Samantha Power, Jews and Israel

III: Samantha Power (SP), Jews and Israel


Howard Adelman

In my first blog in this series, I tried to suggest what might have been some of the psychic influences on SP. In the second, I tried to indicate that, although she had been appointed Founding Director of a very prestigious school on human rights at Harvard, she did not have a profound respect for scholarly authority. She was an excellent writer, a great narrator of tales and anecdotes and a very moving moral voice. But her intellectual work was sloppy and she ignored, if she ever read them, scholars who offered different analyses than her own.

She certainly did not wrestle with those interpretations, a major point her husband, the legal scholar, Cass Sunstein makes about the importance of keeping a mind open to new ideas. As he wrote, “A democracy needs to ensure competing points of view. For example, it needs to provide accurate, not anecdotal or inflammatory, information about terrorism and other risks.” (Cf. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Oxford University Press: New York 2009.) The same principle applies to information about humanitarianism and the risks of intervening with military force for humane purposes. In that sense, her disposition seemed at first to be not very different from those who single-mindedly and actively pursued policies that ensured they would be mindblind about events that might disturb the preformed picture they had constructed of the world.

But that is NOT Samantha Power. She is not scholarly in her thought processes and habits, but that could be a good thing. Scholars usually do not make the best politicians. She is an excellent synthesizer and a very fast learner. As the reader will come to see, she does have an open and flexible mind. This is both true of her attitudes to Israel as well as the fundamental planks that she once articulated on foreign policy. Those views are subject to change because, though she communicates as a person of deep moral convictions, those convictions are malleable, perhaps depending on influences, on opportunities and even on encounters with reality.

In this blog, I want to talk about another dimension in SP becoming the UN ambassador that is mentioned briefly in Evan Osnos’ article, “In the Land of the Possible”. After depicting Samantha as “manipulating the targets of her lobbying without alienating them” and being a superb networker, a capacity which she exercises as U.S. ambassador to the UN in visiting the heads of other delegations in their offices, she used her extensive contacts and manipulative skills in preparation for her confirmation hearings in the Senate to put to rest, or, at least, shunt aside, her past stated views on Israel.

First, as indicated in an earlier blog, SP is married to a very prolific and original legal scholar, Cass Sunstein. She met him as part of Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Cass Sunstein’s parents were both Jewish, his first wife was Jewish and his second partner was the famous philosopher, Martha Nussbaum. There is no indication that I could find that Cass Sunstein had any connections with Israel or Zionism or any significant links to the established Jewish community. The evidence is to the contrary. Samantha Power herself tells the story that Cass had never heard the term, Shoah, (incredible to believe) and knew nothing about Claude Lanzmann’s film by that name until she educated him. “He looked at me with that smile of his when he has no recognition.” Cass added, “I find the Holocaust really upsetting.” Cass seems to have an emotional blockage about his own Jewish history.

There is another indication that her husband’s Jewish roots will have no influence on her approach to Israel. For Cass and Samantha were married on a very blustery and rainy American Independence Day, 4 July 2008, six months after they met. Perhaps the reason for the short engagement is that they believed that they had been blessed with Irish luck since, though they were 16 years apart in age – Samantha was then 38 and Cass was then 54 – they had been born on the same day of the year, 21 September, the first day of Fall.
The ceremony was a full formal wedding with Samantha in a long lace white wedding dress. What makes the wedding interesting is not the reception for 150 guests at the Waterville Lake Hotel and who were in attendance, but that they were married in the small wood frame Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Waterville, County Kerry, on the south west corner of the Ring of Kerry. My wife and I were in the Ring of Kerry this past June, and if Cass and Samantha wanted perfect weather, they should have invited Nancy to the wedding. Her Irish luck may not guarantee her a stellar political career, but it would have ensured a beautiful day for SP’s wedding.

Bad jokes aside, this story is odd in at least three ways. First, Samantha would have needed a church dispensation to marry a non-Christian in a Catholic Church. Second, Cass would be required to obtain an annulment of his first marriage before a Catholic priest could sanctify a marriage between a single woman and a divorced man. Third, Cass Sunstein is strongly intellectually opposed to any superior authority sanctifying marriage, whether it be the government creating an official license regime or the church. His opposition was publicized in an appearance before the Senate on 11 July 1996 when he challenged “The Defense of Marriage Act”. “Under our proposal, the word marriage would no longer appear in any laws, and marriage licenses would no longer be offered or recognized by any level of government.”

