Power’s Progress: Samantha Power rejoins Obama team, addresses human rights conference


Samantha Power

Samantha Power ’99 roared back into the spotlight last week after being named to President-elect Barack Obama ’91’s transition team. Power was assigned to vet choices for appointment to the State Department. This development – which raises important questions about the future president’s foreign policy agenda – marks a re-entry into public life for Power, who served as an advisor to the Obama campaign until resigning under controversy in March. Prior to her appointment to the transition team, Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Kennedy School professor, and spouse of Professor Cass Sunstein ’78, appeared at Harvard Law School to address a conference in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In her speech to the conference, Power discussed the origins of her acclaimed book, The Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. The book, she said, started as a paper she wrote in law school, a period during which she was “sorting out guilt” from her experience reporting on the Yugoslav wars after college. Her faculty advisor at the time was Professor Martha Minow, an expert on human rights who had organized the day’s conference with the nonprofit group Facing History and Ourselves. Minow told Power that the paper proposal – an extensive meditation on the history of humanitarian interventionism – sounded like it would be more suited to a book.

Hoping to “cut through the complexity” of the conference’s previously academic content, Power praised Facing History’s advocacy in education, particularly its emphasis on history that was “not static, but in flux,” that was “not state-oriented,” and that shifted away from debates about “perpetrators” and “victims” of atrocities to a perspective that accounted for “a continuum of bystanders and upstanders”.

The rest of Power’s talk was dedicated to the “preparation of idealists for bumps and bruises.” She noted that while advocates of human rights often needed to be vocal, there were times when they needed to dampen their activism in order to assure basic rights, such as food and shelter, for those they were attempting to assist. Power offered the life of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Representative in Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello – the subject of her second and most recent book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World – as an example of this balancing act.

Vieira de Mello was a humanitarian who had learned to collaborate with human rights offenders to obtain safe passage for refugees and other victims of violence – though sometimes to the point of losing stature. During the Yugoslav wars, Power said, even nicknamed “Serbio” for his insistence on negotiation with Serbian forces. Vieira de Mello was ultimately killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2003, a victim of the country’s incipient insurgency.

Power’s own activism will be boosted by her transition team appointment. Her involvement with Obama began when she offered her assistance to the then freshly elected Illinois senator, a request which led Power to a stint working for him in Washington. She continued her role as a foreign policy advisor during the campaign, causing many to speculate that she might be in line for a senior State Department or National Security Council post were Obama to emerge victorious. Power’s road to the next administration appeared to be cut short, however, due to an unfortunate interview during the Democratic primary fight in which The Scotsman reported that she had called Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) a “monster.” Shortly thereafter Power resigned from the campaign.

Her appointment to the transition team is all the more stunning, then, in the wake of Obama’s nomination of his former rival as Secretary of State. Although sources indicate that Power and Clinton have “buried the hatchet” of their personal tensions, they would bring somewhat different approaches to foreign policy. Power has frequently discussed such issues as the conflict in Darfur, a situation Clinton has never made a centerpiece of her foreign policy plans. She is also on record as an advocate of significant U.S. support for a militarily strong Palestinian state. Clinton, known for being somewhat pro-Israel, would likely object.

Obama’s national security team has begun to acquire a reputation for being “hawkish,” but if Power is able to secure her own post at State, or at least stack it with picks who favor her policies, she or they may ally with Obama appointees Jim Jones (a relatively pro-Palestinian figure selected for National Security Advisor) and Susan Rice (Obama’s nominee for Ambassador to the UN and an advocate of military intervention in Darfur). If Obama’s own grip on his national security team is not entirely firm, the grounds for confrontations within might be set.

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