In the winter of 2009, a stubborn, decade-old question preoccupied a grimly determined group within the Obama administration: Why hadn’t the United States signed a treaty banning land mines?
The mines produce particularly gruesome and indiscriminate results, maiming and killing soldiers, as well as innocent civilians. More than 150 of the 190 or so nations on Earth had joined the treaty, but the United States remained a holdout, keeping company with the likes of Cuba, North Korea and Syria. Why?
At the White House, one person seemed uniquely qualified to answer that question and to spur action. Samantha Power, a longtime humanitarian advocate, had been placed in the sanctum of the National Security Council by President Obama earlier that year. She had instantly become, as Donald Steinberg, a former member of the council’s Deputies Committee, puts it: “The eyes, the ears and the conscience of the White House.” Power is one of her generation’s most dazzling diagnosticians of our government’s failings, a favorite of the president’s, a Pulitzer-winning author who devastatingly chronicled America’s history of dereliction in humanitarian crises.
Yet the more Power studied it, the harder the land mine riddle was to solve. The U.S. military resisted, arguing that the 1 million land mines at the border between North and South Korea were necessary defensive and deterrent weapons. In a private moment, she pulled Steinberg aside.
“ ‘I didn’t have any idea how complicated these things become once you’re in government,’ ” Steinberg recalls Power venting. “ ‘This is as far from a no-brainer as I’ve ever seen.’ ”
Power kept pressing, kept believing she was right, but the treaty remained unsigned. During a 2012 White House debate, James Thurman — the four-star general who commanded U.S. troops in South Korea — sternly rebuffed her, saying he needed the mines because “I wake up every morning with 1 million North Korean troops right across the border.” Power argued for high-tech alternatives, but the general dismissed those options as impractical and too expensive, Thurman recalled in an interview. “We gotta tell them what the costs are. What you’re getting into,” Thurman said. “A lot of these folks don’t realize that. They hadn’t thought about it. ... There’s lots of great ideals, but the world is not a nice place.”
Here was the education of Samantha Power, one step in an ongoing process of tough lessons. She’d made a persuasive argument about the substance of the land mine issue. But to change policy, the timing and the sequence of the arguments had to be perfect. And this wasn’t the right moment, her adversaries insisted, to do anything that could alter the delicate balance on the Korean peninsula. As a critic she could speak with blunt-force certainty. As an insider, she encountered more complex calculations, the outcomes less certain. She has had to learn the subtler art of making things happen within the insular and cautious administration she now serves as the youngest U.N. ambassador in American history.
Power, 43, is saddled with unusually high expectations, the byproduct of the assuredness of her writing and the confidence she exudes. In one of her early acts after becoming ambassador in August, she delivered a high-profile speech arguing for limited airstrikes in Syria. The strikes never happened. And though she is only one of many U.S. officials involved in shaping Syria policy, she feels the weight of those expectations.
“I’m sure for some who counted on me to end the war in Syria within my first semester here,” she says one afternoon at her New York office, pausing to chuckle, “I’m sure I’ve disappointed.”
If Power’s four years in the White House proved anything it might be the enduring value of keeping your mouth shut in the ultra-controlled Obama age. During her years on the national security team, she discouraged media attention — no easy feat, given her fame. As she settles into a more public role as U.N. ambassador, she is less institutionally constrained. But the caution remains. She is careful, even about the smallest of things, a calculation that sometimes appears at war with her reflexive instincts as a storyteller.
On her right wrist, Power wears a simple twisted-cloth bracelet that bears a small metal bar etched with a single word: “Fearlessness.” It neatly symbolizes her public persona as the passionate humanitarian advocate.
She has worn the bracelet continuously since just before her July confirmation hearing, she says during a January interview. It was given to her by someone in the human rights community, she says haltingly, her voice more cautious bureaucrat than fiery revolutionary.
She won’t say.
A ragged crowd presses against the fence as the pale blue jet with the words “United States of America” on the fuselage eases to a stop on the patched tarmac. Men in soiled T-shirts. Hollow-eyed women. Bone-skinny kids.
Tens of thousands camp in squalor just outside the gates of the heavily guarded airport in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. A durable misery has settled upon this place since last spring when a coup led by Seleka, a coalition of predominantly Muslim militias, toppled the Christian majority government and savagely targeted Christians. Christian militias rose in response, attacking Muslims and calling themselves anti-balaka, or anti-machete, a reference to the weapon used by Seleka militiamen.
The tense sideways glances of Power’s burly security detail hint at the volatility here. Pickup trucks filled with men carrying AK-47s prowl the streets, and one-tenth the population of 4.5 million is displaced. Yet the ambassador — on her first solo trip as a Cabinet-rank official — descends from the plane without hesitation on this bright December morning. Power is ivory-toned, abundantly freckled and wears her thick red hair long. She stands 5-foot-9 with the lean, upright build of an athlete. But she seems taller — not just because of the tan heels she’s slipped into, but because she has that unteachable quality: a stage presence.
Behind Power, the plane lifts off, bound for a safer waiting spot in neighboring Cameroon. For the moment, Power and her small entourage have no ride home.