However, my concern here is not to point out any possible hint of hypocrisy let alone to get into greater depth in discussing the legal foundations of marriage. It is merely to point out Cass Sunstein’s tenuous connection to the Jewish community and his Jewishness. A fourth point makes it clear. The couple have had two children in probably what were the busiest and most pressured three years of both their lives – itself a testimony to their stamina and resilience. Their four year old son is named Declan. Declan means “full of goodness” and was the name of an early Irish saint in the fifth century who was beatified for converting pagans to Catholicism. As for their fourteen-month-old daughter, Rian, another name of Gaelic origin meaning king (perhaps the feminine form of Ryan), used for both boys and girls, is, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, a woman of the First House of the Edain in the First Age. Most importantly, she is gentle of heart, a lover of flora, a singer and a composer; she hated war.

Whether in rituals or in child naming, there is absolutely no effort to connect with Cass Sunstein’s Jewish origins even though the children’s last name is Power-Sunstein. All this means is that SP’s attitude to Israel is unlikely to have anything to do with personal attachments.

What about her personal pronouncements on Israel? On this subject, Samantha made some early missteps explaining the strong need to line up rabbis in support of her nomination referred to in Osnos’ article. In fact, she did far more than Osnos suggests. But first her early gaffes.

Early in her career as a public intellectual, in 2002 she was asked a fairly straightforward question about monitoring the potential for genocide in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. If she were to be appointed as a political advisor on foreign affairs, if either party in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared to be moving towards genocide of the other, what action would she advise the President to take?

SP could have answered by insisting that it is perilous to deal with hypotheticals. She could have prefaced an answer by insisting that the likelihood of such a scenario was so low, it was not worth considering. She could have insisted that universal monitoring, including the Middle East in general and Israel-Palestine in particular, was necessary because otherwise countries like Rwanda, and later the Central African Republic, fall through the cracks, as she continued to insist. She could have strayed into the issue of intervention, even if that was not the question, by answering in a generality: wherever there appeared to be a drift towards genocide, and not specifically the Middle East, the response anywhere should be first to verify what is taking place. If she just had to throw in intervention, she could have said that any action taken should be proportionate to what is taking place on the ground. She could even have said that if either side seemed to be making such a move, a highly unlikely prospect, the first obligation would be to check and double check one’s information and then warn that respective party that if that side did not desist immediately, the United States and its allies would be giving serious consideration of the options available to the international community to stop the genocide.

But SP has a restless tongue. To complicate and bastardize the metaphor, she once had a strong propensity to put both her fists in her mouth. Here is the precise question Harry Kreisler, the director of the Institute for International Studies at Berkeley, asked: “Let me give you a thought experiment here, and it is the following: without addressing the Palestine–Israel problem, let’s say you were an advisor to the President of the United States, how would you respond to current events there? Would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, at least if one party or another [starts] looking like they might be moving toward genocide?” It is a question clearly about monitoring, not about intervention.

How did she answer? Samantha welcomed the opportunity to express her views, for the United States needs to make the Middle East safe for the United States. Further, that obligation exists even if it means “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import [that could only mean AIPAC] or investing…billions of dollars, not (my italics) in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.”

She had not simply dropped a bombshell; she had dropped a barrel bomb. First, the long-understood obligation to defend Israel was not in the equation. Nor was there any sensitivity that genocide was a real existential threat to Israel given Iran’s moves to acquire nuclear weapons. Third, her suggestion stirred up images of rich and powerful Jews throwing their money around even to prevent any USA actions against Israel if Israel was, in fact, on the path to committing genocide. She threatened U.S. military intervention against that party – and one could only presume the party to be Israel, given the reference to the rich and powerful domestic constituency. Finally, she suggested that the USA was propping up Israel’s military when that money could be used preferably to help the downtrodden or strengthen Palestine.

