NEW YORK — Every once in a great while — far too rarely, to be sure — an individual acquires near-iconic stature in a given field of human endeavor.
Samantha Power, whom President Obama has appointed to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is such a person.
I write as the teacher of seminars on the law of genocide and war crimes trials at Columbia Law School, Cornell Law School, and Syracuse University College of Law. Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” is far more than an indispensable resource. It provides the background for and frames many of the discussions in my classes on how atrocities such as the Holocaust, the massacres at Srebrenica, and the Armenian and Rwandan genocides were allowed to occur.
Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” and made it an integral part of the international political and jurisprudential vocabulary. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel has provided the clarion call for the remembrance of the victims of not only the Holocaust but of all genocides, and against indifference in the face of racial, religious or ethnic bigotry. Samantha Power has chronicled the failure of successive U.S. administrations to react appropriately to genocides throughout the 20th century and has galvanized political and public support behind the fundamental notion that Holocaust prevention must be made a priority for the United States.
To understand what Power is all about one must first realize that for her, genocide prevention, or the prevention of any mass atrocities against civilian populations for that matter, is not an abstract academic concept. She learned about brutal mass killings not from books but by witnessing them firsthand as a young war correspondent in Bosnia. She saw the corpses of Muslim children who had been killed for no reason other than that Bosnian Serbs hated non-Serbs. And she spoke to the survivors, listened to them relate their experiences, heard and absorbed a pain and anguish that would never disappear. These horrifying experiences that were the direct result of international governmental inaction shaped her worldview.
In a 2004 address at the Stockholm International Forum on Genocide Prevention, Power paid tribute to “the genocide scholars and advocates who have labored for decades in anticipation of … a moment when people of influence and power, when governments, stand up and at last recognize what the genocide community has been saying for years: We have got to stop standing idly by.”
Power, arguably the foremost member of that “genocide community,” has never “stood idly by.” During President Obama’s first term, she was special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council. In that capacity she was a driving force behind the creation of the interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, which the president appointed her to chair in April 2012. Power has also been credited with having influenced the president’s decision to intervene in support of Libya’s anti-Qaddafi forces in 2011.
“She is a leader on the argument that national borders and notions of sovereignty can’t stand in the way of humanitarian intervention,” Alan Dershowitz told The Cable’s John Hudson. “She’s the kind of person you wish was around in World War II or the 1930s when intervention was needed.”
Upon what proved to be her brief retirement from public life earlier this year, Mike Abramowitz, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, said about Power, “There is a small group of people that really care about genocide prevention and prevention of mass atrocities and we all appreciate that we had a real champion for those issues at the highest levels of government. She worked very hard to strengthen the interagency treatment of these issues and she had a great deal of passion for those issues and she brought that passion to the government.”
Power has now been given the opportunity to be a major force, to use her own words at the 2010 International Symposium on Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Paris, to help “reduce the likelihood of crimes that shock the conscience.” As Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg wrote recently, the president “is taking the nation’s most articulate proponent of international action to prevent genocide and putting her in the very spot where she’s most needed. All those conservatives who rail against American lassitude in Syria, Libya and so on back to the Holocaust should be thrilled. But no.”
Others such as Dershowitz, Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, Martin Peretz and Leonard Fein have eloquently explained why the knee-jerk objections by some American Jews and conservative pundits to Power’s appointment are not just ill-advised but substantively wrong.
In a 2008 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, she said that she did not believe in “imposing a peace settlement,” and that Israelis and Arabs “will negotiate their own peace.” Most recently, Josh Block, a former spokesman and strategic communications director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who now heads The Israel Project, has pointed out that at the National Security Council she “helped lead the administration’s efforts opposing the Palestinian bid to circumvent peace negotiations with Israel with unilateralism at the U.N.”
Moreover, as Goldberg and the Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, Max Fisher, have set forth in detail, a hypothetical, albeit awkward, response she gave in a 2002 interview to a hypothetical question about a hypothetical situation if either Israel or Palestine “might be moving toward genocide” has been taken out of context and twisted into something she never said. Goldberg also demonstrates conclusively that Power’s critics are distorting another 2007 quote of hers by replacing with an ellipsis a critical sentence that makes clear that the “special interests” to which she was referring were not pro-Israel groups, Jewish or otherwise, but “Halliburton and several other of the private security and contracting firms invested in the 2004 political campaigns.”
Both Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren and former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman are firmly in Power’s corner. “Samantha Power and I have worked closely over the last four years on issues vital to Israel’s security,” Oren told The New York Times. “She thoroughly understands those issues and cares deeply about them.”
And Lieberman, a steadfast and outspoken champion of Israel throughout his 24-year-long Senate career, considers Power to be “probably more personally interventionist as a matter of American foreign policy based on human rights than this administration has been. I’m very encouraged by the president’s appointment.”
In an ideal world, such glowing endorsements should suffice to at the very least give her the benefit of the doubt.
But we do not live in an ideal world. Which means that those of us who admire all that Power has already accomplished in the human rights arena and believe her to be an inspired choice as U.N. ambassador must speak out on her behalf.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)