By Dexter Filkins
The New Yorker
or eight years, Samantha Power served President Obama as an aide and then as U.N. Ambassador but also as an in-house conscience on matters of foreign policy. When she entered the White House, at the age of thirty-eight, she had already established a reputation as a kind of Joan of Arc for humanitarian intervention. Ben Rhodes, an Obama foreign-policy adviser and speechwriter, imagined that she bore a permanent tagline that seemed to announce her position at every meeting: Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “ ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide.” When innocent lives were threatened abroad, Power frequently pushed for forceful action. Obama said that he welcomed her advocacy, but he sometimes bristled when she voiced it. More than once, Obama told Power, “You get on my nerves.” In 2013, during a meeting in the Situation Room to discuss Syria, Obama, put off by her arguments, snapped, “We’ve all read your book, Samantha.”
In “ ‘A Problem from Hell,’ ” published in early 2002, Power detailed a century’s worth of American inaction in the face of grotesque massacres: of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, in Europe during the Holocaust, in Rwanda in 1994, and in the Balkans for much of the nineties. Power had gone to the Balkans as a freelance reporter fresh out of Yale, and witnessed the violence that raged as the former Yugoslavia came apart. Like most people who saw the war up close, she understood that the violence was not primarily a spontaneous outburst of old hatreds but the result of ethnopolitical machinations. Ethnic and sectarian enmity, fomented and backed by the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, was unleashed in terrible waves of killing, rape, and starvation. In “ ‘A Problem from Hell,’ ” Power wrote of Sidbela Zimic, a nine-year-old Bosnian girl who had been jumping rope in front of her apartment building in Sarajevo with her friends when she was killed by a Serbian shell. When Power arrived, a few hours later, she found only a pool of blood, a jump rope, and girls’ slippers.
Power was enraged by claims in the West that nothing could be done. President Clinton was famously persuaded by “Balkan Ghosts,” a travelogue written by Robert D. Kaplan, who argued that Balkan antagonisms were too deep-rooted and mysterious for outsiders to fathom. “Their enmities go back five hundred years, some would say almost a thousand years,” Clinton told Larry King. As Clinton dithered, a hundred thousand people died.
Picture: Senior Airman Michelle Leonard, U.S. Air Force [Public domain]