Samantha Power at UN evokes 'Camelot' and may be 'friend of Israel'

Samantha Power, President Obama's nominee for UN ambassador has already picked up serious pro-Israel and Jewish support, defying critics.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Samantha Power, nominated to be the new Ambassador to the United Nations speaks about her appointment after President Obama made his announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday.

It may be that Samantha Power, President Obama’s unusual nominee for UN ambassador, won’t necessarily face a high-voltage confirmation hearing to decide if she is sufficiently pro-Israel to represent the US in New York.

Since getting the nod from Mr. Obama on Wednesday, a 2002 video interview with Ms. Power has been interpreted as "anti-Israel" in nature, something that has brought the sound of knives sharpening in Washington. 

But Power has apparently already earned some pro-Israel backing that may stymie efforts to turn her Senate hearing into a searing fight. The Jewish Daily Forward says she is supported by prominent Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League and pro-Israel figures like Alan Dershowitz. Power also is supported across the aisle by mainstream Senate Republicans like John McCain of Arizona.  

She also quickly picked up the endorsement of the pro-Israel, pro-peace "J-Street" movement, largely populated by younger American Jews who want far more amicable relations with Palestinians than the current Israeli government is offering. 

Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," is a former Bosnia war correspondent and Harvard professor of human rights who combines enough intellect and glamor to lend a certain Camelot quality to her UN nomination and potential ambassadorship. 

She is a longtime confident of Obama, and helped him edit “Dreams from My Father." A striking figure with dramatic red hair, she traveled with actor George Clooney to Darfur, and as a National Security Agency staffer strove to be the foreign policy conscience of the first-term administration. 

She helped finalize Obama's Nobel acceptance speech and was an early lone voice in the push to assist the French and British in air strikes on Libya so as to avoid a bloodbath in Benghazi, but also to stop Col. Qaddafi from killing the nascent Arab Spring.

She is one voice among many on the Obama team, part of the "idealists" as distinct from the "realists" – and as a UN ambassador in New York, doesn't sit in daily proximity to the president. 

Much of the anti-Power knife-sharpening centers on a YouTube video titled "Obama Advisor Samantha Power Calls for Invasion of Israel." Yet in the discussion, which starts with a hypothetical question to Power about a genocide against either Palestinians or Israelis, no use of the word "invasion" takes place. 

Still, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) this week stated that the "overwhelming evidence of [Power's] entire record causes us great fear and concern as to her appropriateness...." 

The attacks on Power, as an aide to Obama, are nothing new. Nor are the defenses of her. On Dec. 4, 2008, Martin Peretz, owner of The New Republic and who has fairly serious credentials as an ardent advocate of Israel, titled his column, "Samantha Power is a Friend of Israel." At the time, Power also got a robust pro-Israel defense from Wall Street Journal columnist Max Boot. 

Mr. Peretz called the attacks by the ZOA at the time "hysterical," and pointed out that while he didn't agree with everything Power said, that she loved Israel and that the state "appealed to both her ecstatic imagination and to her understanding of the gravity of the world."  

Power's work on genocide entertains ideas that forms of military intervention should be considered in cases of mass extermination of human beings. But those who want to paint her as a wild-eyed do-gooder often omit that she, like Obama, opposed the Iraq war and many another intervention.

In an early memo to the Obama team, she described Iraq as “the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy” and, as that war become increasingly unpopular, pointed out that “Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced and even naïve.”

In earlier phases of her career, Power exercised many of her free speech rights and the kind of open thinking that journalists and professors often engage in when they aren’t thinking about political consequences in a narrower Washington-based game. 

During the 2008 campaign, on a trip to the UK, Power spoke of presidential candidate Hilary Clinton as a “monster.” The comment came as Obama was rising in the polls and both Clintons appeared as if they were prepared to play the race card, something considered beyond the pale for Democrats with civil rights credentials.

But Power has made peace with Ms. Clinton, and she has spent considerable time working with influential American Jews and other friends of Israel. 

Beyond the politicking and jockeying, and beyond her easier sell to younger "J-street generation" Jews, there may even be principled reasons for supporters of Israel to appreciate some of Power's underlying views.

The survivors of the Holocaust have been unparalleled in asking humanity not to forget mass crimes. Their cry for decades has been, “Never again.”

Part of the understanding of "interventionists" like Power, who cut their teeth as witnesses to the Bosnia bloodletting, was that the lack of diplomatic resolve, delay, and double talk, and the willingness to merely watch as grandmothers and five-year old were shot with high-powered rifles on the streets of Sarajevo, a European city -- fundamentally betrayed the crucial lessons of Aushwitz and the Shoah, and the post-war project of peace and civic values. Power in much of her work has advocated the values of “Never again.”

In the Balkans, in Rwanda, and later in Darfur, Power witnessed what genocide looks like up close. That visceral reaction has been a shaping force.

So when Power, as a professor and founder of a human rights center at Harvard, was asked a "hypothetical question" in 2002 on public TV in Berkeley, Calif. about her position should Palestinians or Israeli find themselves the target of genocide, it is unsurprising that she should want to stop a genocide.

If confirmed, Power will replace current UN ambassador Susan Rice. In 2001, Ms. Rice gave an interview to Atlantic magazine about visiting Rwanda after the mostly Hutu genocide of Tutsis, when more than a million people were brutally killed on the streets and in their homes. In the piece titled “Bystanders to Genocide,” Rice admitted that after visiting the scenes of the mass killing she had profound feelings of aversion and vowed to try and stop future instances. The author of that Atlantic piece was Samantha Power.

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