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

Samantha Power in Practice

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

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 of revision. 

“SAMANTHA IS MOVING THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE”

The CAR has never ranked high on the scorecard of U.S. national interests. The landlocked nation of 4.6 million inhabitants, 80 percent of them Christian, has none of the characteristics of a functioning state. When the country’s then-president, François Bozizé, was confronted in December 2012 by the Séléka, a rebellion of armed factions primarily from the marginalized northeast of the country, Washington’s reaction was to close up shop, shutter its embassy, and evacuate its staff. A press release stressed that the closure had “no relation to our continuing and long-standing diplomatic relations with the CAR.” Washington encouraged “all parties” to participate in dialogue, even as the situation deteriorated.

For the first nine months of the crisis, U.S. policymakers responded in the same way as those Power’s book decried, trusting “in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy.” As one official explained to me, it was “unclear” that mass atrocities would materialize. Historically, the CAR’s religious communities had managed to coexist despite the fact that the Muslim minority in the north had long been marginalized; coups had occurred several times since the end of French colonialism in 1960 without leading to societal collapse. As Power had lamented in A Problem From Hell, U.S. policymakers “used the search for certainty as an excuse for paralysis and postponement.” 

Yet thanks in significant part to Power, the U.S. government’s response eventually broke out of this familiar pattern. Power’s signature accomplishment in her role as White House adviser had been overseeing the formation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, tasked with readying the government to prevent and respond to looming crises. Some board members also have seats in the regular deputies meetings of the National Security Council, the highest-level interagency meeting outside the cabinet. The idea is that the entire foreign-policy bureaucracy will become “socialized to the idea that prevention of mass atrocities is a presidential priority and a core national security interest,” the board’s chair, Stephen Pomper, told me.

The board was informed about the CAR crisis from the outset. Intelligence officials began briefing the board in December 2012. In March 2013, the Séléka overthrew Bozizé and installed Michel Djotodia as interim president, making him the first Muslim to lead the country. As the Séléka began targeting civilians, the board was briefed again. These briefings, which continued throughout 2013, “[rung] alarm bells about the possibility of mass atrocities," according to someone with knowledge of them. Board members worked to familiarize various U.S. agencies with the situation, discussing possible options with the U.S. State Department, USAID, the Treasury, and the Department of Justice, among others. “We’ve been looking at CAR for months and months,” explains an administration official. 

Last March, Human Rights Watch began documenting the Séléka’s destruction of over 1,000 homes and the killing of scores of civilians, including pregnant women and children. In September, after Djotodia attempted to disband the Séléka, revenge attacks surged. Christian groups known as anti-Balaka, initially formed as self-defense forces against Séléka attacks, started to target Muslims. Having been alerted to the looming crisis nine months earlier, Washington finally delivered its first major policy response on September 27, by which time the United Nations estimated that almost 400,000 people had been displaced. Washington announced $11.5 million in humanitarian support for those who had sought refuge in neighboring countries.

As atrocities escalated, the United States increased its financial assistance and became more pointed in its expressions of concern. In the words of one official, the Obama administration also pursued “hopeful diplomatic work.” But far from dealing with the roots of the violence, the United States was still merely seeking to alleviate the suffering of those who had been lucky enough to escape it. In October, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, issued a warning about the heightened risk of atrocity crimes in the CAR. “The reaction was pretty slow,” Dieng says of the United States’ response and that of other major powers. “People were still of the view that the situation might be resolved quickly.”

If the story had ended there, one might be tempted to characterize the U.S. response to the CAR the way Power scathingly summarized her case studies in A Problem From Hell: “U.S. officials tended to trust in negotiation . . . and ship in humanitarian aid.” Over the past 12 weeks, however, the United States has mounted what is arguably the most comprehensive effort at atrocity prevention in its history.

The tipping point seems to have come on Thursday, December 5, when all those who had been briefed and briefed again over the prior year awoke to Blackberry messages from human rights organizations with first-hand “credible information” that quashed any lingering doubts about atrocities in the CAR. That morning, the United States co-sponsored France’s presentation of a Chapter VII resolution at the UN Security Council. Passing unanimously, the resolution authorized the deployment of a military mission, dubbed MISCA, led by the African Union (AU) with a supporting contingent of French troops. “That weekend [of December 7], senior officials sat down and people said, 'What can we do that would have the most impact quickly?'” Pomper told me. “And by that time, there was a familiarity with the situation and the tools at our disposal. That made the conversation easier to have.”

