amantha Power had been waiting her entire adult life for this moment. “To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes,” the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations thundered from her seat at the United Nations Security Council briefing as Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, succumbed to a brutal and bloody siege by government forces. “Your barrel bombs and mortars and airstrikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever-tightening noose.” Then Power dropped the hammer: “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
It’s not that Power was wrong. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been able to continue to carry out its slaughter thanks to Russian airpower (and diplomatic cover) and reinforcements from Iranian terror proxies. But the key part of Power’s speech came a few lines earlier, when she said: “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo.”
The line makes for a fitting epitaph for Power’s own time in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet. The problem is that she spoke these words on December 13, 2016, five weeks before the end of the Obama presidency—and three and a half years into her tenure as America’s UN ambassador. Before she entered Obama’s service in 2009, she had devoted her meteoric career to heaping shame on America’s history of standing aside, hands in pockets, as mass murders occurred. She has famously and publicly called out individual officials as “bystanders to genocide” while lauding those who resigned in protest of the same.
Power, who at 42 became America’s youngest-ever ambassador to the UN, has now become that bystander. It is her particular contribution to genocide scholarship that illuminates the frustration and despair engendered by her toleration of Obama’s dithering. “It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective,” she writes in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2003. “The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.”
The story of how Samantha Power sought to break—or at least reform—that system, and ended up a cog in its efficient forward march, is a cautionary one.
orn in England but raised in Ireland, Power, at 9, moved with her mother, younger sister, and her mother’s partner to the United States in 1979 (her father stayed behind in Ireland). She became a huge baseball fan and hoped, she told the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in 2014, to be “the next Bob Costas.” That changed when, as a rising sophomore at Yale in 1989, she watched a live feed of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. After graduation, the real education of Samantha Power began.
While interning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Power forged a press-credential request on Foreign Policy magazine letterhead so she could cover the Bosnian war. She was in her element. She learned Bosnian; filed stories for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and US News & World Report; and earned the respect of her peers in the war zone. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said in 2013 that a vodka-drinking contest with a Russian official left him passed out in the street—until Power carried him back to the Sarajevo Holiday Inn.
Her unflappability was key. The Bosnian conflict was part of an extraordinarily gruesome process of state collapse. Yugoslavia, a confederation of Communist satellites, was led by Josip Broz Tito until his death in 1980. Though an authoritarian, Tito kept enough distance from Stalin to receive Western aid during the Cold War. After Tito’s death, ethnic tensions suppressed for years bubbled up to the surface, aggravated by decentralizing reforms that unintentionally put the states on the path to independence. Slobodan Milosevic took advantage of the strife not only to become president of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia but to agitate for the rights of Serb minorities in other Yugoslav states. The resulting evaporation of Yugoslavia was a bloodbath, with Milosevic at its center. He died in 2006 while on trial at the International Criminal Court for genocide and other war crimes.
Still on trial for similar crimes is Ratko Mladic. A general who led Serbia’s army, Mladic headed the Serb onslaught on Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia that had been declared a “safe zone” by Dutch UN peacekeepers. With Mladic’s troops closing in, Dutch commander Colonel Thomas Karremans requested NATO air support. It didn’t come in time. Demanding the Muslim population’s surrender, Mladic promised that those who turned over their weapons and complied would be spared. The meeting was videotaped. “Your people need not die,” Mladic said. “Not your brothers or your husbands or your neighbors. You can survive or you can disappear . . . . Allah can’t help you, but Mladic can.”
During law school, she wrote a paper on military intervention in conflict zones that turned into her book-length treatment of humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide.
Two weeks later, Power filed a piece for the Boston Globe. Without sharing a byline this time, she had the stage to herself and showed flashes of the lyrical nonfiction writer she would soon become: “Up to 17,000 Muslims now huddle in the 150-square-kilometer Zepa valley, an area of dark green ferns, white minarets, and marble bridges that seems more suited to ‘Hansel and Gretel’ than to warfare . . . . It is a remote area coveted only by those told they cannot possess it. In the last war, the Nazis tried, and limped home bloodied; in this war the Serbs are hoping their third try will be the charm.”
