Libya War: Samantha Power and the Case for Liberal Interventionism

The femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world argued for intervention in Libya, and though her role in the White House discussions may have been overblown, the Obama adviser is already being attacked for pushing us into another Iraq.

Samantha Power. Credit: Mark Von Holden / Getty Images,Mark Von Holden

Several years ago at a book party for an anthology about political mass murder, Samantha Power stood near the bar, surrounded by a group of earnest-looking men asking about her own work on the subject, A Problem From Hell. They also wondered aloud whether she would like a glass of wine. Known as the femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world, Power, who was born in Ireland and has auburn hair and pale skin, has been making a splash for years.

Just this week, she has been recognized, or blamed, as a driving force behind the decision to launch strikes against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. As the story goes, she, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, pushed for “a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq War,” as reporters for The New York Times described the operation. Yet the story about their role in the decision-making process is nonsense.

At least that is what Tom Malinowski, a Human Rights Watch director who took part in some of the discussions, says. He concedes that Power has a strong voice on the issue and that she stands out—“she is hot,” he notes—but says her position has been overblown. “There’s this narrative out there about Samantha Power, the genocide chick, who managed to outmaneuver her boss and the entire military establishment,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”

It is sexist, or at least silly, to make a big deal of Power and these other women’s desire to hit Gaddafi hard and, moreover, to claim that they alone have taken the U.S. to war. They are part of an administration with dozens of advisers, both male and female, who supported the decision. That includes some who served in the Clinton administration and stood by as the Rwanda genocide unfolded in 1994 and swore, “Never again,” as well as the ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, withdrawn from the country after a WikiLeaks scandal, and others who have a deep understanding of Gaddafi. Ultimately, as Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, told me in an email, “This decision really came down to the president. The decisions were made at deputies’ committee and principals’ committee meetings.”

Power “said, jokingly, ‘I am not Paul Wolfowitz,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, actually, I think you are,’” David Rieff recalls.

Besides, anyone who says women are more peaceful than men and for that reason should serve in the administration has never seen Heathers or worked at a women’s magazine. Like others in the Obama White House, Power has long been a supporter of military intervention for humanitarian goals: Her own views date back to the time when she was writing about the wars in the former Yugoslavia for The Boston Globe and other publications. (Disclosure: I edited a feature that she wrote for Marie Claire in 2003.)

Despite a C.V. with degrees from Yale and Harvard Law that seems preordained for the White House, Power is very un-Washington; that means she says things without thinking and is therefore fun to hang out with. It also means she gets herself in trouble. While Barack Obama was on the campaign trail, she described Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” She and Clinton eventually made up, and Power has been working at the White House since 2009.

During her time in the administration, Power has helped to create a position known as director for war crimes atrocities and civilian protection. The job was filled by civil-rights attorney David Pressman, who has been described as a “consigliere” of George Clooney—someone with whom Power was once rumored to be romantically linked; she is now married to legal scholar Cass Sunstein.

These days, she is pursuing her goal of preventing future genocides and mass atrocities, with a focus on Libya. This kind of policymaking is admirable, courageous, and risky, and many Americans, particularly those who live on Army bases, are understandably concerned. No one knows the cost of war better than those who have served in them, and they worry about White House officials who are quick to dispatch troops. Libya seems especially precarious.

“We’ve essentially entered a civil war,” says T.X. Hammes, author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century and a senior fellow at National Defense University in Washington. “The question is, now what do you do?”

The reasons for the Iraq War were different: President George W. Bush talked about the weapons of mass destruction stockpiled by Saddam Hussein; President Obama is trying to save people from getting crushed by Gaddafi. But some administration critics argue that they are essentially the same, with Power now leading the charge.

“She is an eloquent, subtle, measured proponent of liberal interventionism,” says David Rieff, a New York-based journalist and author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. “I just think she’s 98 percent wrong.” Once while Rieff and Power were both at a book fair in Los Angeles, he said that he thought her reasoning on foreign policy was similar to that of neoconservatives who supported the Iraq War. “She said, jokingly, ‘I am not Paul Wolfowitz,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, actually, I think you are,’” Rieff recalls.

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“The intervention of Libya is the logical extension of this kind of argument: It is the job of an external power not just to prevent slaughter, but to do regime change,” says Rieff. “The German foreign minister [Guido Westerwelle] says Gaddafi must go. That’s a lot more than protecting the citizens of Benghazi. This is a new way of America ruling the world.”

Perhaps. On other hand, Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski says no one in the White House sees the strikes as “a way to rescue the concept of liberal interventionism.” He adds, “I don’t think they did this for abstract reasons. They did this because they saw an army headed for Benghazi.”

Whether Power’s push for military action in Libya is another sign of American hubris or the correct response to a dire situation will not be known for weeks, if not years. It is a “classic ‘wicked problem’” with no easy answers, says Hammes. Meanwhile, service members in Fort Bragg and at other bases are hoping that this time, at least, the foreign-policy advisers like Power get it right.

Tara McKelvey, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (Basic Books).