As a member of a people who recently experienced genocide, Samantha Power’s 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide” moved me deeply. She wrote with – and fostered in her readers – a powerful outrage toward those (especially in government) who turn a blind eye to the slaughter of innocents. So when critics charged her in 2011 with anti-Israel bias that might have hampered her eventual nomination to become America’s ambassador to the United Nations, I stood up for her. We needed more government officials who would campaign against institutional indifference. I even brought her to meet with many of America’s Jewish leaders at the office of Birthright Israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt, after which we chatted with Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel.
During her confirmation in 2013, when she asked me for public support, I did not hesitate; I chided her Jewish critics for not supporting one of the world’s foremost voices against genocide. Foreign Policy wrote that I made her “kosher” for American Jews.
So it is mystifying and more than a little disheartening that Power has remained silent about genocides happening today. It started when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, murdering hundreds of Arab children. President Obama had previously pledged to enforce red lines against Assad if he gassed his people, but after the news broke, he did little. Poison gas has a terrible poignancy for Jews, so it was shocking that Power held her tongue about Obama’s inaction.
The Wall Street Journal captured her approach well: Power dismissed as “unsubstantiated” allegations that chlorine had again been dropped on a rebel-held village in northern Syria last April. Five months later, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that chlorine had been used “systematically and repeatedly.” Power’s dismissive response was that Western nations were “still searching for the right diplomatic ‘modalities’ ” to punish Syria.
“Surely nothing terrifies brutal Arab tyrants more than diplomatic modalities,” the Journal concluded.
This pattern of unresponsiveness has continued during the administration’s negotiations with Iran. In November, Ayatollah Ali Khameini tweeted:
It was a clear statement of genocidal intention, but Power again said nothing. The recent threat by the commander of the Basij militia of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that “Israel’s destruction is nonnegotiable” met with similar apathy.
But the greatest disappointment of all is how Power has refused to challenge Obama’s broken promises to recognize the Armenian genocide that began 100 years ago this week. In 2008, when he was campaigning and trying to attract Armenian votes, then-Senator Obama famously said: “Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. … As president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Power, too, went to extraordinary lengths to get Armenian Americans to vote for Obama, recording a five-minute video telling them that he alone would never break his promise to recognize the Armenian slaughter — in which 1.5 million innocents died — as genocide.
Six years ago, the president reversed himself to placate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who refuses to admit Turkish culpability for the genocide (and, meanwhile, dismantles Turkish democracy). This willful moral blindness stands in stark contrast to the courageous statement by Pope Francis last week calling for the world’s recognition of “the first genocide of the 20th century.” In a response befitting a bully, Erdogan lashed out at the pontiff, warning him “not to make similar mistakes again,” and then promptly recalled Turkey’s ambassador to the Vatican. The “Armenian matter” (the official Turkish euphemism for the genocide) isn’t the only area where Erdogan has trivialized genocide. He aggressively contests that atrocities in Darfur were genocide, yet called Israel guilty of an attempted “genocide” during its air campaign against Hamas in 2014. He called Zionism a “crime against humanity” in 2013. In July of last year, he offered the charge that Israel’s “barbarism has surpassed even Hitler’s.”
Beyond the shame in repudiating his own promises, Obama’s deference to an ally at the expense of citing the genocide is a complete betrayal of Power, whose legacy is built on taking the American government to task for its 100-year spinelessness in the face of genocide. In a famous passage in her book Samantha writes that:
… [it] is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.
If that is the case, why isn’t Power challenging Obama to stop Syria’s genocide or recognize the Turkish genocide now that she is in government? Why has she not challenged her president? Power did not hesitate to label Armenia a genocide in her book or to criticize those who refused to do so. As a senior official, will she stand by her principles or will she be complicit in broken promises and become part of the “problem from hell”? Recognizing the Armenian slaughter is vital: How can we trust public officials to show courage in stopping genocides of the present if they display cowardice in recognizing those of the past?
I recognize that as an ambassador, Power may have her orders not to speak up. I also recognize that successive administrations have believed that talking about the Armenian genocide would have unacceptable national security costs. But it was Obama who condemned this conspiracy of silence with the forceful words, “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides.”
And this is exactly what Power has courageously condemned in the past — individuals who gain high office and turn a blind eye to genocide when politically convenient. If President Obama is serious about his respect for Power, then he’ll allow her to speak her mind. And if she’s precluded from doing so, she has to seriously weigh whether she should remain in her job as ambassador. What she cannot do is condemn all her predecessors for not speaking out and then pursue the exact same policy as soon as she’s in office. According to a long 2014 profile in the New Yorker, Power believes she should remain in the administration even if she doesn’t get everything she wants. Yet in the past, she had
criticized those who avoided using the word “genocide” in their statements, and praised those who resigned in protest of inaction, such as Marshall Harris, a thirty-two-year-old Bosnia desk officer at the State Department. America’s repeated refusals to end genocides were not “accidental products of neglect,” Power wrote. “They were concrete choices made by this country’s most influential decision-makers after unspoken and explicit weighing of costs and benefits.”
The U.N. ambassador is clearly one of “this country’s most influential decision makers.” Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright may have said it best. Power castigated her predecessor at the U.N. for opposing international action to stop the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Last week, in an essay naming Power as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential people in the world, Albright wrote: “I once regarded Samantha Power as a critic. Now I am proud to call her a friend.”
This post has been updated to add the missing word “million” in its estimate of how many people died in the Armenian genocide.