These were her precise words in jumping from a question about monitoring to an answer about intervention. She called on the United States to put itself on the line even if it meant “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import. It may more crucially mean…investing literally billions of dollars not in servicing Israeli military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.” Further, that investment of billions of dollars might entail “a mammoth protection force…a meaningful military presence” even when that intervention is fundamentally undemocratic.

Her statement was not an aberration of her usual views. In a 2004 review of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, she pointed to the sins of America’s allies as compromising the war on terror. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan included in that list of sinners, so was Israel. In a 2007 interview, when she was already working for Senator Obama, Samantha claimed that American foreign policy decision-makers deferred “reflexively to Israeli security assessments” and replicated Israeli tactics. As a result, the USA had brought terrorist attacks upon itself. Why? America had aped Israel’s violations of human rights.

These were not one-off comments, even though she herself later depicted them as “weird”. Though she is clearly not an expert on either Israel or the Middle East, and never pretended to be, and has never, in fact, been outspoken and vociferous on the subject, nevertheless these comments form a pattern and reflect widespread left liberal views of Israel. In addition to its concerns with her past anti-Israel expressed views, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) expressed fears that Samantha’s endorsement of humanitarian intervention could be used to interfere with Israel’s self-defence. ZOA feared that international norms intended to protect innocents could be applied to situations like Gaza (where civilians were inadvertently and unintentionally being killed) to stop legitimate Israeli self-defence military action.

So why, in spite of these widely publicized comments, especially by the ZOA, did the few rabbis in Evan Osmos’ article endorse her for her appointment as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations? Further, there were many other prominent Jews and others who came to her defence. And they did so in spite of comments made immediately after her nomination, such as those of Ted Cruz (R-Texas), that she had been “sharply critical of our nation’s strong support of Israel.” In contrast, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) insisted that she would be “a strong supporter of the United States’ close ally, Israel.” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, insisted that Samantha had “experienced first-hand the hostility faced by Israel and the abuse of the U.N. bodies to promote anti-Israel bias” and that she understands the injustice of those who “target Israel’s legitimacy.” Josh Block, the Director of the Israel Block, argued that “Samantha has made a commendable effort to build ties with the pro-Israel community and develop deeper appreciation of the issues vital to our interests in the region, Israel’s security, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

However, recognizing a UN bias against Israel, opposition to those who undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and superb networking with supporters of Israel, does not mean that she either understands Israel, assesses that country’s policies fairly or has adopted reasonable policies in relation to Israel. Perhaps the most insightful comments were made by Martin Peretz and Max Boot back in 2008, long before she would have ever been considered for such a lofty post. Peretz, writing on 4 December 2008 in Commentary, confirmed that Samantha was a good friend and even “uttered some phrases about Israel that I did not like and that I thought were erroneous,” but insisted that, “she truly, truly loves Israel and the people of Israel.” Earlier that year in the same magazine, in the 29 February issue, Max Boot chastised those who accused Samantha of harboring hostile views of Israel. She is not hostile to Israel; she even loves Israel. But what policies does she endorse with respect to Israel?

Last year (Huffington Post, 6 June 2013), Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote an article entitled, “Defending Samantha Power on Israel.” Though the rabbi erroneously believes that Paul Kagame ended the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and though he did travel to Rwanda to see for himself and talk to Kagame personally, he may not be an astute observer. Shmuley, an Orthodox rabbi, is a celebrity. He hosted The Shmuley Show on The Oprah and Friends Radio Network and was a Republican nominee for Congress in the 2012 el
ections in New Jersey.
Shmuley is no left liberal. He has a daughter serving in the IDF, champions rather than just defends Jewish “communities” (not “settlements”) in Judea and Samaria, argues that the United States must move its embassy to Jerusalem and should declare Jerusalem to be the undivided and eternal capital of the Jewish people. Though he has policy disagreements with Samantha over Israel, he strongly supported Samantha’s nomination.

The reasons are several. First, when he wrote something critical of Samantha, she reached out to him through a common friend, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark who, as a Rhodes Scholar, was in contact with Shmuley who was president of a Jewish student organization at the University of Oxford in 1994. On Shmuley’s request, Mayor Booker initiated a closed-door meeting of a wide spectrum of 40 American Jewish leaders. After Samantha presented an overview of American policy in the world’s troubled regions, she took on the accusations that she harboured animus toward Israel. In the process, she became deeply emotional and tears streamed down her cheeks.

