Samantha Power Already Faces Knives Out From Some on Israel

U.N. Pick Has Been Outspoken on Human Rights — That's Good

New Voice at U.N.: Samantha Power is a human rights advocate. That doesn’t make her an enemy of Israel.
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New Voice at U.N.: Samantha Power is a human rights advocate. That doesn’t make her an enemy of Israel.

By Leonard Fein

Published June 06, 2013.
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The knives are already out. Samantha Power, it is alleged, is an enemy of Israel — this based on comments she made in response to a “thought experiment,” comments she subsequently disavowed.

Power was asked, back in 2002, how her support for liberal interventionism to defend human rights abroad might be applied to a situation like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her reply? “What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in the service of helping the situation.” And, she added, “The U.S. might also have to consider imposing a solution on the parties and deploy soldiers to take part in a peace-enforcement mission.”

Let’s be clear here: We are talking about the world’s leading expert on genocide. Her Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is depressingly specific, laying out the essential indifference of the United States to the diverse genocides that have pocked out nation — indifference bordering on complicity. That a person of her accomplishment, of her expertise, of her passion, should be our nation’s representative at the United Nations is a remarkable credit to the Obama administration.

Take, for just one example, the following from her magnum opus: “Before I began exploring American’s relationship with genocide, I used to refer to U.S. policy toward Bosnia as a ‘failure.’ I have changed my mind. 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 American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working.”

Now, one can be a stout enemy of genocide and a deprecator of Israel. The two are not mutually exclusive. But Ms. Power knows full well that a major chunk of her responsibility at the U.N. will be the protection of Israel — and, given her outspokenness, I would expect her to be as firm in Israel’s defense as Pat Moynihan was in his day.

The fact that she once called both Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon “dreadfully irresponsible” comes as no surprise, nor is it, in my view, an indication of a rush to judgment. It may have been impolitic to lump them together in one dismissive phrase, but that which is impolitic is not necessarily wrong. In the case at hand, it was, sadly, quite correct.

So what’s the problem? The problem, evidently, is exactly as she put it in her book “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.”

The passing of the Genocide Convention by Congress owes not to a sudden interest by an incumbent president but principally to the astonishing record of then-senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin), who made it his preeminent cause.

(Between 1967 and 1986, Proxmire gave no less than 3,211 speeches arguing that the United States should sign the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Finally, it did, and the bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.)

I have met Ms. Power only once, a casual encounter at a Cambridge cocktail party where we engaged in a longish exchange on her then newish book, of which I was an early reader. She was, as near as I can recall, not yet 30. I wish I could say that I knew even then that she was destined for high office, but the truth is that no such thought crossed my mind. She was “just” another super-bright Cantabridgian who’d written a remarkable book.

Because of her work on genocide, Ms. Power is thought to be an “interventionist,” a person whose readiness to call for American involvement in defense of human rights world-wide is her hallmark. And it is true that she was among the relatively few early champions of American intervention in Libya.

But she turns out to be considerably more nuanced in her appraisal of where and how this country should move from verbal condemnation to active intervention. With regard to Syria, for example, she has been – for better or for worse – quite restrained.

Both as a foreign policy advisor to Obama back in his days as a senator and then as a candidate, and as a member of the National Security Council, she has amply demonstrated her bona fides as a team player well within the mainstream. I am not entirely happy about that; I cannot help wondering whether we would benefit more were she to have remained the outlier her book suggested she would be.

But I can, and on the whole happily do, believe her nomination – yet to be confirmed by the Senate – is a splendid choice. It seems as if President Obama, unfettered by concerns about re-election, is determined to surround himself with this nation’s best and brightest.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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