Samantha Power in Practice

The Surprising Effectiveness of the Obama Administration's Most Recognizable Foreign-Policy Intellectual

Samantha Power speaks at the UN General Assembly Hall in January 2014. Courtesy Reuters

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the rare political figure whose fame does not depend on the office she holds. A Problem From Hell, her 600-page indictment of the U.S. government as an essentially amoral bureaucracy that “functioned” to assure genocide went unchallenged, won her the Pulitzer Prize and a place as one of the country’s most recognizable foreign-policy intellectuals. 

Fame proved a useful means for Power to spread her message -- that when it came to upholding the “never again” ideal, the United States was impeded by a lack of will, not a lack of knowledge or influence. But as she's moved into politics -- first as a White House adviser, from 2009 to 2013, and then as UN ambassador -- notoriety has become a complication. Many of Power’s ardent fans judge the Obama administration harshly by what they understand as her own standards. By the time Power testified at her ambassadorial confirmation hearing last year, she was already facing the kind of criticism she once dealt out.

In some sense, harsh judgments are an inevitable by-product of Power’s popularity. As her work was transformed into bumper sticker slogans -- A Problem From Hell became a veritable bible for the Save Darfur movement in the mid-2000s -- much of its nuance got lost. Contrary to the way she has been caricatured, Power has not supported military intervention whenever and wherever crimes against humanity are occurring. Instead, she has argued that U.S. policymakers have the ability and obligation to respond to terrible crimes by exploring the options that lie between “doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the marines,” as she put it in A Problem From Hell.

And that is exactly what Power has done since joining the Obama administration. Her consistent efforts, however, have met with inconsistent outcomes. Power's successful response to atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) has been quietly historic. But the ongoing crisis in Syria suggests that her previous assumptions about unparalleled U.S. influence are already in need

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