Will the real Samantha Power please stand up?

In fact, there is really no contradiction. There is NO evidence that Samantha Power is antithetical to Israel and every reason to believe she both appreciates and loves Israel and its people. She is truly and deeply committed to the security of Israel. But she can still share in the left liberal view that Israel is an outlier in attention to human rights, that the country has abused Palestinian rights and has disproportionately mistreated Palestinians far beyond the needs required for its own defence. These perspectives are not incompatible. They are held by many left liberal Israelis. But they do suggest a policy orientation that not only runs antithetical to the direction of the current Israeli government, but reveals significant faults and offers a deformed portrait of Israel.

On the other hand, Samantha is a fast learner. She has mastered the art of diplomatese. She has learned to deflect or disguise her deep beliefs in order to remain within the acceptable norms in Washington in dealing with Israel. She is a fantastic networker. She has both cognitive and emotional appeal. Yet I, who do not support the settlements, who believe that East Jerusalem should be made part of a Palestinian state, am also very critical of her left liberal viewpoint that sees Israel as a significant human rights abuser. I adamantly defend Israel against wholesale and erroneous charges of war crimes, even though Israeli soldiers have committed some. I have become more and more concerned about the contradictions in the progressive approach, an approach that genuinely and truly loves Israel and defends Israel’s security but, at the same time, is quite unjust in weighing Israeli actions when Israel acts in defence of its own security.

So is Samantha Power good for the Jews and good for Israel? Read the rest of the blogs on Samantha and you decide.

I: Samantha Power – Influences

I: Samantha Power – Influences


Howard Adelman

This is the first of a series of articles on Samantha Power, the United States permanent representative to the United Nations. Though the essays are about her, they are more by way of a window into the positions of the United States and the Obama administration on foreign policy, not with respect to its main interests in Europe and Asia, particularly China, but with respect to handling crises, particularly those where conflict, atrocities or humanitarian assistance were and remain prominent. The first group of essays will offer background by exploring particular themes while the ones that follow excavate different contemporary foreign policy issues in a specific country. The focus on Samantha Power was triggered by an article on her in The New Yorker just before Christmas and by the decisions over the holidays to downsize the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan and Sudan’s decision on 30 December to expel the two top UN officials dealing with political and humanitarian issues in Sudan and Samantha Power’s response to these events, particularly because of her commitment to Darfur and identification with the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect.

Evan Osnos is a 38-year-old American journalist who, after earning a B.A., graduating magna cum laude in Political Science from Harvard, became a journalist. In 2008, he joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008 as the magazine’s Chinese foreign correspondent. He had already made a name for himself for his writing on China and as part of a Chicago Tribune team that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. This year, he published Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. That book, along with Canadian journalist and very recently retired Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, John Fraser, and his book on a previous generation, The Chinese: Portrait of a People, have given me the vey little I know about China. Both books provide insights into the larger collectivity by incisive portraits of individuals caught up in the maelstrom of a rapidly changing country.

Following Osnos’ very readable and incisive portrait of Joe Biden in a July issue, in the 22 December 2014 issue he wrote one of those feature articles on famous personalities at which The New Yorker excels. My favourite one this year was George Packer’s “The Astonishing Rise of Angela Merkel” in the 1 December issue. Osnos takes a different approach than Parker did, focusing not so much on how a famous but very unassuming individual acquired the position and power Merkel did, but on the relationship between influence and power, in part by tracing the trajectory of someone who has risen to the pinnacle of power, not through the electoral process, but because of her past journalism and writing (influence) and then transitioning to the role of confidante and advisor to an individual in pursuit of the top of the pinnacle of power. His article is called, “In the Landscape of the Possible: Samantha Power has the President’s ear. To what end.” ( The question is: does influence translate into power?