On December 8, Power called Djotodia directly, urging him to hold those who had committed atrocities accountable. U.S. President Barack Obama added his voice on December 9, recording a message to the people of the CAR. The next day, matching words with action, Obama announced $60 million of military assistance to the UN-approved protection mission. C-17s were immediately deployed to airlift 850 Burundian soldiers into Bangui. On December 19, Power traveled to Bangui, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to visit the country, and announced $7 million in funding for reconciliation efforts by local religious leaders.

Those following the U.S. response closely attribute much of the spike in activity to Power herself. "It's Samantha almost entirely that is moving the government response," Cameron Hudson, the policy director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, told me in January. Those working on the CAR from inside the government also credit Power’s leadership but say that it is important to note that she is working as part of a team. Indeed, if the story really does come down to Power’s role, it would undermine the Atrocities Prevention Board’s purpose of staying so attuned to atrocity prevention that the fate of victims is not dependent on a single insider fighting for their cause. Regardless of where the lion’s share of the credit falls, the policy response does corroborate Power’s thesis: The U.S. government has many options short of full military intervention for responding to atrocities.

Of course, the situation in the CAR is far from resolved. Djotodia resigned last month and was replaced, after a parliamentary vote, by Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui. But there is no prospect of broad or lasting law and order in sight. Bangui’s airport has become a squalid makeshift village for some 100,000 people fleeing violence. And those are the comparatively fortunate. Most of the country’s one million displaced must choose to “stay in the jungle and die or come back and possibly be killed,” John Ding from the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told the BBC. Even with the support of French forces, the AU mission is only a stopgap measure. “It lacks the numbers, equipment, and professionalism essential to protect the population,” Philippe Bolopion, the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch, told me. “And it does not have the civilian expertise to help rebuild the country and its administration from the ground up.” 

Last week, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of 1,000 European Union troops, giving MISCA a little breathing space. But the question of how to transition to a force of better-trained peacekeepers (the United Nations’ blue helmets) still looms. Power and her colleagues in the Obama administration have made a promising start, but there is vast work ahead of them.

POWER-LESS IN SYRIA

The crisis in Syria represents a much less auspicious example of Power’s influence. Almost three years into the war there, no one believes there are any easy solutions. Perhaps there were none to begin with. But an end to the violence is undoubtedly harder to envisage now than it was in 2011. Back then, the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s leadership was led by largely peaceful protesters; today, it is militarized, fractured, and rife with Islamist extremists and regional proxies.

Efforts to organize the international community have repeatedly fallen flat. In 2011, the United States tried to organize an international diplomatic consensus against the increasing violence. Twice it put UN resolutions condemning Syria to the vote; twice they were vetoed by Russia and China. Despite the United States’ insistence that regime change was not the goal, the veto wielders cited a fear that action in Syria would end up like action in Libya, where what had been presented as a mission to protect civilians ended up being a mission to topple Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Of course, China and Russia’s protests must be met with incredulity given their financial and political reasons for supporting Assad. But harder to dismiss are the nations without such interests that raised the same concerns. South Africa, a rotating member of the Security Council at the time of the Syria vote, had supported the NATO intervention in Libya. But when it came time to decide whether the council should condemn the Assad government, South Africa voted no, concerned about “a hidden agenda aimed at once again instituting regime change.” Fellow BRIC members Brazil and India, also on the council at the time, voted the same way. 

For those seeking to protect Syrians, the situation was infuriating. It was not, however, unprecedented. As Power described it in a 2003 article on Iraq for The New Republic, “From Washington's point of view, everything is to be assessed anew and apart…. Others don't see a clean slate…. [I]ntentions, because they are unknowable and untrustworthy, are irrelevant. Abroad, they judge what they can see: means and results.” 

Following a fleetingly credible threat of a U.S. military strike, Russian President Vladimir Putin persuaded Assad to hand over his stockpiles of chemical weapons -- which also happened to serve Moscow’s interests by ensuring that nonstate actors do not get hold of them. But that has been the high point of international action to date. Meanwhile, the United Nations announced that it had stopped updating the death toll beyond the 100,000 registered last July because it no longer had enough access to verify the numbers.

