Samantha Power, tapped by President Barack Obama to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is accustomed to thinking the worst of people.
She has given a great deal of thought to the subject of genocide and won a Pulitzer Prize for her nonfiction book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”
Power also wrestled with the issue as a staff member on Obama’s National Security Council, where she successfully advocated U.S. military intervention to avert civilian massacres in Libya during the 2011 revolt against dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“She showed us that the international community has a moral responsibility and a profound interest in resolving conflicts and defending human dignity,” Obama said yesterday in announcing Power’s selection at a White House ceremony. “To those who care deeply about America’s engagement and indispensable leadership in the world, you will find no stronger advocate for that cause than Samantha.”
Now, if she’s confirmed by the Senate, Power will become a public face of U.S. foreign policy and a senior adviser to the president as Obama resists being drawn militarily into the Syrian civil war, where the death toll is heading toward 100,000 and fueling sectarian violence in neighboring nations.
Power, 42, has shown a single-minded determination from her childhood as an Irish immigrant who says she spent hours a day working to shed her brogue and “be American” to her work as a freelance correspondent in war zones from Bosnia to Darfur. She also speaks her mind, occasionally to her detriment, as when she had to apologize and quit Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign for calling rival candidate Hillary Clinton “a monster.”
Power came to Washington from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government as half of an Obama administration power couple. She is married to Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who served as Obama’s chief reviewer of regulations until last year. He is now a Bloomberg View columnist.
“She goes to war zones,” Sunstein said in an October 2008 Esquire magazine profile of the couple, before they traded their Harvard academic lives for Washington policy making. “It’s hard to get me out of the office.”
Senators haven’t indicated whether her nomination would become a lightning rod for debate over her past positions and Obama’s foreign policy, as happened with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, or will move to approval as smoothly as that of Secretary of State John Kerry. Initial comments were positive.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has criticized Obama for failing to do more to aid the Syrian uprising, said in a statement yesterday that Power is “well-qualified for this important position” and urged prompt Senate action. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, urged colleagues to “provide Power with the swift confirmation she deserves.”
Obama’s choice of Power to succeed Susan Rice, selected yesterday to become his national security adviser, elevates two women who favor a more muscular approach to Syria than does the president, according to Fred Hof, a veteran U.S. national security official who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. That’s unlikely to alter Obama’s approach, he said.
“I don’t think the personnel change changes the way the president processes all this stuff,” Hof, who was Secretary of State Clinton’s special representative on Syria, said in a telephone interview. “He’s really reluctant to use force here, even in the context of stopping war crimes.”
Power, a member of Obama’s inner circle since his 2008 presidential campaign, was director for multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council until she stepped aside in February to tend to her two young children.
Joseph Nye, former dean of the Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said he expects that Power will save her personal opinions on issues such as Syria for the president’s ears.
“When advisers speak too much publicly about their views and their advice, it undercuts their effectiveness,” said Nye, author of a new book, “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.”
Power has advocated humanitarian intervention under a concept known as “Responsibility to Protect,” which calls on nations to prevent a repetition of the horrors in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Power’s views on such intervention were shaped by her experiences as a reporter covering the Balkan wars. Rice has said she regrets not having pressed for U.S. action to avert the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when she was an NSC Africa adviser during the Clinton administration. At least 800,000 Rwandans were killed during about 100 days of ethnic violence.
In a 2001 article in the Atlantic magazine, Power portrayed Rice during an inter-agency conference call as being more interested in the implications of any U.S decisions on Rwanda on midterm congressional elections.
More recently, the two women worked together as part of the group of advisers who persuaded Obama to seek a UN Security Council resolution that authorized military action as Qaddafi was threatening to massacre civilians in Benghazi.
At the UN, Power may find herself at odds with Russia’s envoy Vitaly Churkin, who has used his nation’s Security Council veto to block tougher UN efforts against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser who now is counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he expects Power to be a strong presence in UN deliberations.
“Sam Power brings lots of experience to the job and will be a powerful voice representing America’s interests and values -- and I hope she will be able to continue to play an active role in the Washington debates the way Susan has,” he said.
Power examined the role of UN peacekeeping forces while she was writing a 2008 biography of UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in a 2003 terrorist bomb attack in Baghdad when he was head of the UN mission there.
Power drew unwanted attention during the 2008 presidential campaign when a Scottish journalist reported the reference to Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, as a “monster.” Power apologized and resigned from the campaign.
After Obama’s victory, he named her to the National Security Council staff, and friends said she repaired her relationship with Clinton, who became secretary of state.
While supporting use of limited military force for humanitarian ends, Power opposed the war in Iraq, in part because the U.S. didn’t make an issue of Saddam Hussein’s human rights record.
In Power’s confirmation hearings, she may be asked about a 2002 interview -- subsequently disavowed -- in which she referred to Israel’s “major human rights abuses” of Palestinians.
She also described the pro-Israel lobby as a “domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import,” cited the potential need for “meaningful military presence” to police an Israel-Palestinian peace accord, and seemed to advocate reducing military aid to Israel to help support a Palestinian state if there were a peace deal.
Power was an academic at the Kennedy School at the time of the interview, conducted by Harry Kreisler of the University of California at Berkeley. The comments, contained in a YouTube excerpt posted on some conservative and Jewish-related blogs, had been highlighted by Obama’s critics during his first presidential campaign.
In a 2008 interview with Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Power disavowed her comments. Martin Peretz, then editor-in-chief of the New Republic magazine, wrote in her defense that he was confident that she “truly, truly loves Israel and the people of Israel.”
Yesterday, the Anti-Defamation League, which calls itself the leading organization fighting anti-Semitism, was among the first groups to issue a statement praising Power’s selection by Obama.
Born in Dublin, Power moved to the U.S. with her parents as a nine-year-old who had never been to America.
“For the next three months, I came home from school every day -- as my mother can attest, my dad can attest -- and I sat in front of the mirrors for hours, straining to drop my brogue so that I too could speak and be American,” Power said yesterday at the White House.
A graduate of Yale University and the Harvard Law School, she was a professor at the Kennedy School, where she taught courses on U.S. foreign policy, human rights and extremism, and where she was the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
She was a columnist at Time magazine, and has reported from global trouble spots including Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Power won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book examining U.S. foreign policy toward genocide in the 20th century.
In the Esquire article, which called them the “Fun Couple of the 21st Century,” Sunstein described a relationship that grew out of their time on the Obama campaign. They found they share a birth date -- September 21 -- played on Ivy League squash teams and are Red Sox Fans.
“You know what they say,” he said. “Obama brings people together.”
Eight years ago, writing in the New Yorker magazine, Power criticized President George W. Bush’s selection of John Bolton - - a prominent critic of the UN -- as the U.S. ambassador to the world body. That appointment had “the look of a bureaucratic fix for an administration that doesn’t really care what happens to the UN,” she wrote.
Still, she cited Bolton approvingly on one point, writing that “to be effective, the UN, as Bolton himself has said, ‘requires sustained American leadership.’”