Richard Gowan, 23 April 2014, courtesy of Poltico at http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/04/samantha-power-is-back-105968, where the title is “Samantha Power Is Back”
Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, has two problems. One of them is the United Nations. The other is the United States. Power – who took up her post in August after a storied career as public intellectual, humanitarian activist and senior member the National Security Council – has been especially prominent in recent months, speaking out over issues ranging from the Ukrainian crisis to the chaos in South Sudan and ongoing slaughter in Syria. She has hit the mark more often than not. Having sat through her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin’s denials of skulduggery in Ukraine, she quipped that he had “more imagination than Tolstoy and Chekhov.” She can channel outrage as well as humor, condemning a fatal attack on a U.N. base in South Sudan as a “brazen, inhuman” act.
This is something of a second coming for Power as a public figure. After the 2008 campaign, when she famously described Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, as a “monster,” she largely stayed out of the public eye. She quit the campaign after that incident, later becoming an adviser in the White House, where she was known for fighting hard for her causes, such as the intervention in Libya. Her precise level of influence was often hard for outside observers to gauge, but she clearly maintained the confidence of President Obama, who has described her as “one of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy.”
Moving to New York has allowed Power to open up again. Although guarded around the U.N. press corps, she has discussed her life story and young family in soft features for outlets like Vogue and New York. If she stays in her post through the end of Obama’s second term, her profile is only likely to rise. That would probably be welcome among other countries’ ambassadors at the U.N., many of whom chafed at her predecessor Susan Rice’s notoriously unvarnished diplomatic style. Power, by contrast, has won over her foreign colleagues, gaining a reputation for listening carefully and discussing ideas in an open fashion.
The job of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. inevitably involves a mix of backroom deal-making and public politics. Early ambassadors like Henry Cabot Lodge and Adlai Stevenson were patrician diplomatists but more recent holders of the post, such as the obstreperously unilateralist Republican John Bolton, have largely used it to make ideological points. Others, including Power’s late mentor Richard Holbrooke, have enjoyed charming their diplomatic counterparts and Washington powerbrokers alike—a model Power seems to be following.
Samantha Power, Then and Now
Obama’s U.N. envoy is finding that being an advocate and being a diplomat are very different things.
On genocide: “When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act. … Why does the United States stand so idly by?” —A Problem From Hell, 2002
On the U.S. government’s weak responses to genocide: “What surprised me was the extent to which officials involved in shaping policy could define their responses as moral—that they could feel they were doing something that was humanitarian, that was moral, that was in the long-term interests not just of American security and American wealth but of their own values. The sophistication of those denial mechanisms was striking to me.” —March 14, 2002
On U.S. intervention in Syria: “President Obama has put in play every single tool in the toolbox, short of military intervention … But I’d be careful about suggesting we are not taking the atrocities seriously. This is something the president gets briefed on every day. He’s always asking us to see what more can we do … You know, there are challenges that face us where there are other interests at play as well. I mean, in the broader Middle East, the fate of oil prices really matters to the American people in tough economic times. So, I think none of us would pretend that we are a single-issue administration.” —Nov. 20, 2013
On the U.S. reaction to Syria’s latest chemical weapons attack: “We’ve shown, I think, in the past that we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response. … The president has made very clear how alarming he finds chemical weapons use … that’s why he put the credible threat of military force on the table. That’s why we’ve been able to destroy and remove more than half of Syria’s chemical weapons up to this point. … so we will have to look at our policy options.” —April 13, 2014
During her confirmation hearing, Power harped on American exceptionalism and promised to defend Israel to the hilt, winning over potential Republican critics. In office, she has scored points among left-leaning NGOs by pushing the Obama administration to take greater interest in the bloodshed in the Central African Republic and highlighting human rights issues elsewhere. Last week, the United States co-hosted a first Security Council discussion of abuses in North Korea, looking at the case for an investigation by the International Criminal Court. China and Russia stayed away, and no other council member would have dared raise the topic alone.
But while Power’s public and private diplomatic skills impress, she is playing a very difficult hand. During her tenure at the U.N. to date, the organization has shown its limitations as a tool of American statecraft, whether in managing first-order confrontations with Russia or second-order crises in Africa. The Obama administration as a whole seems constantly undecided as to whether it views the U.N. as an asset or a burden.
Power made this explicit during her first major appearances in New York last summer, which were dominated by the Syrian chemical weapons crisis. While President Obama dismissed the “diplomatic hocus pocus” at the U.N. that had let the Syrian war run out of control (a process in which the United States had arguably been complicit), Power set out the case for military action against Damascus. “[T]he Security Council the world needs to deal with this crisis is not the Security Council we have,” she complained, declaring that Moscow had held the U.N. hostage.
Had Obama indeed bombed Syria, Power’s time at the U.N. would have been far rockier. As it is, she has had to contend with a series of other crises that have left the organization looking impotent or irrelevant. The outbreak of fighting in South Sudan last December shocked an ill-prepared blue-helmet peacekeeping force U.S. diplomats had helped design in 2011. As the U.N. troops sheltered tens of thousands of civilians in their bases, Power steered a resolution authorizing 6,000 reinforcements through the Security Council impressively quickly. But these personnel, plucked from other U.N. missions as far away as Haiti, deployed slowly and often without their vehicles and other essential equipment. South Sudan has remained in a state of de facto civil war – last week a U.N. base came under attack and reports of new ethnic killings are rising. There is an ongoing risk of a “Srebrenica moment” in South Sudan: a huge massacre carried out in front of helpless U.N. troops, a catastrophe that would raise further doubts about the institution’s value.