Samantha Power, whom President Barack Obama nominated Wednesday to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a longtime human rights advocate who isn’t expected to face the same Senate opposition over Libya that dogged the current U.N. envoy, Susan Rice.
Standing next to Obama as he announced her nomination, Power said it would be “the honor of a lifetime” to fight for American interests at the U.N., an institution she’s criticized in her many writings for failing to prevent atrocities in Bosnia, Iraq and other conflicts. Power was at the forefront of the “liberal interventionist” camp that lobbied successfully for the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Libya.
“I have seen U.N. aid workers enduring shellfire to deliver food to the people of Sudan, yet I’ve also seen U.N. peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia,” Power said. “As the most powerful and inspiring country on this Earth, we have a critical role to play in insisting that the institution meet the necessities of our time. It can do so only with American leadership.”
Republicans seemed to approve of Power’s nomination, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona praising her as “well-qualified for this important position” and urging the Senate to confirm her quickly. Still, given the bitterly partisan atmosphere surrounding Obama’s nominees, no one is guaranteed smooth sailing.
One possible line of attack could come from pro-Israeli groups that took issue with Power saying in a 2002 interview that she’d consider “a meaningful military presence” in the Middle East in response to a hypothetical question about how she’d advise the president if either the Palestinians or Israel made moves toward genocide. She’s since distanced herself from the comment and clarified her remarks, and so far her nomination has won the backing of at least one prominent Jewish advocacy group.
“As the world is sickened by the images of slaughter in Syria and as Israel faces an ever more volatile Middle East, we are heartened that the U.S. will be represented by an individual whose moral resolve and fierce pragmatism will serve our country well,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement.
The White House also defended Power against the charge that she’s no friend of Israel.
“Samantha Power consistently led the effort to stand up against all efforts to delegitimize Israel and she supported Israel’s right to defend itself,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, including “blocking efforts to single out Israel in the Security Council after the flotilla incident and opposing unilateral Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood at the United Nations.”
A journalist-turned-policymaker who’s traveled to war zones in her research, Power, 43, still wears the aura of an outsider in buttoned-down Washington political circles, even though she’s been an Obama acolyte and foreign policy adviser since his time in the Senate.
In the late 1990s, Power began teaching at Harvard as the founding director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government. She’s married to Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein and they have two young children.
Power wrote what’s considered a seminal book on genocide – “A Problem From Hell,” which earned her a Pulitzer Prize at age 33 – and is known for candor and passion that comes through in her writings and university lectures.
Those traits, however, also have burned her. In a newspaper interview during Obama’s first presidential campaign, Power dropped an expletive and then referred to his then-opponent Hillary Clinton as “a monster.”
Power resigned from the campaign in March 2008 and apologized, later joining the transition team at the State Department when Clinton was named secretary. Power worked mostly in the background during Obama’s first term, serving on the National Security Council staff as a special assistant to the president.
“She held a low-profile position at the NSC and was smart enough to understand that her influence was directly related to her closeness to the president and that she would be most effective operating behind the scenes,” Peter Galbraith, a former senior U.S. diplomat and friend of Power, wrote in an email response to questions.
The exception was the Libya intervention, which she pushed as a humanitarian imperative when then-leader Moammar Gadhafi was poised to crush a rebellion that had grown from the Arab protest movements of the time.
The humanitarian mission effectively turned out to be a regime-change operation, unleashing a torrent of unintended consequences such as giving operating space to al Qaida-style extremists and sowing the unrest that turned into an Islamist extremist takeover of parts of neighboring Mali.
The NATO-backed removal of Gadhafi also angered Russia and China, which said they’d signed up to protect civilians, not to overthrow a government. Partly as a result of Libya, the two countries are stubbornly against any hint of intervention in the Syrian crisis.
“I am sure she will be asked about Libya in her confirmation, but I don’t think it will be much of a factor,” Galbraith said. “The Republican criticism of Libya tends to focus on the Benghazi consulate attacks and the instability in Libya today, but doesn’t take issue with the decision to intervene.”
One of the most pressing problems Power would face at the U.N. is what to do about the civil war in Syria, a topic that’s deadlocked the Security Council, with Russia and China repeatedly blocking attempts to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Despite Power’s advocacy of intervening in Libya, Galbraith said he didn’t foresee her making a similar push regarding Syria.
In Kosovo, Bosnia and Libya, he said, Power called for action because there was “a relatively low-cost path to stopping the atrocities” and each instance appeared to yield a better outcome than if the U.S. hadn’t taken action.
The problem in Syria, he continued, is that there’s no clear and low-cost path to success, and an intervention may not produce a better outcome.
“Based on how she has approached past interventions, I think she will be quite comfortable defending the administration’s cautious approach,” Galbraith said.