The portrait painted is doubly interesting because Power, like Osnos, began as a journalist. Whereas Osnos made his name covering China, Power earned her journalist spurs covering the hell of Bosnia in the nineties. Both are Pulitzer Prize-winners, Samantha Power for her 2002 book, Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which I both read and reviewed and about which I will have more to say in my next blog when I discuss Rwanda. Both Osnos and Power were at Harvard, Osnos as an undergraduate, Power (she was at Yale as an undergraduate) as the co-founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

When Osnos was well into his article, he introduced a personal note with a brief aside on Samantha’s early background in Dublin. When Samantha was only nine, her mother, Vera Delaney, left Dublin and her piano-playing dentist husband, who spent a considerable time drinking and being a pub raconteur. Vera went to Pittsburgh and then onto Atlanta with her medical boss, Edmund Bourke. Jim Power died at the young age of forty-seven when Samantha was 14. When Samantha returned decades later with her current husband, Cass Sunstein, the barkeeper told Samantha that she remembered Samantha’s father. He died, she recounted, because his family, particularly Samantha who had been close to him and spent lots of time accompanying him to the pub and reading in a corner, left for America. The implication: he died of a broken heart.

Osnos does not explore what affect this had on Samantha Power’s psyche. However, the reader cannot help wondering whether it did, particularly since Samantha has always been attracted to men somewhat older than herself who manage to combine the power of words with political power. I am not just speaking of her husband, Cass Sunstein, who is sixteen years older than Samantha. For her attraction to Obama is of the same order as indicated by her close reading and underlining of Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope. I have no idea how close her relationship was with Michael Ignatieff, but, to the surprise of many of us in academe, before Samantha had any book out and almost immediately after graduating with a law degree, she became a director of the Carr Centre at Harvard. Cass Sunstein offers another case in point, though he is only a very faint shadow in the background of the story Osnos tells about Samantha.

Cass is one of the most prolific wordsmiths and legal scholars in academe and publishes on a very wide variety of subjects from constitutional law to environmental law, from animal rights to second generation human rights. He is self-designated as a proponent of paternalistic libertarianism, the overt use of federal, more particularly, presidential power, to enhance individual rights and liberties. He is a friend of Barack Obama from their days together as faculty members at the University of Chicago Law School, but they also have a common background as editors at Harvard Law School, Cass of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and Barack of the even more prestigious Harvard Law Review.

Their lives then took different routes. Obama was expected to clerk at the Supreme Court but instead went back to community organizing in Chicago. Cass did go on to law clerk, first for Benjamin Kaplan of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and subsequently for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. Recently, he introduced what might be regarded as wild ideas into the conversation in the Obama administration when Cass served as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Power between 10 September 2008 and 21 August 2012. Currently, Cass Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor and Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. Cass met Samantha when they were both working for Obama in January of 2008 and they were married that July.

Obama and Sunstein both share an intellectual approach and yet differ. Both are interested in solutions that overcome polar oppositions. Both are inclusionists who try to bring as many into the discussion as possible. Cass, however, is much stronger in excluding fruitcakes, especially conspiracy theorists. If Obama approaches a problem from the centre as a listener, Cass approaches a problem as an outfielder, often bringing what are initially regarded as eccentric ideas into the discussion. Obama manages a discourse; Cass stimulates one. Thus, they complement one another.

Since Osnos’ article is about influence and power, one drools to know how Cass influenced Samantha in the evolution of her ideas while serving the Obama administration. At the same time, one would like to know whether and how Samantha influenced Cass when he was the regulatory czar in Washington for four years. But you will not find any answers in the article or even the question raised. Further, a reader might at least have been expected to compare and contrast Cass’ Senate approval process in 2008 with Samantha’s own as U.S. Ambassador to the UN.

Osnos does discuss Samantha’s approval process, which begins with bets that she only has a 20% chance of being approved (Tom Nides a former Deputy Secretary of State), her husband, Cass’, introduction to her nomination and with a lineup of Republicans determined to stop the appointment. It ended with her winning 18 of 20 votes on the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs with her virtually guaranteed approval by the full Senate that voted 87:10 for ratification. Contrast that process with the way the Senate only voted for Cass as Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in 2009, when the Democrats had an overwhelming majority, by a vote of 63-35 by the Office of Management and Budget, and then only after the Senate voted for cloture did the Senate confirm Sunstein’s appointment by a vote of 57 to 40. In comparing Sunstein’s hearings with those of Samantha, she proved to be a superb diplomat in parrying questions after being confronted with some of what were regarded as her more extreme statements from her past.

