Samantha Power: Will a Human Rights Crusader At the UN Get Us Involved In Syria?


Last week, President Obama nominated Samantha Power to succeed Susan Rice as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This pick by Obama has been met with resistance, elation, and of course, comparisons between Power and her predecessor. 

Power is an Irish immigrant, a woman in leadership, a mother of two, and a human rights activist. Demographically speaking, she bolsters the Obama administration’s efforts  to create a progressive, inclusive group of public officials. Power began her career as a journalist, traveling to Bosnia as a freelance war correspondent as a young college graduate. Power has been with the Obama team since 2005 when she was a member of his Senate staff, but she was removed from Obama’s 2008 campaign team after she referred to Hillary Clinton as “a monster.” Since then, she has served as the human rights advisor for the National Security Council (NSC) and was the director of Obama's atrocities prevention board. 

Power’s nomination follows what would appear to be the Obama administration’s prolonged attempts to rekindle its relationship with the United Nations (Obama reversed the actions of the Bush administration by deciding to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council in March of 2009, for example). In the wake of the Benghazi issue and the increasing pressure being put on Syria, many hope that Power will bring her lifelong passion for human rights to U.S. foreign policy in a way not seen since it was the policy cornerstone of the Carter administration. 

Obama’s nomination of Power has been met with strong resistance by some Republican senators and conservative interest groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), who have framed her as anti-conservative and anti-Israel.  Power has been guilty of inflammatory language directed at both of these groups. In a 2002 interview, she made comments that appeared to suggest the possibility of a military intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, leading the RJC to speak out in resistance to her nomination. Many fear that, if nominated, she would be a proponent of military interventions as a means to restore order and the rule of law in troubled countries. In her own Pulitzer-prize winning book A Problem From Hell, she contends that genocide continues to be an issue because no president has ever made it a priority, and that every previous presidential administration has suffered from this lack of prioritization. 

Power has also been criticized for hypocrisy due to her perceived inaction after lecturing President Bush on his lack of involvement in Sudan. According to these critics, although she spent decades as a loud activist for human rights, once she was put in a position to actually implement action, she sat by silently. Fox News used this posturing to label her as “an academic with zero real-world experience.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has already come out in strong opposition to Power’s UN bid, but other leading senators have either publicly supported her, such as Senator McCain (R-Ariz.) has, or have thus far remained silent.

In sharp contrast to the accusations of her detractors, Power’s speech in the Rose Garden last week was full of statements regarding the U.S.’s need to act as a key leader in institutions such as the UN. Power also recognizes the duality of the organization, stating that while she has seen UN aid workers deliver food to people of Sudan, she has also seen UN peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia. It is her academic background that gives her the specialized subject knowledge that many career politicians lack, and her involvement with several human-rights-focused NGOs that gives her a particular insight into those organizations which help to support UN and government missions. This, combined with her previous positions of leadership under the Obama administration, has indeed given her the “real-world experience” she has been accused of lacking. As for her alleged inaction, Power’s time working in the Obama administration has transformed her from a passionate, outspoken journalist to a consequentialist and pragmatist who’s “not going to do something unless it’s going to be effective … No futile moral gestures for the sake of making moral gestures.”

While Power’s nomination is sure to be challenged by her own past statements and writings — which are sure to be reviewed with scrutiny during the confirmation process — she is, broadly speaking, less of a controversial nominee than Susan Rice was during her short-lived time as a prospective secretary of state. Power’s lack of involvement in the Benghazi issue makes her confirmation much more likely than Susan Rice’s would’ve been. 

If Power’s UN nomination is confirmed by the Senate, she will be thrust into a position of leadership in an institution which is generally unpopular in the U.S. As of January of this year, only 16.7% polled stated they would like more significant involvement, with over 62% wanting to maintain current levels of involvement, decrease involvement, or withdraw from the UN altogether. The most pressing question for Power will likely be how she will handle America's role in the ever-increasing conflict in Syria, in which the U.S.’s general lack of involvement has earned it a mountain of criticism. Only time will tell if Power's past passions or current pragmatism will come to shape U.S. policy towards the failed state. All in all, Power’s nomination as UN ambassador signifies that human rights will continue to be prominent on the agenda of the Obama administration.