In a 2010 interview as part of the organization Campus Progress’s national conference, Power explained why she had gone to the Balkans. It wasn’t to report, but to witness:
Bosnia was on fire. The Serbs had set up concentration camps. There were, [yet] again, emaciated men behind barbed wire in Europe. . . . The Holocaust museum was just opening up here on the Mall in Washington, Schindler’s List had just come out—I just couldn’t reconcile the tension between the “Never Again” culture, which had rightly evolved, and then what was actually happening in Bosnia. I became completely consumed with what was going on, so I decided to go and try to do something for Bosnia.
In 1995, back from covering the war, she enrolled in Harvard Law School. That year, NATO began heavy bombing of Serb military targets in Bosnia. Power “rejoiced,” according to Osnos. She told him: “Your average journalists knew that they should not admit that was their longing. But you see that much terrorization of people and you’re just a human being in that context, and people were rooting for that outcome and that intervention.”
During law school, she wrote a paper on military intervention in conflict zones that turned into her eventual book-length treatment of humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide.
But it was not her first major treatment of the subject. In the September 2001 issue of the Atlantic, she published an article called “Bystanders to Genocide.” It was compelling, well-sourced, heartrending, and terrifying.
And unsparing. The subject was not the former Yugoslavia, but the Clinton administration’s handling of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Clinton administration was not merely excoriated as a mass of indifference. It was dissected. Everybody looked bad—everybody. The policymaker who came out looking the worst was Susan Rice, at the time a National Security Council staffer who eventually became Obama’s national-security adviser (and who would have been his secretary of state after Hillary Clinton if Obama had had his druthers). According to Power, Rice said the following at an interagency teleconference during the first month of the genocide: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?”
Rice claimed to have learned her lesson. She told Power in an interview for the article, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” Twelve years later, Power would take over as UN ambassador from none other than Susan Rice—who had sought to shame Russia at the Security Council for the role it was playing in the war in Syria while continuing to represent a president who refused to act. Just as Power would do.
fter the Atlantic article, Power was interviewed in 2002 on a public-access show hosted by University of California professor Harry Kreisler. She was asked a hypothetical question: “Without asking you to address the Palestine–Israel problem, let’s say you were an adviser to the president of the United States. How, in response to current events, would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, lest one party or another be looking like they might be moving toward genocide?”
Power’s response was, in a word, bonkers. And it was bonkers on so many levels that it debunks the popular conception of Power as a formidable debater and premier intellectual.
She began by suggesting the question was not merely hypothetical: “Well, I don’t think that in any of the cases, a shortage of information is the problem. And I actually think in the Palestine–Israeli situation, there’s an abundance of information, and what we don’t need is some sort of early-warning mechanism there.”
She then made clear that in this hypothetical, the Israelis are the aggressors, and that moneyed American Jews are influencing U.S. foreign policy by waving their checkbooks: “What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in service of helping the situation. And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import.”
After saying the U.S. should invest vast sums of money “not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine,” she cut right to the chase: We should invest “the billions of dollars it would probably take also to support what I think will have to be a mammoth protection force, not of the old Srebrenica kind or the Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence.”
Now, an informed person, then and now, might have asked and might ask why, at a time when the terrorist anti-Semite Yasser Arafat was leading the Palestinians, we would assume that the government of Israel would be the more likely genocidaire. The answer, according to Power, is that Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were birds of a feather: “It’s essential that some set of principles becomes the benchmark rather than a deference to people who are fundamentally, politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people. And by that I mean what Tom Friedman has called ‘Sharafat.’ I mean, I do think in that sense that both political leaders have been dreadfully irresponsible. And unfortunately, it does require external intervention.”