A reader might have expected or just hoped that Osnos would have compared her husband’s theory of “nudge” to her own complementary version of encouraging, cajoling, pushing and prodding. Nudging, however, is structural and educational. For example, in the science of behavioural policy, nudging involves laws (systems of formal authority) and architecture (the arrangement of artifacts in space), material incentives as well as educational and information campaigns. Nudging is, therefore, about creating lawful authority and regulations as well as conventions (persistent social norms over time) to provide a continuity framework. It also involves three dimensions of influence – aesthetic, material, and cognitive. Nudging may have the same semantic roots as the Yiddish word, “noodge”, but noodge does not entail leading a horse to water but poking and pestering a horse as if it were a mule. Nudging is creating a context of temptation so that an individual more willingly chooses what is better for him or her as well as society to overcome the proneness of individuals to bias and laziness. Noodging, on the other hand, is driven by moral assertions aimed like whips at your backside.

Samantha’s concentration is on the question of ends: “To what end can America’s power be directed?” Cass focuses on the best means to facilitate citizens in a democracy making more informed, and, hence, better choices for themselves and the polity to which they belong. But most of all, in Osnos’ relatively flattering portrait of Samantha, there is a strong suggestion that her skills constitute seduction (not sexual) – the French ambassador at the UN, Henry Kissinger, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Where can the psychic roots for such skills be found? After all, the contrast with the portrait of her relations – or, better, lack of intimate relations with women – is stark, whether Hilary Clinton, whom she once, off the record, to a journalist from the Scotsman called a “monster” (Hilary and Samantha later made up) or to her close but non-intimate relationship with Susan Rice.

I would especially have loved an exploration of some of the deeply substantive issues on which Cass has written that directly impacted on her duties – most significantly on the relationship between rational analysis and risk in making foreign policy decisions. Perhaps my concern with her substantive beliefs, her psyche and her relations with men goes back to a meeting in 2002 just before her famous book came out that made her a superstar public intellectual. The meeting was on early warning, conflict and genocide, interests which we had in common. But I cannot remember what she said or her role at the meeting, a fault I am sure of my bad memory rather than her performance. But I do have a record of what she wrote at the time. (See tomorrow’s blog.) What I also remember is that she was close to Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had just been made a Special Representative to Iraq by the UN Secretary General. It was in that position that he would die, killed not long after in the terrorist explosion of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and about whom Samantha would write a book published in 2008 called: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, a volume that has been on my “to read” list for six years.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian diplomat, was a unique UN professional who was even better dressed than the French delegates and had a style that combined intimacy with brutal honesty, diplomatic language with sharing inside stories. He was also a connoisseur of food and wine and loved beautiful women, Samantha Power in her heels towered over him for Sergio was not a tall man. Until that meeting, I had never heard the rumours of their relationship, which my colleagues said were widely known, but I could not tell you even today whether there was any truth in them. We all – or the colleagues I knew well – wanted, and expected that someday, Sergio to become Secretary General of the UN.

What influence did Sergio Vieira de Mello have on Samantha? She wrote, and it is quoted at the end of Osnos’ article, that de Mello “started out as a humanitarian, but, after years of contending with crises around the world, “he had become a diplomat and politician.” At the end of the article, Osnos depicts Samantha through the same trope and, further, suggests that this depiction may be one that Samantha projected onto de Mello. However, as I understood Sergio Vieira de Mello, ideals and the real political world were not at loggerheads. Rather, the issue is how do you use and manipulate the nature of the real world to serve higher ends. Sometimes you are unable to. But you should always use your best efforts to try.

Samantha is portrayed as a very intelligent, very savvy, very persuasive individual, and an absolute star at networking. But as Osnos also depicts her, she had a powerful influence on policies on Libya and Syria, with very ambivalent results, and a powerful influence on some relatively marginal issues – the Central African Republic and the Ebola crisis (all examined in later blogs). However, on the Ukraine, on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, on refugee resettlement, on the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, to all appearances she seems to have little or no influence. At least any account of such influence is absent from Osnos’ article.

So the question is: who influenced Samantha Power and how did she in turn influence government policy? There were many other men in her life than the few discussed above that I would like to have had the influence-power relationship clarified, the influence of those men on her and her reciprocal influence on them and the policy issues which they faced and had to deal with.

