Samantha Power Brought Activism Inside to Sway Obama on Libya

Samantha Power Brought Activism Inside, Sway Obama on Libya
Samantha Power of the National Security Council, center, stands in the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Bloomberg

As a young journalist covering the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Samantha Power berated Peter Galbraith, then the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, for “not doing enough to stop the slaughter,” Galbraith recalls.

Last week, when President Barack Obama was considering whether to intervene to stop Muammar Qaddafi’s assault on rebels in Libya, Galbraith turned the tables on his friend Power, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on genocide and now serves on Obama’s National Security Council staff.

“How can you sit on your hands while Qaddafi is slaughtering his people?” Galbraith recounted needling her in an e-mail. “You’re the person who exposed what happened in Rwanda -- how could you let this become Obama’s Rwanda?”

That incident underscores the journey that Power, 40, has made from outsider to White House aide with a voice at the center of discussions over how far the U.S. should go to protect civilians from repressive regimes.

Obama had come under fire from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and allies in Europe and the Mideast for not taking swift action to aid Qaddafi’s opponents in Libya.

In White House meetings, Power, a public advocate of government efforts to halt human rights abuses before she joined the administration, pressed for U.S. intervention on humanitarian grounds, according to people involved in the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pressing on Libya

She played a role, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and other NSC advisers, in convincing Obama to push for a UN Security Council resolution to authorize a coalition military force to protect Libyan civilians. Other administration figures were concerned about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone and differences within NATO over what Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned would be a “big operation.”

The U.S.-commanded military campaign, now in its seventh day, has neutralized Qaddafi’s air defenses and pummeled his ground forces attacking rebel strongholds.

Power, who sought the limelight as a writer and public intellectual, has learned to be a behind-the-scenes policymaker over the past two years, associates say.

The transition wasn’t seamless. As an Obama adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign, Power learned what it was like to be on the other side of the notebook when a Scottish journalist reported that she referred to Hillary Clinton, Obama’s main opponent for the Democratic nomination, as a “monster.” Power apologized and resigned from the campaign.

Repairing Relations

After Obama’s victory, he named her to the National Security Council. Friends say she has worked to repair her relationship with Clinton, and three weeks ago accompanied her on a trip to Geneva for a human rights conference.

Power, who declined to be interviewed, came into the administration with a reputation as an intellectual star who was also adept at self-promotion.

“Journalists are by their nature publicity-hounds,” Galbraith said. “You write a book and you do everything you can to promote the book and the arguments, especially when you’re an advocacy journalist,” he said. She is no longer a journalist and plays a different role as a public official, he said.

At the same time, after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, there were media stories touting her role in turning Obama around to stronger support for the protesters. In the past several days, she has been portrayed as one of the leading advocates for the Libyan intervention.

Target for Conservatives

Power has been targeted by some conservatives, who see her ideology and influence on the president as troubling.

Her ideas “impinge significantly on national sovereignty,” said Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Allowing international organizations to call for interventions because of alleged war crimes “cuts against America’s own ability to make decisions to go to war.”

In her writings, Power has endorsed the use of limited military force to achieve humanitarian ends, in cases such as Bosnia and Rwanda. Yet she opposed the war in Iraq, in part, because the U.S. didn’t make an issue of Saddam Hussein’s human rights record.

“By parallel reasoning, she ought to oppose the attack on Libya -- since we didn’t protest Qaddafi’s domestic abuses previously,” said Jeremy Rabkin, a professor at George Mason University and a member of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Supporters say Power is advocating a foreign policy based on morality and universal rights, and that she has managed to translate her ideals into the world of policy and politics.

Mirroring Obama Shift

Her career as a public intellectual thrived while she ran a human rights center at Harvard University, published award-winning writings and appeared in documentary films. In the last two years, associates say, she has learned instead to duck the spotlight.

Tom Malinowski, a former senior director at the NSC under President Bill Clinton who has participated in recent NSC advisory meetings over North Africa, said the shift Power has made “is not all that different from the transition that Barack Obama and many members of his administration have made.”

They went from “being idealists with a vision of what government should do to being the managers of a government that in fact is limited in what it is able to do,” he said.

Born in Dublin, Power moved to Atlanta as a child before heading off to Yale University, where she has said she was more interested in sports than human rights.

Images From Bosnia

The television images from Bosnia changed her outlook, and after working at a policy research group in Washington, she packed for the Balkans to cover the conflict, writing for the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the Economist.

In the fall of 1996, she enrolled at Harvard Law School, where a research paper eventually turned into her first book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2003.

The book was an indictment of a weak U.S. response to conflicts that claimed countless civilian lives. She also wrote a September 2001 article for Atlantic magazine that contained a harsh judgment of one person with whom she works closely today: UN Ambassador Rice.

In the article, Rice, who was an NSC Africa adviser during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, is portrayed as being more interested in the effect of a military intervention on the congressional midterm elections.

Humanitarian Intervention

Today, Rice and Power -- along with deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, NSC senior director Gayle Smith, and the council’s director for human rights Jeremy Weinstein -- form the core of a White House group that has argued the case for humanitarian intervention, according to people who have participated in the discussions.

Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UN forces in Rwanda during the genocide and now a Canadian senator, called Power “a force to reckon with.”

Power has seized her “opportunity to get inside the system and actually influence it,” he said.

Malinowski, who was a chief foreign policy speechwriter for Bill Clinton, said it would be wrong to attribute more influence to Power than she has as one of many policy advisers.

As an NSC adviser “you participate in policy debate, alongside many other people,” Malinowski said. “Your job is to give the president the information he needs. But he, and not Samantha Power or anyone else, is the decider.”

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