“From the day I met you and you told me that you had spent a chunk of your vacation reading a long, dark book on genocide,” Power said to the president, “I knew you were a different kind of leader, and I knew I wanted to work for you.”
In a sense, Power was bowing to the inevitable. That book, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, is what first brought her to national attention, and it remains the single piece of work for which she is best known. “A Problem From Hell” argued for military intervention to prevent genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda, and it left Power caricatured as a modern-day Joan of Arc. A couple of years ago, the National Interest placed Power on its cover with a headline that screamed, in blood-red type: “Interventionista!”
Her nomination has raised speculation about whether she will push for a more interventionist U.S. foreign policy, particularly in places such as Syria. No doubt, journalists and diplomats will be reading or re-reading “A Problem From Hell” and other Power writings looking for clues, as will members and staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, preparingto grill her at her confirmation hearing over footnotes or obscure sentences in long-forgotten articles. (I imagine that the administration officials getting ready for the Senate ritual have already done searches of her prose to track down every mention of the words “Israel” and “Palestinians.”)
Yet, for those seeking to move beyond the interventionist stereotype and gain a more genuine understanding of Power, “A Problem From Hell” is the wrong book to read. More revealing is her second book, “Chasing the Flame.” It is a lesser-known work but no less ambitious, and it is more relevant to what Power will try to achieve at the United Nations over the next three years, as well as more indicative of the intellectual evolution she has made from journalist and advocate to public official.
“Chasing the Flame” is an account of the life of a Brazilian-born U.N. officialnamed Sergio Vieira de Mello. He was not well known in the United States, but he was the United Nations’ main troubleshooter, serving for decades in hot spots such as Bosnia (where Power met him), Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Afghanistan and finally, Iraq, where he was in charge of U.N. operations after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He died in Baghdad in a bombing in the summer of 2003.
The book is not a hagiography. It describes at length Vieira de Mello’s foibles. But Power writes admiringly of her subject, particularly the way he gravitated from his early idealism to the complexities of problem-solving. He brought the unique perspective of someone who spent his time not in New York or Washington, but on the ground amid crisis after crisis.