The Taming of Samantha Power

How a former icon of humanitarian intervention changed from a buzz saw into a bureaucrat.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. nominee Samantha Power testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. (Cliff Owen/AP)

It certainly sounded like the old Samantha Power. At her confirmation hearing Wednesday, President Obama's nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations called the U.N.'s failure to act in Syria "a disgrace that history will judge harshly." But Power knows as well as anyone, having written the definitive book on the subject, that the U.N. acts effectively only when the United States leads. And the United States has not done so under the leader she serves, especially on Syria. Power's statement only served to remind people how quiet she's really been these last few years, a former firebrand who once passionately championed humanitarian intervention--and Obama as its savior--but who in reality hitched her wagon to perhaps the most conservative president on foreign policy since Dwight Eisenhower.

The lack of U.S. action in Syria, while somewhat understandable given the radical Islamist aims of many of the rebels fighting Bashar Assad, is the best evidence that Power has changed from a buzz saw into a bureaucrat. And perhaps not a very effective one. One reason Power has been publicly quiet is that for the last few years, she's been working hard at the White House setting up a pet project: Obama's new Atrocities Prevention Board, of which she was the first chair. The idea was to set up bureaucratic interagency lines of communication to pass on information about humanitarian horrors and how to stop them. "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America," Obama said a year ago in a speech partly drafted by Power, as he announced the new board.

While both the president and Power have been careful to say that intervention doesn't necessarily mean military action, the unmistakable fact is that whatever they had in mind hasn't worked in Syria. Some 100,000 people have already died and Assad's army is regaining the initiative with critical military help from Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, while Obama continues to temporize over his own promise of military aid. Obama administration officials point to some $250 million they've given in civilian aid, but that has done almost nothing to stop the slaughter.

To be fair to Power, she is right that U.N. action on Syria has been blocked by Assad's ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. And she herself was acutely aware at the beginning of the Obama administration that the kinds of humanitarian intervention we saw in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s were no longer as feasible. As Power told me in an interview in 2007, while teaching at Harvard, the mistakes of George W. Bush in invading Iraq on specious grounds changed all that. Bush had so sullied the idea of intervention in the Muslim world that to send U.S. forces even into Sudan would be disastrous, she said. "Now we're neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It's going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism," she said.

Power described herself then as being in a state of "despondency" about the lost opportunity for American leadership, especially after John Kerry lost the 2004 election to Bush--until she met Obama, that is. "He had seemed like only hope in that grim November morning, somebody who could inject hope into my generation," she said. Power was delighted when Obama asked to meet her after reading her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "A Problem From Hell ": America and the Age of Genocide, which was filled with rage and anguish over America's failures to stop slaughters in Rwanda and Bosnia, expressed Power's belief that under U.S. leadership the international system was advancing to the point where it would no longer tolerate such terrible human-rights abuses. In an interview last summer, Power still insisted that Obama has been at least as passionate as she has about these issues. "No other senator called me in 2005 to talk about genocide, or the problems and modalities of expanding the toolbox," she said. "That has been Obama for a very, very long time."

And yet now, in the face of the worst human-rights crisis of the decade, the administration has fallen short to the point where even Kerry, now Obama's secretary of State, publicly admitted that Washington had been "late" in getting involved. And a senior administration official recently told me that U.S. foreign policy should no longer be "based on doing what makes us feel good." Unlike on Libya, where Power was one of several voices urging the NATO-led intervention, she has said very little about Syria. At least until her confirmation hearing this week, when she declared it "one of the most devastating cases of mass atrocities that I have ever seen."

With her new calibrated approach, and careful tending of Obama's message of restraint, it's probably unlikely to expect the return of Sam Power the firebrand. Still, Power made a brilliant study of the inner workings of the U.N., and of the relationship between Washington and Turtle Bay (U.N. headquarters) in her 2008 book, Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World, which was about the tragic Sergio de Mello, the legendary U.N. official who died needlessly in Iraq as the incompetence of the U.S. occupation began to reveal itself. She told me then that one of the objects of the book was to "rescue the institutional memory" of successful international intervention efforts.

One of the best things about Chasing the Flame was the way Power traced de Mello's transformation from a young, left-wing idealist into a hard-edged realist about the limits of the possible. "He started out as a humanitarian, but by 2003 he had become a diplomat and politician, comfortable weighing lesser evils," she wrote. It is, perhaps, the same transformation Power is now undergoing.