After years as an outsider who watched in frustration as the U.S. failed to stop foreign atrocities, Samantha Power now is an influential White House insider in a position to try to help prevent mass killings and limit the influence of rogue leaders.
Power is part of a small circle of presidential advisors shaping the U.S. approach to multiple crises rippling through the Middle East and North Africa.
An outspoken author and academic before joining the Obama administration, she pressed in recent weeks for military intervention in Libya in the face of misgivings voiced by her superiors on the president’s National Security Council. The administration, as part of a multinational coalition, ultimately decided to execute airstrikes in Libya to try to protect civilians from attacks by supporters of leader Moammar Kadafi.
Power has eschewed publicity in a White House that values discipline. But in a speech this week at Columbia University, she shared her thoughts about the democratic movements spreading overseas.
Power, who made her reputation by calling for aggressive action to protect defenseless civilians, defended America’s restrained response to the monarchy’s crackdown in Bahrain. Bahrain’s police have used teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse crowds of demonstrators.
Asked by an audience member whether Obama should intervene in Bahrain, Power said the administration had not been silent.
She said Obama and his top advisors “are working tirelessly at all levels to try to get a political dialogue restarted, which has become, of course, more difficult the more the violence has taken hold. But it’s an area of huge focus for the entire administration.”
In a White House populated by longtime Democratic operatives and Clinton administration alumni, Power is a bit of an anomaly. She went to the White House after forging her own independent identity as a Harvard Kennedy School professor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell,” which chronicled U.S. inaction in the face of genocide.
“Samantha spent much of her career writing about the decisions that the policymakers make when it comes to humanitarian crises around the world,” said Tom Malinowski, a friend and Washington Director for Human Rights Watch. “And I think she very much wanted the experience of walking in the shoes of the people she had been writing about.”
In the Columbia speech, Power praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She finds herself aligned with Clinton in some internal administration debates about intervening in the Middle Eastern rebellions. But during the 2008 presidential race, Power famously described Clinton, then Obama’s Democratic rival, as “a monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. She quickly apologized and resigned from the Obama campaign.
Another ally in the administration is Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who in Power’s book, did not come off all that well. One passage describes a meeting about Rwanda during former President Bill Clinton’s presidency. Rice, then a Clinton aide, “stunned” some of those present by wondering aloud about the political implications of allowing the slaughter of Rwandans to go forward.
But like Power, Rice favored U.S. military moves in Libya to protect civilians against Kadafi’s advancing forces.
In contrast, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and his deputy, Denis McDonough, initially were more skeptical about devoting military hardware to the fight in Libya, people familiar with their positions have said.
The divisions have given rise to reports of a gender divide in the White House in which women favor tough measures against Arab autocrats while the men push for diplomatic solutions.
At Columbia, Power denied such a gender split.
“Utterly untrue,” she said.
Power later declined to discuss her positions. Authors and activists talk about their personal views; NSC aides don’t.