Anemic, confused, totally inept responses by her administration to today's human rights tragedies across the globe. A sad commentary, is it not?

Samantha Power: From Fiery Activist to a Typical “All Talk, No Action” Bureaucrat

By —— Bio and Archives--February 3, 2015

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Samantha Power made her name on both her hard-hitting, Pulitzer-prize winning book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” and her no holds-barred lectures and articles decrying the U.S. Government’s lax responses to crimes against humanity and genocide. In the aforementioned book, Power excoriated a host of presidential administrations for what she deemed to be their “toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view.” Proudly, she welcomed the sobriquet—and took on the mantle of—“the genocide chick.”

Now a major player in the Obama Administration—currently she is the United States Ambassador to the UN—she has largely become a facsimile of the prototypical bureaucrat who is more often glib than effective. The quick and seemingly easy change from fiery activist and advocate for bold actions to babbling bureaucrat full of excuses is astonishing. Or, maybe not.

While Power continues to talk a good game, she has assiduously avoided taking a hard, no nonsense stance vis-á-vis the Obama administration’s pusillanimous stance vis-á-vis a host of human rights tragedies today (e.g., those in Syria, Iraq, the Nuba Mountains, Sudan; Darfur, Sudan; the Central African Republic; and Burma, to name but several).

It should be no surprise that over the past seven years, many scholars of genocide studies have become increasingly disheartened, if not totally fed up, with Power’s lackadaisical performance—first, in her role as chair of Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board and now in her current position. Many argue that it is unseemly how Power has apparently come to readily accept as a given that should not be questioned that governments generally “address” major international human rights violations with great circumcision and caution. Concomitantly, without compunction, she now seems to simply take it in stride that even in the face of horrific acts of mass murder, U.S. policy will always be driven by realpolitik. That is a 180-degree turn from her former days as “the genocide chick.”

In response to those who question her motives and decry the fact that she has yet to take a hard-nosed, unwavering position in regard to the Obama administration’s ever-shifting, rarely transparent, and highly ineffective response to the recent rash of major human rights violations across the globe, Power is as glib as ever. Essentially, she shrugs her shoulders and says, that’s just the way it is, so get over it

It doesn’t help that the hagiography of Samantha is legion today, both among certain individuals in the media and naïve anti-genocide activists. Many are wont—as a popular phrase in the world of addiction has it—to “enable her” to continue to blithely carry on as if all is well with the world in her current manifestation of bureaucrat extraordinaire where talk lords it over action. Few, if any, of these individuals seem inclined to hold Power accountable for her radical about face in regard to the critical need to be a whistle blower and an “upstander,” a term she purportedly coined and that many anti-genocide activists and educators have glommed onto. In other words, few, if any, called her out for her hypocrisy.

A case in point is the relatively recent article titled “Samantha Power: Learning to Play the Diplomat’s Game” in The Washington Post Magazine, by the rather dewy-eyed journalist Manuel Roig-Franzia. Ostensibly taken in by her “glamour,” glib tongue and mastery at spin, Roig-Franzia fails to scratch very far below the surface in an attempt to uncover why Power has failed to raise a real stink as the Obama administration has remained quiescent, time and again, in the face of horrific atrocity crimes.

Neither did Roig-Franzia prod Power to hold the proverbial mirror up to her own face in the hope that she might find it within her to admit that she has largely become a facsimile of scores of others in previous presidential cabinets and government bureaucrats she was so quick to excoriate in her heady days as an activist (i.e., her jeremiads, for example, against George Herbert Bush’s administration in relation to the genocidal actions being perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia, and the Clinton administration’s response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda).

Typical of the almost cloying admiration Roig-Franzia (2014) has for Power is the following: “On her right wrist, Power wears a simple twisted-cloth bracelet that bears a small metal bar etched with a single word: ‘Fearlessness.’ It neatly symbolizes her public persona as the passionate humanitarian advocate” (n.p.). Really? Isn’t wearing such a “call attention to myself-like accoutrement” rather juvenile? Isn’t it also a classic example of hubris? And is it not out right hypocritical in light of her gutless response to her administration’s gutless response to so many humanitarian calamities in the world today? After all, Power is the one who praised various bureaucrats in the European Bureau in the State Department for resigning in protest over the George H.W. Bush’s administration’s policies and inactions in relation to the former Yugoslavia, and then essentially challenged others to do the same if they had any guts or integrity (p. 315). At the same time, she called out the bureaucrats in the Clinton Administration’s Africa Bureau in the State Department for their quiescent response to the unfolding genocidal tragedy in Rwanda in 1994 (and rightly so).

