Samantha Power: The voice behind Obama's Libya action

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 25, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Samantha Power made her reputation arguing that the United States has a moral responsibility to do more to rally the world to stop genocide and human rights violations.

President Barack Obama's decision to back a multilateral intervention in Libya suggests that her voice is being heard. The 40-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Harvard academic is a senior adviser to Obama's national security team. She's also an Irish-born, U.S.-raised redhead with a deep voice, an abrupt manner and a love of baseball.

Power has long argued that politicians shy away from humanitarian intervention because they see too much domestic political risk with little payoff for saving foreign lives. She contends that it's up to activists and ordinary Americans to change that way of thinking.

Now Power's theories are being put to the test. After tentative and limited involvement, Obama a week ago committed U.S. military support but no ground troops for an international response in Libya, including a no-fly zone and airstrikes, with the goal of protecting the Libyan people. While Obama has called for leader Moammar Gadhafi to go, the U.N. resolution authorizing force does not.

Precisely what parts of the unfolding policy Power advocated or opposed aren't clear. She declined a request for an interview, and White House officials declined to comment on her role.

Outside the administration, however, analysts who know Power say that her influence is clear.

"She gives all the credit to Barack Obama; she says he's the one who is calling the shots and wants the rigorous decision-making process," said Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, a research center headquartered in Washington. Despite that, "I see her as the primary architect who's helped shape at least the commitment of the administration to do anything. ... It's clear to me that her profile and her involvement in these issues really has begun to rise."

She's clearly "a major player" in the White House, said Mark Helmke, the Republican communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Obama has emphasized the multilateral nature of the Libya response, something Power has advocated over the years. The president doesn't want the U.S. to be seen as playing the lead role even if its unique military capabilities make it the de facto leader. That's also in keeping with a strategy Power has articulated.

Yet to dub Power an interventionist is to miss the nuance of the mission she began as a 22-year-old war correspondent in Yugoslavia, then nurtured through Harvard Law School and turns in think tanks, academia and as an author and columnist.

"The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines," Power wrote in her book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," for which she won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize. "America's leadership will be indispensable in encouraging U.S. allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities."

Power called Clinton administration officials to account for not doing more to save lives in Bosnia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s. She didn't support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, criticizing the unilateral U.S. approach and questioning the Bush administration's concern for Iraqis' welfare.

In a 2006 commencement speech for Santa Clara University School of Law, Power said her life's work was driven by a sense of obligation "to demand that our representatives are attentive to the human consequences of their decision making." She advised the students to "let reason be your tool, but let justice be your cause."

Stephen Wrage, a professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, said he didn't know what Power had privately advised Obama, but that it was clear "she has the president's ear and she's going to say 'You can't just do nothing.' "

Wrage said Power's philosophy was, "Don't say since we can't save everybody, we can't save anybody."

Her work on human rights, Wrage said, has had "an impact on my profession, on foreign policy analysis and political scientists. . . . A lot of people read it and resolve, 'I'm not going to just wring my hands or stand by or hide behind a consensus.' "

It was Obama, then a newly elected U.S. senator, who reached out to Power in 2005. She advised him in office and later in his 2008 presidential campaign, through which she met her husband, the prominent legal scholar Cass Sunstein, a friend of Obama's.

Power resigned from the campaign after she called Hillary Clinton, then Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, a "monster" in the heat of the primary season. She apologized. Obama won the election, and Clinton, Power and Sunstein all joined his administration.

After the publication of "A Problem From Hell," Power said in a wide-ranging 2002 discussion with Boston interviewer Robert Birnbaum that she believes "there is a moral obligation to do something about gross human rights violations" even if they don't meet the definition of genocide.

The prevailing political theory in the United States, Power said, is that "you don't get any extra credit for doing the right thing," that U.S. casualties for the sake of humanitarianism cost politicians power and support. "It's up to us on the outside" to change that calculus, she said.

"My prescription," she said at the time, "would be that the level of American and international engagement would ratchet up commensurate with the abuse on the ground."

She said her research on the legacy of genocide in the 20th century had yielded lessons for future administrations. Among them: "Doing deals with devils means setting the stage for policies that are going to bite you later" and "you can't have reliable partners in a war on terrorism if they are torturing and killing their own people."

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