To sum up: Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are the same person, the Jews are tilting the balance of power in the area to Israel, and an external force needs to intervene to protect the Palestinians from Israeli mass murder.
nd now to Iraq. In her Security Council speech, Power compared Aleppo to Srebrenica, Rwanda—and Halabja. This referred to Saddam Hussein’s campaign of ethnic cleansing of the rural Iraqi Kurdish population. In several waves in 1987 and 1988, after declaring that Kurds should be treated as an insurgency, Hussein’s forces gassed and executed about 100,000 Kurdish men, women, and children, and forced the rest into designated residential areas. The U.S., believing Iraq’s counterweight to Iran kept a measure of stability in the region, was disinclined to confront Hussein or recognize the genocidal campaign for what it was, at least until late 1988. Both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations opposed sanctions on Saddam. Power’s conclusion: “Special interests, economic profit, and a geopolitical tilt toward Iraq thwarted humanitarian concerns.”
But Power went further. Hussein’s increasingly aggressive behavior was the result, she wrote in A Problem from Hell, of Bush’s coddling. And she blamed America’s refusal to cut ties with Iraq for Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction: “U.S. government-guaranteed loans had totaled $5 billion since 1983. The credits had freed up currency for Hussein to fortify and modernize his more cherished military assets, including his stockpile of deadly chemicals. American grain would keep the Iraqi army fed during its occupation of Kuwait.”
You might think, then, that Power would follow on this line of thought consistently. After the first Gulf war and throughout the 1990s, Saddam violated various elements of the cease-fire agreement and fired at U.S. planes patrolling a no-fly zone while the West—especially via Power’s beloved United Nations—helped him avoid the financial sting of sanctions. He continued to oppress the Kurds and signaled his resuscitation of Iraq’s WMD development, which Power had found so concerning.
Yet Power was critical of the George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. She admitted to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews at the time that the war would probably improve the lives of Iraqis. But she refused to say it was a just war. And she knocked its supposed unilateralism: “It legitimates the go-it-alone approach, and it sort of reinforces the impression of us as an outlaw nation, which is ironic because, of course, Saddam’s regime is far more an outlaw nation than ours.”
In a 2008 Slate piece, she said war and occupation should be used only as a last resort: “In my view this consequentialist test was passed in Bosnia and flunked in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq.” She went further in a 2003 piece in the New Republic, using Iraq as a touchstone to understand Bush’s “illiberal” power projection. “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought,” she wrote. “It needs not tweaking but overhauling. We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States.”
But the Bush administration’s decision to settle in for a lengthy occupation instead of merely decapitating the Iraqi regime was made in large measure with protection of the Kurds and other non-Sunni Iraqis in mind—to prevent the kind of genocide Power had warned against in A Problem from Hell. The Bush administration wanted to avoid the mistakes of the first Bush presidency, which Power had so harshly criticized.
The Iraq war had one more strike against it for Power: It resulted in the tragic death of her hero, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The Brazilian-born Vieira de Mello started his three-decade UN career as an anti-American Marxist and developed into something of a realist along the way, as he got to know the real world. Power met him in 1994. Always humanitarian-minded, Vieira de Mello did peacekeeping tours in many of the world’s conflict zones, and she praised his work and his life in her biography, Chasing the Flame.
Vieira de Mello’s career path took him, finally, to Iraq. The Bush administration asked him to be the UN’s envoy to Iraq. If anyone could handle the stress and chaos, officials thought, it was he. On August 19, 2003, he was killed when al-Qaeda bombed the UN’s Baghdad headquarters.
Chasing the Flame is filled with lessons for the reader from Vieira de Mello’s life—lessons she herself did not heed once she became a policymaker rather than a critic. One of them, which Vieira de Mello returned to time and again, was the fact that the UN, when it comes to taking action, is taking orders. When you’re upset about UN inaction, you’re really upset about the inaction of individual states. So, yes, Power was right to rage at Russia over Syria in 2016—but she might have heeded Vieira de Mello’s words about Bosnia: “If the United States and Europe wanted a muscular peacekeeping operation here, they would insist on adding muscle. If they really wanted to stop the Serbs, they would have done so long ago.”
If Power would station troops in Israel because she worries the Palestinians could plausibly be victims of genocide in the near future, what could she possibly say about Syria?