The broken places of the world are Power’s comfort zone. Years ago, she and her close friend, the prominent humanitarian activist John Prendergast, once crossed illegally into Darfur from Chad, Prendergast says.
“On the danger scale, it was off the charts,” he recalls. Their companions grew antsy as Power conducted long interviews.
In her day-long Bangui visit, Power strains to connect with a young hospital patient while a crowd of journalists, patients and hospital staff jostles behind her. (“To travel around in a posse — it’s really been an adjustment,” she says later. “I do hunger to be able to sit unobserved and just really pull out of these people what they’re thinking.”)
In a breezeway, one of Power’s bodyguards whispers that he wants her out of there. A protest march is nearing and could turn violent, he says. “We’ll be fine,” she replies.
The Central African Republic has been called the “Forgotten Crisis.” It is a perfect test case for Power. Can she save lives in a small, landlocked country where the United States has almost no security or financial interests?
Early on, Power sought satellite monitoring there. She got a lesson in the hard realities of limited resources: The satellites were committed elsewhere. Still, she helped secure $100 million in aid, which included U.S. military airlifts of African soldiers to help French forces.
Up close, Power sees why the situation is so intractable. A human rights activist tells her he might join an anti-balaka militia. Power raises her arm, the one with the Fearlessness bracelet, and interrupts. “Does the phrase ‘anti-balaka’ mean killing Muslims?”
The man describes a youth he had advised to avoid violence. The boy asked: “Have you ever seen your mother and father killed?” The boy had. “He said it is better to give him time to go and kill, and then he will discuss,” the activist says.
Flying back to Washington, Power twists her bracelet at the desk in her private cabin. “Now,” she says, “is the worrying time.”
When Samantha Power was growing up, boring was “the worst thing” she could be at the dinner table, she says. Make a dull remark, and someone would say, “What was the point of that?”
“It’s not mean. It’s just natural selection,” says Power, who emigrated from Ireland at age 9 with her brother and mother, a physician, after her parents split.
She grew up in Atlanta, dreaming of becoming a sportscaster, but found herself drawn to darker fields. In 1993 — after graduating from Yale and interning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — she traveled to Bosnia at 22 to cover the war as a freelancer. She soon learned that she had the heart and mind of an activist. One day she watched a woman burst out of a building that had just been shelled and into the arms of a photographer. He reached behind the woman’s back and adjusted his camera settings. “This was not the kind of nurturing I pictured doing,” Power says.
Power’s fame arose from the 2003 Pulitzer for “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” The book, which began as a Harvard law school paper, lucidly criticizes U.S. government responses to genocides, melding academic analysis with riveting storytelling.
Obama read the book and invited her to dinner when he was in the Senate; she joined his office as a foreign policy fellow in 2005.
By then her caricature was well-established: She was a military interventionist. The cardboard-cutout version comes from a reductionist reading of her book. It ignores the fact that she lays out a menu of options before that of employing the military — what she refers to, mantra-like, as a “toolbox”: diplomatic moves, economic pressure and legal strategies.
“It used to drive me crazy,” she says one morning after a speech in New York. “You spend seven years of your life pulling together what you think is a very nuanced look at a complicated subject, and it gets reduced to a bumper sticker that you don’t identify with.”
She has discovered that changing perceptions isn’t easy. David Rieff, the prominent foreign policy writer and pundit, dismisses her approach as “faux multilateralism. … It’s the American empire with a smiley face on it.”
Power’s eloquence made her a sought-after commentator. She can talk one moment about the horrors of Rwanda and the next relieve the tension by quipping that she’s “a genocide chick.” In interviews, she still returns to the mind-set of her childhood dinner table. “I’m thinking, ‘Boy, I’m kind of boring,’ ” she says. “Boring is never okay.”
Power’s ascent was interrupted when she resigned as a senior foreign policy adviser on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign after calling his opponent, Hillary Clinton, “a monster” during an interview with the Scotsman newspaper. Power, who thought her comment was off the record, was referring to Clinton’s campaign tactics.
While working on the campaign she met her future husband, Cass Sunstein, a law professor and future top Obama regulatory official. Their 2008 marriage in Ireland was “a cross between Outward Bound for adults and a college fraternity party,” says Kati Marton, a close friend and widow of an important Power mentor, diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke.
Holbrooke’s “wedding present,” Marton says, was brokering a fence-mending meeting between Power and Clinton. According to a friend in whom Power confided, when she told Obama about her mentor’s gift, he responded: “Gee, most people get toasters.”
If Power had not said that single word — “monster” — she might have started in a much more public role in the first Obama administration. Instead, she was tucked away for four years on the National Security Council staff. She learned the rites of silence.
“When you’re in the government, you’re much more constrained about what you can do and what you can say,” says Morton Abramowitz, a former diplomat and longtime mentor. “I think that’s been a longtime learning thing for her.”
At the White House, the traits that made her so effective on the outside could sometimes hurt her on the inside. Her tendency to make long academic or lawyerly arguments chafed some top staffers. Her periodic clashes with Denis McDonough, the powerful deputy national security adviser and current White House chief of staff, could be intense and struck a former high-ranking administration official “as personality driven.”