In regard to the last point, in addressing how the U.S. responded to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Power commented as follows in an interview with Frontline (2003):

[The Africanists in the Africa Bureau in the State Department] had no expectation once the killing started in Rwanda that either [a] response or the shame over a non-response would be any different. From their standpoint, it’s Africans dying, and that has not ranked in U.S. foreign policymaking…

...So I think that’s one factor [for their quiescence]—a lack of confidence that the subject would be taken seriously. Then part of it was a lack of familiarity with playing with the big boys, a lack of experience in working the bureaucracy and in putting something on the policy radar; figuring how to leak, how to use the media; how to resign; taking yourself and your own emotions and ethics seriously enough and believing that you matter enough as an individual that something like a resignation would actually cause anybody about to care” (n.p).

So, what is Power’s excuse for not adhering to her own advice in relation the Obama administration’s sordid folly in relation to Syria? As professor of political science and scholar of genocide studies, Herb Hirsch, trenchantly comments, “Apparently, it is easier to ask others to resign. However, when confronted with her moment to demonstrate the courage of her convictions she hesitates and dissembles.”

When Roig-Franzia does mention her critics’ dismay over the fact that she has failed to take a hard-nosed stand in regard to many human rights disasters, Power glibly throws outs such gems as this: “‘Much of it is beyond your control ‚Äî no matter what ‚Äî because it’s the world and whether the world cooperates,’ she says one morning in New York. ‘If you’re scripting what we should do as a country, there are other people on the other side of that script’” (quoted in Roig-Franzia, 2014, n.p.). Beyond Ms. Power’s control to raise absolute hell and resign in protest? Seemingly, she does not have the gumption, or integrity, to act on the challenges that she (cavalierly?) threw down gauntlet-like a whole host of her predecessors in government. Not exactly a shining example of fearless, let alone integrity.

While Roig-Franzia, to his credit, does raise some touchy issues, and even includes a negative comment about Power’s efforts by one Elliot Abrams (who is not exactly a shining light when it comes to issues of the protection of international human rights, and that is a gross understatement), he (Roig-Franzia) generally lets Power off the hook by commenting on her protean facial expressions or allowing her to get away with “at-the-ready” and “off-the-hip” quips. For example, seemingly, and conveniently, forgetting her own scorching criticism of past presidential administrations for their wishy-washy efforts sans force in the face of horrific human rights calamities, Power lightly excuses her highly similar approach with the following: “I’m sure for some who counted on me to end the war in Syria within my first semester here,” she says one afternoon at her New York office, pausing to chuckle, “I’m sure I’ve disappointed” (quoted in Roig-Franzia, 2014, n.p.). One can be sure that Syrian citizens were not chuckling as the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad regime tortured and killed men, women and children at will back in 2009, and then watched in horror as the numbers of dead inexorably rose from 150 to 500 to 1,000 to 20,000 to 80,000 to 130,000 to over 200,000 as the United States engaged in half-baked diplomacy (words, words, and more words) and literally did nothing more to stanch the torture and killing.

When Roig-Franzia interviewed me (Totten) on the phone as he prepared to write his article for The Washington Post Magazine, he asked me (and this is a rough paraphrase): “What is your opinion of Samantha Power’s efforts in her various positions in the Obama administration?” My response (and again, this is a rough paraphrase) was along the following lines: “Not much, really. When she headed up the Atrocity Prevention Board, nothing concrete seemingly got done, and that was despite the fact that the killing in Syria grew exponentially each and every month during her tenure in that position. And that was not the only disaster in the making. Indeed, there was also Darfur, on which she largely built her public persona in the early 2000s and over which she raised absolute hell about. Power has largely been quiet as it has unraveled over the past four years. Then, when she became the U.S. Ambassador to the UN and made a trip to the Central African Republic, she got off the plane, quickly looked around, made a grand pronouncement, got back on her plane, and pretty much left it at that as the massacres of innocents continued unabated.” A bit indignant, Roig-Franzia countered, “I was with her on the trip, and it was courageous of her to go there” (again, I am paraphrasing). “Maybe,” I said, dubiously, “but what has she done since?” Ultimately, he chose not to include my criticism of Power.