And that’s exactly what happened.
here are two situations in the world that should shame Power, the anti-genocide activist. The first, and less obvious one, is Burma. The Obama administration cites this country as one of its foreign-policy successes, because the ruling junta took steps toward liberalization in return for lifting some sanctions against it. But then everybody seems to have forgotten about it, and in doing so forgot about the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority currently being subjected to an unmistakable genocide—among the clearest examples ever to emerge in real time. This is genocide on Power’s watch, and we don’t hear a peep about it.
The other, of course, is Syria. Whether or not the Assad regime has fully crossed over the line to having committed genocide, America’s inaction already flunks Power’s test. As longtime Levant correspondent Michael Totten has written, we’ve seen the warnings. The first was Assad’s use of chemical weapons, a chilling callback to Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds. Another was the credible reporting of Shiite Iranian militias’ ethnically cleansing Sunni Arabs in core cities, atrocities that were then repeated in other strategic areas.
If Power would station troops in Israel because she worries the Palestinians could plausibly be victims of genocide in the near future, what could she possibly say about Syria? Well, she’d likely say, “We tried.” President Obama declared that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that, once crossed, would earn American military intervention. When it became public that Assad had deployed chemical weapons, Obama put the word out: As the Germans used to say during World War II, the Amis are coming.
Power herself made the case for action in Syria. “Some have asked, given our collective war weariness, why we cannot use nonmilitary tools to achieve the same end,” Power told a gathering at the Center for American Progress in August 2013. “My answer to this question is: We have exhausted the alternatives.” Why did the use of chemical weapons, as opposed to conventional weapons, constitute a red line? “These weapons kill in the most gruesome possible way,” Power said. “They kill indiscriminately. They are incapable of distinguishing between a child and a rebel. And they have the potential to kill massively.”
Power then explained that failing to act in this case would send a very dangerous message to other rogue regimes: “We cannot afford to signal to North Korea and Iran that the international community is unwilling to act to prevent proliferation or willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
So, according to Power, we had no choice but to act. But there’s always a choice, and Obama made a different one as soon as Russia gave him an excuse to back out. Moscow suggested that the two countries team up to find a way to remove the remaining chemical weapons to which Assad’s forces retained access. Though they failed even to do that, Obama had his escape hatch. Right then, when Obama did all the things Power had accused Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush of doing, was the moment Power faced her own choice. She could have resigned—and stayed true to the person she wants to see every morning in the mirror. Or she could have completed her bureaucratic conversion and kept her plush pad at the Waldorf Astoria.
“Some believe that you are the conscience of the administration,” veteran newsman Charlie Rose told Power on his eponymous program in May 2015. “That that’s part of the role you play. Are they right?”
Power began to respond, but Rose cut her off: “Because of your background, because of your experience, because of what you wrote, because of what your life has stood for, that on these very important questions, where so many civilians are dying, you’re the conscience of the administration.”
Power suggested that Obama brought on a diverse team of advisers because he “grapples with” the human cost of decision-making. “I’m even in the mix. I was not a born bureaucrat, and certainly not a born diplomat,” Power says, laughing.
Rose cuts in: “That’s why we’re all curious about this, you understand that.”
Power said she understood that, and she returned to the idea that she was just one voice “in the mix,” that Obama wanted to have someone like her on board because she’s seen the effects of these atrocities close up, that she’s interviewed survivors.
“Exactly,” Rose interjects, as though declaring checkmate.
It’s not just the gruesome irony that she made her name and her reputation trashing the moral compasses of others who didn’t act when they had the power to do so—and then did exactly as they did. It’s worse.
In October 2008, she published the last post on her personal blog before beginning her public career on Obama’s National Security Council. The post was an announcement that she had made Esquire magazine’s list of the “75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.”
Where did that influence go when it was finally called upon to show itself? What would Power say to the woman who wrote A Problem from Hell? How would she explain herself to herself? Well, look, she might say, you have to understand—like I told Charlie Rose, I was not a born bureaucrat. To which the Samantha Power of yore might respond: Coulda fooled me.
After all, she wrote the book.