In the face of this human carnage, the list of actions the United States has not taken is lengthy. The United States has not tried to carve out safe zones or provide safe corridors for those fleeing to neighboring countries. It did not provide the opposition with the early support it needed to have any chance of victory on the ground; when support did arrive last September, it was too little, too late. The United States drew a red line around the use of chemical weapons but not around the mass killing of civilians.

There are reasons for these decisions not to act. Every option entails high risks; not only is there no certainty of success but there is also the genuine possibility of making the situation worse. The shadow of Iraq still taints any U.S. action in the Middle East. In A Problem From Hell¸ Power was skeptical of policymakers who pointed to the risks of “futility,” “perversity,” and “jeopardy,” suggesting that these apparent impediments were mere excuses for a failure to summon political will. Now, in places such as Syria, Power is confronted with the practical shortcomings of her earlier argument. Outcomes on the ground -- rather than just good intentions -- are the marker of success for any policymaker, and Power is no exception. She is now obliged to make hardheaded assessments of the likelihood of doing more harm than good.

No one could accuse Power of feeling unmoved by the suffering of Syrians. She frequently speaks out on their behalf, and, as she was at pains to point out recently, “We meet on it every day, the president’s getting briefed on it every day.” Yet as long as Russia, at a minimum, does not change its position, multiple peace processes will grind forward only slowly as the (now unmonitored) death toll rises.

In Power’s damning assessment of the Clinton administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide, she noted by way of explanation, but not excuse, that officials “met constantly . . . they neither appeared nor felt indifferent.” On Syria, much the same statement could be made of Obama administration officials, Power included.

WHERE THERE’S WILL, THERE’S NOT ALWAYS A WAY

The failures of U.S. policy in Syria undermine one of the basic lines of analysis in A Problem From Hell -- that it is “in the realm of [U.S.] domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost.” According to Power, the only real constraint on U.S. policy was political will: “Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to.” Policymakers weighed the costs and benefits of engagement and persistently prioritized traditional national interests over atrocity prevention. Meanwhile, the U.S. public never raised the kind of protest that could have provided a political counterweight to this calculation.

Power’s argument was unabashedly U.S.-centric. Her thesis assumed that Washington is uniquely positioned to stop atrocities. U.S. decisions to act, or not to, she argued, “have a greater impact on victims’ fortunes than those of any other major power.” From the vantage point of the late 1990s, U.S. influence may have indeed seemed unparalleled. But on either side of that euphoric post­–Cold War window, the question of influence was perhaps never as clear-cut as Power wanted it to be. And certainly in a post-Iraq War era, the idea that the United States can get the outcomes it wants anywhere in the world if policymakers in Washington just desire it badly enough seems outright naive.

Even before she joined the Obama administration, Power seemed to have come to appreciate this. In her more accessible and polished, though less widely read, second book on the life of the charismatic UN diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, she lamented “the erosion of U.S. influence” following the invasion of Iraq -- and “the new assertiveness” of countries such as Russia and China.

Simply comparing the CAR and Syria makes it painfully clear that global politics, not just U.S. political will, matter. The French, for their own interests, want the CAR to stabilize. And Russia’s protection of Assad has ably blocked international action. These facts limit the space in which Washington can operate. But in that same sense, it is crucial that the Obama administration has chosen, at Power’s urging, to define atrocity prevention as a core national interest. Before that shift, it seems unlikely that Central Africans would have made it onto Washington’s agenda. The Syrians, by contrast, would have risen to the top of the pile regardless, given Syria’s strategic position in the Middle East. Unfortunately, however, political will in Washington is only half the story. Syria, much like Darfur before it, shows U.S. political will is a necessary but sadly insufficient condition for the protection of civilians.

The constraints on intervention in Syria were set by global politics in advance of Power’s arrival at the United Nations. This was an excuse that Power never accepted from the policymakers she took to task in A Problem From Hell. The heroes of her narrative “saw opportunity and alternative where others felted trapped.” But if she has failed to see “opportunity and alternative” in the Syria crisis, she is in good company. Sadly, so were many of the policymakers on whose watch atrocities in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia fell.

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