Barack Obama’s war in Libya bears the intellectual imprint of Samantha Power, the Dublin-born human rights author who has risen to visible prominence in the White House hierarchy.
Power, who received a Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, came of age as a freelance reporter during the Bosnian wars, when she was in her early 20s. From there she attended Yale and Harvard Law School, becoming executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. She is married to Obama appointee Cass Sunstein.
Power has made a remarkable career recovery since calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” during the 2008 presidential primaries. She resigned from the Obama campaign after that comment, but has returned to become a special assistant to the president and member of his National Security Council.
Over a long conversation with Power in December 2003, I was struck by the generational factor in her thinking. If she had experienced Vietnam in her early 20s, I felt, she would have joined the radical left, suspicious always of American power. But as an Irish internationalist witnessing death and destruction in the former Yugoslavia, she wondered how the United States could be neutral. She strongly favored the American intervention and air war that followed. I asked whether she would have favored the Clinton administration sending combat troops to battle the Serbs, a scenario which was in the works when Russia pulled its support from Belgrade, effectively ending that war. I didn’t get an answer, only the promise of “a long conversation” in the future.
Power generalized from her Balkans experience to become an advocate of American and NATO military intervention in humanitarian crises, a position which became known as being a “humanitarian hawk.” She began to see war as an instrument to achieving her liberal, even radical, values. “The United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers” to stop the threat of genocide, she wrote. She condemned Western “appeasement” of dictators. She believed that “the battle to stop genocide has been repeatedly lost in the realm of domestic politics.” In her mind, domestic concerns like discrimination and unemployment were secondary to foreign policy crises, a common attitude in the national security circles she was entering.
I remember wondering why, like the U2’s Bono, another Irish human rights activist, Power has been less preoccupied by the human rights abuses inflicted by the British during the thirty-year war in the northern part of her own country. If she wasn’t willing to take sides at home, so to speak, why was it easier to take sides in civil wars abroad? Wasn’t the creation of a “more perfect union” at home the foundation of any intelligent foreign policy abroad? A note from her promised more discussion on that, too.
The last I remember speaking to her, Power had gone from supporting Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential campaign to volunteering in the Washington office of a new US Senator, Barack Obama. According to her account, she bonded with Obama in a three-hour policy conversation, worked in Obama’s office in 2005–06, and became a close collaborator. As Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “Samantha Power deserves special mention for her extraordinary generosity; despite being in the middle of writing her own book, she combed over each chapter as if it were hers, providing me with a steady flow of useful comments even as she cheered me up whenever my spirits or energy were flagging.”