Power play: Samantha Power

Pulitzer Prize-winning author wants to solve America’s ‘hellish’ foreign policy dilemma
By Pamela  H.  Sacks


CAMBRIDGE — Samantha Power dashed past the reception area in the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Behind schedule, she apologized, flashed a warm smile and asked for a couple of minutes to get herself organized.

Little wonder that she was on the fly. At 33, Ms. Power is widely recognized as a leading theorist on human rights. In 2002, her first book, “A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The 620-page volume is a trenchant blend of narrative and analysis on American inaction in the face of the major genocides of the 20th century — against Armenians, European Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Rwandans and Bosnians.

The book has made its mark among those who count in intellectual and political circles. “Agonizingly persuasive … The main part of Samantha Power’s extremely important and highly readable book is devoted to the century’s subsequent history of almost unchecked genocide, and the lack of practical response to it, especially the United States,” Brian Urquhart, an author and former undersecretary at the United Nations, wrote in The New York Review of Books.

“A Problem From Hell” quickly propelled Ms. Power into the top echelons of American journalism. She is nothing if not prolific. Over the last three months, she has written for The New Republic on how to punish Saddam Hussein, for The New York Times on former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s mea culpa over the war in Vietnam and for The Atlantic Monthly on Robert Mugabe’s destructive rule of Zimbabwe.

Recently, Ms. Power returned from Sweden, having served as a keynote speaker at the Stockholm International Forum’s two-day conference on preventing genocide. The gathering was attended by representatives from 60 nations. She also sat on a panel with Dr. Hans Blix, among others. As the executive chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, Dr. Blix saw his name become a household word during the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq.

What it meant to Ms. Power to have so prominent a role among a bevy of international leaders “put the Pulitzer to shame,” she said.

“I had a chance to talk to people who could make a difference,” she said. “It’s just a beginning.”

In her sunny office, Ms. Power sat at a small round table and leaned over, her elbows on her knees. Her long, strawberry-blond ponytail fell over one shoulder. A wall of the room was covered with posters in foreign languages having to do with war. One featured a photograph of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic under an announcement of a $5 million reward for his capture. Milosevic is now on trial for crimes against humanity before an international tribunal in the Hague.

Ms. Power had firsthand exposure to genocide as a 23-year-old war correspondent in Bosnia. Reporting for The Boston Globe and the Washington Post, she was sickened by the slaughter in Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica, a city that had been designated a “safe haven” by international peacekeepers from the U.N.

It changed her life.

“Everybody was just like us,” she said. “There was nothing unfamiliar about Bosnia.”

A decade later, Ms. Power was on edge, waiting to hear from her agent in New York. Publishers were bidding on proposals for two books that will take up the next six years of her life.

First she will write about 20th-century political theorist Hannah Arendt, who focused her work on terror, justice and the nature of evil. “I want to mine her ideas for today,” Ms. Power said. Then she will examine amnesia in U.S. foreign policy, along with its causes and consequences. “It aspires to get inside the black box of American policy-making and thought processes,” she said of this work.

“A Problem From Hell” was initially rejected by every major publisher. Random House picked it up, but wanted changes. Ms. Power refused. It was ultimately published by New Republic/Basic Books.

Ms. Power is looking for an editor who will be a real partner, “who will be hard and challenge me.”

“I don’t know who’s got the right instincts,” she said, clearly anguished over the decision. “They were all wrong about `Problem,’ completely wrong.”

Brightening, she added, “It’s a big day in the next phase of my life.”

Ms. Power came to all this via a circuitous route.

Born in Ireland, she was 9 when she immigrated to the United States with her mother and stepfather, both physicians. The family lived in Pittsburgh and then moved to Atlanta. The young Samantha quickly developed a passion for baseball.

Sports consumed her life, even while a student at Yale University. She was working in the sports department of an Atlanta TV station in the summer of 1989 when CNN televised the Chinese military crushing the pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square. Ms. Power considered whether she should be doing more with her life. Four years later, she was in Bosnia, filing stories on “ethnic cleansing” by Serbs and the siege of Sarajevo.

American policy-makers, seeing no compelling national interest, refused to take action, and Ms. Power came to believe that no amount of daily reporting would make a difference. She decided to try a different tack and entered Harvard Law School, thinking she might be able to prosecute war criminals.

Her book grew out of a paper she wrote on humanitarian intervention for a course taught by Harvard political scientist Stanley Hoffman. It raised the question in her mind: How did we come to think of ourselves as a country that responds to genocide?

At one point, she was completing her law studies, working on the book and setting up the Carr Center. She has since stepped down as the center’s director, but continues to lecture on human rights.

Some people have told her that genocide “seems so 1990s,” she said. She has little patience with that view. In the aftermath of 9-11, she said, America has even more reason to think about a policy that prompts people to find tools to make their sense of injustice felt.

“I’m not in the comeuppance school, `We deserve it,’ ” she explained. “One has to take it as the criminal, evil act it is. But you have to ask, `What is it that the United States has done?’ As someone who cares about deterring, I want to know why they did it.”

Ms. Power noted that there are two schools of thought: the one adopted by President Bush, which claims that we are resented for our freedom and wealth, and the other, advocated by intellectuals such as MIT’s Noam Chomsky, that our treatment of people has created a deep-seated anger.

“Janet Jackson, gay marriage, they anger people, no doubt,” Ms. Power said. “But we back oppressive regimes around the world.”

Ms. Power has been instrumental in bringing the genocide in Rwanda to the public consciousness. During 100 days in 1994, 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by Hutu militants. Rather than take even minimal preventive steps, the United States encouraged the withdrawal of protective U.N. troops from the African nation as the massacre got under way, she wrote.

Ms. Power won a National Magazine Award for her story on the horrific killings, which was published in 2001 in The Atlantic Monthly. What happened in Rwanda, she said, has created a sense of guilt. On the other hand, there has been no discernible change in the policy emanating from Washington.

“I have a platform — that’s the major difference in my life,” Ms. Power said. “The receptivity to my message, that’s another thing.”

During the fall, even while riveted by the Red Sox bid for the American League Pennant (she went to 45 games last year), Ms. Power joined Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He dropped out of the race last month.

“He’s one of my upstanders,” she said, referring to Gen. Clark’s role as head of NATO forces during the war in Kosovo. “He’s a mensch among mensches. He is affable and solicitous, but commanding. We need someone capable of harnessing American military power, but who also understands the need to restore human rights values.”

And U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, now running for the Democratic nomination for president? “He’ll do,” Ms. Power said.

“I think there are things wrong with American foreign policy that are about structure,” she added. “Maybe he can choose out-of-the-box thinkers for his Cabinet. `Anyone but Bush’ is not enough.”

Writing “A Problem From Hell” re-engaged Ms. Power with journalism. Yet, she said, it is not enough.

“I have a much more limited ambition,” she said with an ironic laugh. “I want to change the way America’s foreign policy is conducted.”