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Samantha Power, new U.N. ambassador, has learned to bite her tongue

Those close to U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power say she wanted to influence the nation's choices and was willing to become a bureaucrat to do it.

August 03, 2013|By Christi Parsons
  • Before Samantha Power joined President Obama’s election campaign, she was a journalist and a human rights advocate.
Before Samantha Power joined President Obama’s election campaign,… (Win McNamee, Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Samantha Power came back from the war in Bosnia revolted by the atrocities she witnessed and convinced that world powers must intervene to stop them. Nearly two decades later, Power will shoulder that responsibility herself as President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations.

Power, 42, a journalist and activist before Obama drew her into government eight years ago, said she would try to "do what America does best: stand up against repressive regimes and promote human rights."

"I will also do everything in my power to get others to do the same," she said before the Senate voted to confirm her last week to the high-profile post.

The job comes with the challenge of persuading not only world leaders, but also her own boss. Obama has been deliberate — some say slow — about using military force to counter government brutality in Libya and Syria.

"She knows that we have to stand up for the things that we believe in," Obama said earlier this year.

People who know Power well highlight her ability to convince others of her views. "She is somebody that understands what role the U.S. can play, and she can articulate that," said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was once interviewed by Power.

Power influenced Obama's decisions to launch military action to help Libyan rebels and send military aid to opposition fighters in Syria. She said his actions were timely, but some think he moved slowly.

"My interpretation is she has had fairly minimal influence on his foreign policy," said the Cato Institute's Christopher A. Preble, a historian and defense analyst. "She has been one of those voices more supportive of military intervention, but only one of several. And there are voices barking on the other side."

Power is still driven by her experiences as a war correspondent, friends say.

She declined to be interviewed but has written and spoken extensively about her foreign reporting experiences.

When she tells the story of her devotion to American ideals, she often starts with her childhood. She admired the U.S. by the age of 9, when she emigrated from Dublin, Ireland, with her parents and younger brother. She arrived at the Pittsburgh airport wearing a stars-and-stripes T-shirt.

She grew up in Pittsburgh and Atlanta and went to Yale University. After graduation, a junior fellowship with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace turned her focus to the strife in the former Yugoslavia. At 22, she declared herself a war correspondent and traveled to Sarajevo in 1993 on a promise from a news magazine editor that he would take her collect calls.

One day in 1995, near the end of her three years in Bosnia, she heard shelling and hurried to an apartment building to find the playground devastated. Four girls had been killed while jumping rope.

The father of one, a 9-year-old, told Power between sobs that she had repeatedly begged to play outside. He relented partly because the U.S. and NATO had warned the Serbs to stop their attacks.

"I was chilled by the promise of protection that had drawn a child out of a basement and onto an exposed Sarajevan playground," Power wrote.

Shortly after, Power left the Balkans and went to Harvard Law School. A class paper turned into her 2002 book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," analyzing the U.S. record on atrocities. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, thrusting the 32-year-old author into the spotlight as a human rights advocate.

Obama, then a senator from Illinois, read her book and asked to meet with her. While still at the steak restaurant where they talked, Power decided to work on his presidential campaign.

She helped Obama craft his foreign policy platform but left the team abruptly after an impolitic comment — she had called rival Hillary Rodham Clinton a "monster" who would stoop to anything to get elected.

After Obama's election, Power joined the White House national security staff, where she emerged as a voice for U.S. intervention in humanitarian crises.

Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize offers an early view of her influence. The president handwrote the speech in a night, after a long talk with Power and other close advisors. It was a treatise on morality and warfare, praising the nonviolence of Gandhi but also the violence that stopped the Nazis.

A frequent presence in the White House Situation Room, Power didn't always argue for military action, several colleagues say, but frequently talked about the rungs on the "ladder of escalation."

Critics question whether Power has tamed her ideas to work with Obama. But those close to her put it differently: She wanted to influence the nation's choices and was willing to become a bureaucrat to do it.

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