More recently, and in a much more balanced article in The New Yorker (“In the Land of the Possible: Samantha Power Has the President’s Ear. To What End?” Evan Osnos provides a telling example how Power attempts to now distance herself from Power the activist: “When Power visited Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, he consulted a page of notes marked with a highlighter. She recalled, ‘Everything I’d ever written had just been pulled out and reduced, basically, to the things in my search that were the most cringe-worthy, things that you’d just say out of the corner of your mouth in a church basement somewhere, or whatever—they’re not your considered view’” (quoted in Osnos, 2014, n.p.). Her glib comment cum spin is bound to move at least some to call into question the sincerity of anything she says. Indeed, for one, Herb Hirsch makes the insightful comment that “Traveling somewhere as a protected diplomat does not demonstrate the same level of courage demonstrated by a physician with Doctors without Borders who is on the ground treating patients. Power’s was largely symbolic, the doctor’s substantive, which is a reflection of U.S. policy toward genocide, it’s symbolic.”

Osonos provides many other examples of Power’s talent at spin, including the following: “Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, asked her to explain what she meant, in a 2003 essay in The New Republic, when she called for ‘a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored or permitted by the United States.’ Power disavowed the piece, saying that she ‘probably very much overstated the case,’ and adding, ‘This country is the greatest country on earth.’” What else, one has to wonder, does she disavow from her days as the genocide chick? Again, who is this woman, and how much can one believe of what she utters with such passion and ostensible conviction? Not to be mean-spirited, but at times her glibness and spin suggest that her efforts, both as a former activist and now as a high profile bureaucrat, have been more about self-promotion than anything else.

This is not to say that Power has failed to speak up about matters of great import. She has, time and again. For example, in his article Osnos (2014) quotes Jake Sullivan, who served as Vice-President Joe Biden’s national-security adviser, as asserting that “‘More than other individual actors, Samantha is somebody who will encourage, cajole, push, and prod the whole system: State Department, Treasury Department, Defense Department’.” (n.p.). She’s a talker. One has to give her that. And what she talks about is often important, even critical. But talk, talk and more talk rarely results in concrete action. She knows that. But, unlike those years when she was highly indignant over all the talk and no action, she seemingly cannot locate the gumption today to act on the very advice that she gave past U.S. bureaucrats: Make a stink. Go Public. Be heard. Resign in protest.

In a commencement speech at Santa Clara Law School on May 20, 2006, Power explained what motivated her to write her now famous book, “The Problem from Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide. “We had invaded Iraq, which was falling to bits; our soldiers and guards had been revealed to be torturing detainees and, despite the pattern of abuse, only minor ‘bad apples’ were being punished; and the Sudanese province of Darfur was on fire, literally, and nobody was doing a damn thing about it.” Again, and I apologize for being redundant, but such indignant descriptions of previous presidential administrations closely resemble, do they not, the Obama administration’s lack of action today in relation to the nightmare in Iraq and Syria, the unraveling of Darfur where the villages of black Africans continue to be attacked and innocent civilians are killed at will by GoS troops, and the Nuba Mountains disaster where civilians are daily targets of the Government of Sudan’s aerial bombings? Indeed, one must ask: Couldn’t the crux of Power’s complaints of past presidential administrations, ironically and eerily, apply equally to her own and Obama’s reaction to the madness being perpetrated today in Nigeria by Boko Haram? Not to mention a host of other humanitarian disasters. As Yogi Berra would put it, “Déjå vu, all over again.” Does Power realize that? Is she that reflective? It’s really hard to tell.

Now that Power is “one of them,” it appears that she is not about to raise hell, not about to “call out” her superiors in public, and certainly not about to resign in protest over the anemic, confused and totally inept responses by her administration to today’s human rights tragedies across the globe. A sad commentary, is it not?


Osnos, Evan (2014). “In the Land of the Possible: Samantha Power Has the President’s Ear. To What End?” The New Yorker. December 22. Accessed at: New Yorker

PBS (2003). “Interview: Samantha Power. Ghosts of Rwanda.” Frontline. December 16. Accessed at: PBS.org

Power, Samantha (2001). “A Problem from Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide. New York: Harper Perennial.

Roig-Franzia, Manuel (2014). “Samantha Power: Learning to Play the Diplomat’s Game.” The Washington Post Magazine. April 4. Accessed at: Washington Post

Samuel Totten -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Samuel Totten, a genocide scholar at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has conducted research in the Nuba Mountains. His latest book, Genocide by Attrition: The Nuba Mountains, Sudan

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