Obama’s U.N. Pick

U.N. Ambassador Designate Samantha Power’s Greatest Journalistic Hits

From Darfur to John Bolton, Caitlin Dickson pulls excerpts from Power’s prolific reporting career.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Samantha Power, President Obama’s pick to replace Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a former National Security Council aide who has been a part of Obama’s team since he was a senator. But before becoming a part of the political system, Power was a journalist, making a name for herself by focusing a glaring spotlight on the shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy. As the national conversation swirls around Power and the news of her promotion, let’s take a look back at some of her journalistic highlights.

Power wrote several dispatches from Bosnia at the beginning of her career that appeared in U.S. News & World Report and The Economist, among other publications. After contributing several “Postcards” to The New Republic from Sarajevo and Zagreb, she wrote her first major article for the magazine, headlined “Pale Imitation” in October 1996. Power wasted no time in clarifying the significance of the newly elected officials she’d go on to describe in detail, powerfully laying out her argument in a way that would render the state of affairs in Bosnia understandable to readers nearly two decades later:

“The price of the September 14 elections in Bosnia was not simply that ethnic cleansers were legitimized; it was, more mundanely, that ethnic cleansers were elected. Though Radovan Karadzic was not voted into office (indicted war criminals were not permitted to run), his ideas were. All three ruling parties—Serb, Croat and Muslim—spent the election ‘campaign’ cracking down on opposition candidates, obstructing the media, stomping out free expression and blocking refugee repatriation. As a result, the vote proved empowering only to those who already held power. The joint institutions so crucial to preserving peace and so often hailed by the Clinton administration as the ‘way forward’ will now be almost exclusively comprised of undemocratic, uncompromising and generally unsavory individuals.”

Power made the smooth transition from questioning the foreign policies of President Clinton to those of George W. Bush. In a March 2003 New Republic article, “Force Full,” she ponders the United States’ ability to accomplish its goals in response to 9/11 as well as what really motivates a president:

“Foreign policy is an explicitly amoral enterprise. Only presidential leadership or domestic political mobilization can override the system’s innate orientation toward short-term self-interest. It took the September 11 attacks for someone—Bush was always a closet moralist—to step forward. After the squeamish moral relativism of the ’90s and the worrying ascent of copperhead isolationism within the Republican Party, there were two attractive aspects to Bush’s approach: He saw that evildoers littered the planet; he saw that, like it or not, if the United States didn’t become police chief of the world, Americans, too, would pay a price. Some in his administration even realized that the long-standing dichotomy between American moral values and American strategic and economic interests was both false and unsustainable. The world and the United States were more dangerous places if tyrants flourished, AIDS went untreated, and corporations exported human rights abuses that were outlawed at home. There would be blowback.”

In 2002, Power’s advocacy for U.S. intervention in cases of genocide—sparked by her work in Bosnia—became world renowned with her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide. In 2004, she was included on Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. That same year she took on a new cause, covering the genocide in the western Sudanese region of Darfur with the same tenacity she showed at the start of her career in Bosnia. In a New Yorker dispatch from August 2004, “Dying in Darfur,” Power explains the conflict in great detail, focusing on a single family’s tragic experience and detailing how Clinton and then Bush approached the situation. In Darfur, she paints a gut-wrenching picture of the savagery of the militia-led war:

“The killers in Darfur are not always so careful. The young man who showed us the wells urged us to accompany him on a short drive outside Furawiyah. Fifteen minutes after leaving the town, he told us to park our Land Cruiser at the base of a slope and ascend by foot. The stench of decomposing flesh greeted us before we saw that rotting bodies were lying in the gullies on either side of us. There were the bodies of fourteen men, dressed in bloodied djellabahs or in shirts and slacks. Seventeen bullet casings lay scattered around them. The victims appeared to have been driven to this remote spot—the deep tread of vehicle tires was still visible—and then divided into two groups and lined up in front of the ditches. They had all been shot from behind, except for one man. His body lay not in a ditch but in the center of the slope, and one of his palms was outstretched, as if he were pleading for mercy.”

Parker took to the pages of the The New Yorker again in 2005 to air her grievances with Bush’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, a man who had made no effort to hide his disdain for the institution. In a comment piece, “Boltonism,” she wrote:

“It is easy to catalogue the things that John Bolton doesn’t ‘do’—encourage payment of U.N. dues, support the International Criminal Court, strengthen international disarmament treaties. What he does do is less obvious. As Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, he has rightly been given credit for the Proliferation Security Initiative, which attempts to interdict shipments of fissile material and which is supported by sixty nations, including France and Germany. But on his watch North Korea, the chief target of his ire, reprocessed enough plutonium to make six new nuclear weapons. Bolton boasts of ‘taking a big bottle of Wite-Out’ to President Clinton’s signature on the statute for the International Criminal Court (‘a product of fuzzy-minded romanticism’ that is ‘not just naïve but dangerous’). Yet the Administration’s assault on the I.C.C. has, in fact, bolstered the court’s legitimacy internationally. Powerful middle-tier countries (like Germany) have helped make up the loss of American funds and personnel, and the court is now deep into investigations of mass slaughter in Congo and Uganda.”

Not long after “Boltonism” was published, Power began shifting her focus from journalism to politics. She became a foreign policy fellow in Senator Obama’s office and then went on to join his presidential campaign as a foreign policy adviser—a stint that was cut short when she called opponent Hillary Clinton “a monster.” In one of her last major reporting gigs, Power profiled Gary Haugen, an evangelical Christian lawyer leading a worldwide mission to fight poverty, shedding light on the limitations of American crusades against the world’s many evils:

“Haugen knows that it is an awkward time to be an interventionist abroad—and an even worse time to sell a good-and-evil agenda at home. As he put it, ‘You do find a fatigue around the idea that good Americans can go abroad and help people as a consequence of the Iraq war. That Iraq looked like a disaster creates challenges, to say the least.’ He used to tell audiences the Parable of the Talents, in which the master berates the servant who buried his talent for fear that he would squander it. Haugen once cited the passage to urge Christians to harness the power they had at their disposal. He told them, ‘God is not happy if you are too scared to use your power for fear of screwing up.’ But in the past few years he has had to change scripts: ‘I can’t really give that sermon the same way in the wake of Iraq.’ That said, Haugen believes that Americans are applying the ‘lessons of Iraq’ too broadly; not all morally inspired action should be tainted by association with Bush’s mistakes.”