This is very exciting news. The Pulitzer prize winning author of “‘A Problem From Hell’: America in the Age of Genocide” and “Chasing the Flame,” a biography of slain UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, was just appointed the Senior Director of Multi-lateral Affairs at the National Security Council. This means she will have a direct hand in formulating U.S. policy on the United Nations, G-8, and other global forums.
The MSM is predictably honing in on “monster-gate,” which is sort of silly considering she has apologized profusely for the comment and Secretary of State Clinton has accepted her apology and everyone seems willing and eager to move on.
The real story here is will Samantha Power take to working in government? In “A Problem From Hell” (which is probably number one on my list of all-time best foreign policy books) Power describes how government is not well structured to respond effectively to humanitarian crises. Part of the problem, she shows, is that individuals in government sometimes react to these crises in politically expedient ways that do not do much to address or reverse ongoing genocide or mass atrocity. This is less a critique of specific individuals than it is a condemnation of American foreign policy making more generally. Now that she is embedded in the U.S. foreign policy making apparatus the big question on my mind is whether or not she falls victim to the very processes she criticizes so ably in her book.
I’m tempted to think that she will not be much of a quiet Mandarin. The heroes of her book are people who rail against the system–people like Raphael Lempkin who coined the word genocide, and Senator William Proxmire, who gave daily speeches on the senate floor on the need to ratify the Genocide Convention. She shows real admiration for these agents of change, and I suspect that she will be an important advocate for human rights in critical inter-agency debates. The thing is, in her book she describes how voices like that get effectively silenced by the bureaucracy and I imagine there will be situations in which her ideals bump against the realities of bureaucratic politics. How will she respond? We will have to wait and see.
Above all, though, her appointment may signal a more fulsome U.S engagement on issues like Darfur and Eastern Congo–two of the worst ongoing mass atrocities in the world. That would be a big change over the past eight years. With a giant like Power overseeing policy making on the UN — and the UN is where solutions to Congo and Darfur are most effectively discussed and implemented — I am optimistic that we will see more sustained attention paid to these issues at top levels of government. That would be change I can believe in.