Much earlier there had been Richard Holbrooke. Senator Patrick Moynihan said that a new kind of war correspondent had been created by the war in Bosnia, one who covered atrocities committed against civilians rather than battles. Samantha Power was one of those new kinds of journalists who covered those atrocities by the Serbs. George Will summarized them at the time in very graphic language. “Today, with abundant evidence of rape used as a weapon of war, of Muslims’ eyes gouged out and ears and noses sliced off by Serbian “soldiers” (it is disgusting to give that honorable title to snipers killing Sarajevo children), with testimony about heads on stakes and a woman forced to drink blood from her son’s slit throat, it is reasonable to suspend disbelief concerning all reports about the cowardly mob called the Bosnian Serb ‘army’, which is a proxy for war criminals in Belgrade.” The events, in which ethnic cleansing of at least 500,000 and the killing of 65,000-75,000 Bosniaks, are generally collectively referred to as the Bosnian or Bosniak genocide.

The New Republic, which is currently in a coma expected to be terminal after a century of publication, wrote at the time that, “The United States seems to be taking a sabbatical from historical seriousness, blinding itself to genocide and its consequences, fleeing the moral and practical imperatives of its own power …. You Americanize the war or you Americanize the genocide. Since the United States is the only power in the world that can stop the ethnic cleansing, the United States is responsible if the ethnic cleansing continues. Well, not exactly the United States. The American president is an accomplice to genocide. Not so the American people. The president of the United States does not have the right to make the people of the United States seem as indecent as he is. He has the power, but he does not have the right.”

Journalism, with Samantha Power very much in the lead, had become the moral superego of the nation in the aftermath of President Clinton’s gross failures concerning the Rwanda genocide. Was Samantha used by special U.S. envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to spread his policy options and preferences through the media to enhance support back home, since it was well known that Powers and Holbrooke had become close? Or did Richard Holbrooke bow to Samantha’s hectoring and powerful moral voice? And what about the practical issues – the Dayton Accords that empowered the ethnic cleansers. After all, fewer than 10% of voters cast ballots, as they were entitled to do, in the original locations where they had their homes. Given the divisions of Bosnia-Herzegovina into ethnic enclaves in which the majority ended up voting for the most nationalist parties, the prospects of integration had been undercut. When compounded by ballot stuffing, non-cooperation and other devices to undercut democracy, one despaired at the peace – except if one compared it to the three horrific years of war that had preceded it.

I had a front seat for one dimension of the effort to devise practical solutions. At the time I had written proposals and studies that were very pessimistic about the prospect of refugee and displaced persons returning to their original homes and had made a number of proposals to help their local integration and settlement. One concerned currency. A meeting of three academics, including myself, with the UN heads of the seven key ministries, was held in Geneva to discuss the proposals. I had made the suggestion that the currency be based on the value of real estate and then the currency created could be used to allow sales of homes in the abandoned enclaves and purchase of new homes in the enclaves where the refugees and IDPs now lived. We were all thunderstruck when we learned from the representative of the International Monetary Fund that, given the past record of the former Yugoslavia as a communist state, a decision had been made to create the currency based on monies owed for labour expended, that is, on a labour theory of value. The effect was that the members of the armed forces and militias who were owed past wages (most of the others, except for party apparatchiks – had been unemployed), were rewarded. The foundation of monetary policy meant that the currency being created went disproportionately – extremely so – to those who committed ethnic cleansing, atrocities and genocide. Further, the whole idea of creating a market in real estate backed by the Deutsche Bank had been undercut.

The point of telling this story is that the moral issues are settled in the details – electoral, monetary, etc. – and not in high sounding moralistic general principles. And in almost all cases, these details were widely askew. I do not recall – but I could be very wrong – Samantha Power probing these details, for by then she had returned to the U.S to study law. But she had been a moral crusader during the war, not a practical reformer. What had she learned from Richard Holbrooke and how had her strident positions influenced him? The article does not tell us. The article summarizes but does not explore that period. The focus is on the Obama administration.

Tomorrow: Samantha Power and Rwanda: Authority and Powerlessness