Six years ago, Samantha Power burst onto the scene with “A Problem From Hell”, her urgent and impassioned indictment of American inaction in the face of genocide. With the thoroughness and relentlessness of a prosecutor, Power documented how US officials sat idly by as Armenians were slaughtered in Turkey, Cambodians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge, Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein and Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Bosnian Serbs. She extolled the work of such courageous crusaders as Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish immigrant who coined the term “genocide” in 1944 and lobbied diligently for the passage of the UN’s Genocide Convention, which was approved by the General Assembly in 1948 and ratified by the United States forty years later. Lamenting the fact that “no U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority,” Power assailed US officials for responding to “unspeakable atrocities” by trusting in negotiation, clinging to diplomatic niceties and shipping injured parties humanitarian aid. The United States, she maintained, should subject perpetrators to a harsher array of measures–threatening them with prosecution, shutting their embassies in Washington, imposing economic sanctions. Genocide poses such a serious threat to American values and interests, Power argued, that the United States should be prepared “to risk the lives of its soldiers” in order to stop it, even if this means acting unilaterally outside the framework of the United Nations.
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2003, “A Problem From Hell” propelled Power from the tilling fields of freelance journalism and adjunct professorship into the empyrean realm of public intellectualdom. She was named to Time magazine’s list of the world’s top 100 scientists and thinkers. She became a columnist for that magazine and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she had already served as the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, she was named the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership. In 2005, after receiving a call from Senator Barack Obama, who had read her book, Power became one of his foreign policy advisers, a position she held until March, when her description of Hillary Clinton as “a monster” set off a political firestorm. Despite that misstep, if Obama is elected President, Power seems likely to join his administration in some senior capacity.
Yet, in the harsh glare of recent events, “A Problem From Hell” seems less persuasive than when it came out. Appearing as the Bush Administration was pressing its case for attacking Iraq, the book, with its advocacy of humanitarian military intervention and its description of Saddam’s regime as genocidal in nature, fed support for the war in some liberal circles. Now, with more than 140,000 US troops bogged down in that country, and with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions more displaced in the largest episode of forced migration in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the idea of relying on unilateral American military power to achieve humanitarian ends seems largely discredited.
In her new book, Power offers something of a response. Not explicitly. Nowhere in Chasing the Flame does she refer to the position she so ardently set out in “A Problem From Hell”. Yet in her new book she clearly seems to be trying to adapt her global vision to the realities of the post-Iraq world. Her vehicle this time is Sergio Vieira de Mello, a career diplomat for the UN who, until his death in August 2003 in the ghastly suicide attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, was a sort of geopolitical Zelig, showing up in war zones around the world on a mission to make peace, build nation-states and repatriate refugees–all part of “the fight to save the world,” as Power puts it in her subtitle.
Power first met Vieira de Mello in 1994, when she was a young freelance journalist covering the former Yugoslavia and he was a senior adviser to the UN peacekeeping force there. “A cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy” is how one of her colleagues described him, and over dinner at a seafood restaurant in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, she was immediately smitten–with his intellect, his charm and his dedication to the principles for which the UN stands. In Chasing the Flame, Power casts Vieira de Mello as a model internationalist whose career is rich in lessons for our conflict-ridden world. At the UN, she writes, Vieira de Mello stood out for his linguistic skills, cultural breadth, critical mind, political savvy, humanitarian commitments and world-weary wisdom wrested from many years in the field. While Vieira de Mello never formulated a “guiding doctrine,” she adds, he “did have a thirty-four-year head start in thinking about the plagues that preoccupy us today: civil war, refugee flows, religious extremism, suppressed national and religious identity, genocide, and terrorism.” With the world’s cultural and religious fissures threatening to widen, Power states, “there is no better time to turn for guidance to a man whose long journey under fire helps to reveal the roots of our current predicament–and perhaps the remedies.”