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A force for good: Samantha Power is driven by a deep sense of idealism

Throughout her career, the author and diplomat has done more than most to raise awareness of the legal concept of genocide

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

The Education of an Idealist Samantha Power

William Collins, pp.580, £20

In the spring of 2008 I spent a fine day in the company of Samantha Power. She had come to the Hay Festival to talk about Chasing the Flame, her book about Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative to Iraq who was murdered in the August 2003 bombing of UN offices in Baghdad, who was Power’s colleague and friend. The audience was captivated by an exceptional individual, one who spoke with care and clarity, in a gravelly voice of distinct cadence. She was forthright, self-deprecating, intelligent, humorous and thoughtful in response to my questions and those of the audience. She was also a cracking storyteller, one who quickly won her audience over with a recollection of the moment President George W. Bush met de Mello, placed his hand on the diplomat’s shoulder and said: ‘You must work out.’

That is the only time I have met Power, and the memory has endured. In this context I received her memoir with happiness, and I was not disappointed. Those with an interest in the period she covers, and the world of human rights, atrocity and the limits of power, will devour a book that is human and revealing.

She has a fine story to tell, after the early years spent in Dublin before her mother, a medic, took her and her brother to America, away from a father who was an alcoholic dentist. That separation, at the age of nine, has left an obvious legacy, even if the gap was filled in part by a much-loved stepfather.

She went to Yale, then worked as a journalist, covering the conflict and genocide in former Yugoslavia. This traumatic and empowering experience touched her deeply, and it also made her. She took a law degree at Harvard, then wrote a book which won a Pulitzer Prize. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is a work of singular importance, excoriating the US and others for the failure to prevent atrocities after 1945 and the Nuremberg ‘Never Again’ moment.

The book was catalytic for many readers, including me, and had the merit of dousing the dryness of international law in a much- needed fountain of idealism. Power could really write, and did so with passion and perspective, driving the idea that the rights of human beings should be more than the scraps of paper on which they are articulated. She has done as much as anyone to raise awareness of the legal concept of ‘genocide’, being argued once more this month in proceedings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in the context of allegations of genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya community by the authorities of Myanmar.

Power came of age at a significant moment in the history of international politics: five decades after the Nuremberg trials, a few weeks in 1998 saw the creation of a permanent International Crimes Court, the arrest in London of Senator Pinochet, the first ever indictment of a serving head of state (Slobodan Milosevic) and the first ever conviction by an international court of the crime of genocide (in Rwanda). These were heady days for the movement, a high point after decades of quietude.


In 2005 Power met Barack Obama, who hired her to work in his senate office on foreign policy issues. After a year she left to teach at Harvard and establish a human rights centre as another genocide crisis unfolded, this time in Darfur. She worked on Obama’s presidential campaign until the Scotsman newspaper ran an interview in which she was quoted describing Hillary Clinton — Obama’s opponent in the primaries — as a ‘monster’. She was forced to resign, the timing of which at least allowed her to come to Hay. She returned to the campaign a few months later, and after Obama was elected worked at the National Security Council, then as US ambassador to the UN.

A human rights activist and writer driven by a deep sense of idealism now sat at the top table, an insider who could, in theory at least, push policy in the direction she sought. It is on this aspect that the book is particularly fascinating, a sort of double dance in which we learn how the Obama administration addressed the challenge of power, and her own deeply held principles collided with political realities.

In 2011 the rubber hit the road in Libya. Obama authorised military force (under cover of a rare Security Council resolution) to destroy the Gaddafi regime, going well beyond the protection of civilians. With the benefit of hindsight, we know the action did not achieve its main objective, as the threat of one set of massacres came to be replaced by the reality of others. As with Iraq, the misery continues, because there was no real aftermath planning. ‘We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own,’ Power explains, which seems a little lame, given the recent experience in Iraq, an action she opposed.

Two years later, on 21 August 2013, Syria’s President Assad used chemical weapons in a manner that very clearly crossed a ‘red line’ drawn by Obama. The breach threatened serious consequences. Power supported the use of military force, even in the absence of a Security Council resolution, but was outvoted. Her boss wavered, a moment I remember well, having actively opposed the use of military force. My clear sense, in light of the Iraq experience, was that sending in a few bombs would only be effective — and lawful — if it would remove the threat of the further use of chemical weapons, and that required boots on the ground.

According to Power, Obama went from ‘wanting to go and go yesterday’ to deciding that he would seek authorisation from Congress. The sudden change of tack took her aback, as did a vote by parliament in Westminster not to support the Americans and French in using military force. She records that vote — a rare reference to the UK — as a ‘significant fact’, one she saw as ‘a humiliating blow and misreading by Cameron of UK politics, presaging the 2016 Brexit vote’.

For Power, the moment was a grave and salutary disappointment. She had ‘gone from being an outsider to an insider’, and failed to stop the carnage in Syria. She lives with that disappointment, which is palpable. ‘I was at risk of falling prey to the same mode of rationalisation I had assailed as an activist.’ Nevertheless, despite pressure from some quarters to resign — including from John McCain — she stayed on until the end of the Obama administration in the belief that she could still have more influence from inside the tent than outside.

I think she was right, as the principles of international law and justice to which she has committed herself, with passion undimmed, are a long game. The UN ambassadors I know miss her intelligence, authority and decency, and more than one has described her to me as reflecting the very best of American diplomacy, one that connects directly to the values of 1945 that defined the US.

The book is readable and nicely personal, with much to say on the challenges of balancing an intense professional life with parenthood. There are omissions, not least the complete failure even to mention Israel and Palestine, and passing in silence over one of Obama’s first actions, namely the failure to ensure accountability for the previous administration’s embrace of the international crime of torture.

I regret, too, that she does not address the bigger picture, the shifting of the ‘tectonic plates’ of which we talked at Hay. She and I grew up when the value system of the post-second world war international order was still very much intact. Today it is under challenge, as the US — with the UK in pitiful tow — turns away from the very order it created. Trump and Johnson seem intent on dismantling multilateralism, and their embrace of the language of hate is of a kind that is not unfamiliar to those, such as Power, who know first-hand the meaning of genocide and other atrocities.

She bemoans the threats to the sources of US strength, ‘our diversity, our embrace of individual rights and dignity, our commitment to the rule of law, and our leadership in the world’. She sees Trump’s election and time in office as ‘a repudiation of many of the central tenets of my life’. How on earth did that happen in the course of my lifetime, Power might have asked, and what comes next? I hope she will play a role in answering the second question, in picking up the pieces when Trump is gone and helping to restore decency to US foreign policy. She is a fine person, and this is a fine book.


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