abroad. "No U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence," Power wrote. "It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on." Power, who had become a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, won a Pulitzer Prize for the book — as well as the attention of the young new senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

How did they meet?
Obama's office called Power out of the blue in 2005, saying that the senator had read her book and wanted to chat. Their scheduled one-hour meeting in Washington stretched into hours of an intense foreign-policy discussion. "Entering the fourth hour," Power later remembered, "I heard myself saying, 'Why don't I quit my job at Harvard and come and intern in your office and answer the phones or do whatever you want?' It was literally that spontaneous." She soon became one of Obama's main foreign-policy advisers, pushing the cerebral young senator toward her vision of what she called "tough, principled, and engaged diplomacy." When Obama ran for president, Power served as the campaign's foreign-policy adviser, but her penchant for speaking her mind caught up with her in March 2008, when she told a reporter — in what she thought was an off-the-record comment — that Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, was a politically ruthless "monster." Forced to resign, Power laid low for the rest of Obama's campaign. After he won, she joined his National Security Council. By nominating Power for U.N. ambassador last month, Obama appears determined to complete her rehabilitation.

Would the post give her more sway?
Hawks and liberal humanitarians both hope that the promotion of Power, along with the appointment of pro-interventionist Susan Rice as Obama's national security adviser, signals a more aggressive stance on countries like Syria and Iran — especially since both women, close friends of the president, persuaded him to intervene militarily in Libya. But activists may be disappointed. Though often caricatured as a modern-day Joan of Arc — she was plastered on The National Interest's front cover under the headline "Interventionista!" — Power has become more pragmatic over the years. She now sees foreign policy as a "toolbox" that includes international sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezes as well as military interventions.

What do conservatives make of her?
Hawks like Sen. John McCain support her, anticipating that she'll push a more muscular approach in Syria. But some Republicans call her "anti-Israel" because of comments she once made about the country's "major human-rights abuses" against the Palestinians. Conservatives also are alarmed by her 2003 call for the U.S. to apologize for its historical "crimes," seeing it as evidence of a "blame America first" attitude. Commentator Glenn Beck has called Power "the most dangerous woman in America."

Will she be confirmed?
Probably so. But Republicans will give her a rough time, using her as a proxy to express their anger that Obama appointed Rice to a powerful post for which she needs no Senate confirmation. (The GOP believes Rice took part in an administration cover-up of the terrorist involvement in the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.) If Power is confirmed, the question remains how well this former outsider can promote her ideals from the inside. "She is clearly the foremost voice for human rights within the White House, and she has Obama's ear," said Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. But inside the corridors of power, she will encounter more directly what she has called an official tendency "to favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment."

The influence of women
Have female hawks taken over foreign policy? One of the arguments for having more women in positions of power is that they'd be less susceptible to military confrontations fueled by testosterone. In practice, female officeholders have been anything but pacifists. U.N. Ambassador (and future secretary of state) Madeleine Albright pushed then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell to intervene in the Balkans. "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" she asked. Likewise, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice joined the neocons in advocating the Iraq War. Under Obama, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power have been strong advocates of intervention in Libya and Syria. "In the Balkans it took three years for the international community to use air power," said Power, in noting that trio's influence. "In Libya it took a little more than a month."

 

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