McDonough, in an interview at his West Wing office, says he considers Power one of the “most innovative thinkers of her generation.” He praises her work on gay rights and open government. But he acknowledges that they have had their differences.
“We have long-running debates,” McDonough says. “She’s constantly getting new and better arguments, and I’m constantly getting new and better arguments.”
In his recently published memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates swipes at Power and other Obama confidants. “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options,” Gates instructed his team during the Libya crisis. “They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”
The Gates dig is another indication Power had not been able to shake the label of military interventionist, but it was also an affirmation that she quietly wielded influence. She played a key role in persuading Obama to intervene militarily in Libya by imposing a no-fly zone and conducting missile strikes. “She had the ear of the president, and people knew that,” says Michael Posner, a former assistant secretary of state.
Former colleagues credit Power with toughening Obama’s human rights talking points for his historic 2012 visit to Burma and pushing for a strong U.N. resolution on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka that was “far from a slam-dunk,” Posner says. In April 2012, Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board, a White House initiative that Power championed. The board, which brings together an array of departments to address humanitarian crises, suffers — unfairly, its supporters say — from the grandiosity of its name. How can the United States claim to have a board dedicated to preventing atrocities and do so little in Syria, where the civil war has displaced millions?
“When the history of the Obama administration is written, there will be a long and damaging chapter on its immense humanitarian and strategic failure in Syria,” Elliott Abrams, a former top Republican diplomat, wrote recently in the Weekly Standard.
One could imagine that history being called something like “A Problem From Hell.”
“We all had expectations that were beyond realistic,” says Steinberg, an original board member who is president of the nonprofit World Learning. “We expected [the board to be] an in-house advocate for action in situations where otherwise we would not have taken action.”
Michael Abramowitz, the director of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is more optimistic, saying the board can raise awareness of “cases that can metastasize into genocide.”
When I ask Power a neutral question — to assess the board’s successes and failings — she bristles, as if she had prepared for a different, more hostile line of inquiry focused solely on the criticisms. “There’s no ‘it,’ ” she snaps. “I think it’s a total red herring of an issue.
“If the question is: ‘Are all the atrocities underway on the planet getting high-level attention? ... The answer’s yes,” she continues. “If the question is: ‘[Can the board] sort of snap its fingers and make atrocities go away,’ that’s not happening.”
In June, Obama named Power U.N. ambassador. Her confirmation hearing could have been a nightmare. She had offended some Jewish leaders, including the celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach, years earlier by saying that a massive protection force should be dispatched if there were ever an impending genocide in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But at the White House she had learned, as one close confidant says, the “power of personal relationships,” and she went to great lengths to repair relations. Boteach attended Power’s confirmation hearing as her guest. She didn’t lecture the senators. She told them what they wanted to hear. She would “never apologize for America,” Power said. The education of Samantha Power was on display. She sailed through.
When Power arrived in New York, her security detail planned to drive her in an SUV. Small problem: She couldn’t take her son, Declan, to school because his car seat didn’t fit. They got her a van.
One recent morning on the way to school, Declan — who calls his mom “The Ambassador to the Moon” — is talking about elephants. Power gently reasons away his concerns about some of the dangers they might present but does point out several real possibilities, including elephants stomping them.
“These are the contingencies we have to guard against,” she says to the 4-year-old.
Power lives — like all U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations — in a luxurious apartment at the Waldorf Astoria. She tries to shrink the grand, formal dining room to human scale; she eats breakfast with Declan and his sister, Rian, who is almost 2, at a small square table set against a window.
Power likes to recount how she is so busy that she has nursed her children with BlackBerrys in each hand. She has also nursed while on the phone with the U.N. secretary-general, she says, and kept a room full of U.N. representatives waiting while reading bedtime stories.
“I don’t have an extensive theory of the case in the work-life balance department,” she says of the demands of juggling a high-powered job and parenting on her own during the week while her husband is at Harvard. “To the degree that I have a theory of the case, it has a name: Maria. [Her nanny.]”
In snatched moments, usually on weekends, she keeps a journal as a way, she says, of “trying to always be a mirror to myself and what I’m doing well and what I need to do better on.”
“She constantly self-diminishes her role, her place, her position,” Prendergast says. “I think it’s a tape that plays in her head that beats down any egoistic impulse.”
In Washington, she found release on the basketball court, but with less time in her new life, she dreads that she may have “to do some horrible solo, non-sport sport” — maybe while listening to French tapes. She speaks no foreign languages.
Power has succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to the horrors of the Central African Republic and other African nations, but the crises persist, as do others. Syrian refugees still suffer; war still strafes South Sudan. In February — on the same night that Power attends a state dinner for French President François Hollande — Amnesty International releases a report saying ethnic cleansing of minority Muslims is taking place in the Central African Republic. A world of problems, each piling into the “worrying time” of Samantha Power. She has thought hard about what she can accomplish as ambassador but sounds as though she has learned not to set expectations too high.
“Much of it is beyond your control — no matter what — because it’s the world and whether the world cooperates,” she says one morning in New York. “If you’re scripting what we should do as a country, there are other people on the other side of that script.”
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer.
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