Interview with Samantha Power
Samantha Power is a Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for general non-fiction, and the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Prize for the best book in U.S. foreign policy. Power’s New Yorker article on the horrors in Darfur, Sudan won the 2005 National Magazine Award for best reporting. Power was the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy (1998-2002). From 1993-1996, Power covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a reporter for the U.S. News and World Report, the Boston Globe, and the Economist. She is currently writing a political biography of the UN's Sergio Vieira de Mello, while working as a foreign policy fellow in the office of U.S. Senator Barack Obama. She sat down with Citizens for Global Solutions’ Press Secretary Michael Shank for this interview.
The Bush Administration finally got involved in Darfur, almost two years after calling it Genocide. What was the trigger to get them involved?
With every passing day the domestic constituency gets bigger and more vocal in this country. So for the first year there was almost no constituency, almost no pressure. There was no Kristof, there was no John Prendergast, there was no Ruth Messinger.
Then these remarkable gatekeepers showed up and put the issue before the public. And slowly but surely the campuses, combined with Jewish groups, combined with Human Rights groups, combined with Christian groups, came together to make it clear to a number of pretty sympathetic members of Congress that this was something they needed to do something about.
Congressional pressure picked up the summer of 2004, which in turn gave rise to the use of the word genocide. So I think part of what’s happened is the domestic constituency has gotten bigger and louder with the passage of time and with the addition of people like George Clooney who broaden the base big time overnight.
But to be clear, I don’t think with all the messes this administration is managing, that it would have turned to Darfur.
Had the constituency not been there.
Yeah, without the pressure. Somebody should map it, the correlation between the policy lunges and the spikes in public pressure that have given rise to them.
What does the Peacebuilding Commission Organizational Committee need to
Creating a venue to expose the absence of political will among countries to do what is necessary to shore up states can be important…and all I can hope is that in that venue maybe you’ll have some kind of sectorial ownership.
In that venue, you would lay out all the components of nation building. And that maybe what you could get is a single nation, Italy to take policing or Canada to take transitional justice or courts…working through the sectors, and then obviously not being responsible for all the resources, but at least being responsible for mobilizing other countries’ resources.
State-led coalitions of the willing within international institutions are what we need more of. And fewer “kumbayah” sessions where you have so many people sitting around a table trying to tell everybody else what they’re doing on specific issues. Don’t read me the talking points about how much humanitarian aid you’re delivering. Here’s the protection void, for example, who’s playing? We have the leading troop contributors here, the leading financial contributors, okay, troop contributors, you need money? Money people, you don’t want to send your troops?
What are three easiest things vis-à-vis human rights that the U.S. administration can do to reaffirm its commitment?
Closing Guantanamo is an obvious, necessary step. But if we close Guantanamo, the public may say, “oh, we’ve dealt with our detention problem! We’ve closed Guantanamo.” But no, we’re still doing extraordinary rendition. There’s a systematic pattern of torture. So the high-hanging fruit that we have to grasp entails a systematic review and revamping of US detention policy. So much of what the administration has put in place since 9/11 was done in an ad hoc way in order to meet the threat of the moment. No thinking was done about the effect our detention policies would have on our standing abroad or how they linked with other decisions being made in the moment.
Second, I think the United States must change its relationship to the Millennium Development Goals. It would make an enormous difference practically and in terms of public diplomacy if we were not second-to-last among rich countries in giving aid away; if we were giving money away, investing in societies that actually don’t have anything to do with our national security. The instances where we make sacrifices strictly in order to benefit other people are so few and far between. Even our democracy rhetoric is so rooted in a story about security and how non-democracies become threats and so on.
Right, we don’t care about democracy in Burma for example.
And people around the world are keeping score. They see our inconsistencies across countries like you say, or between words and follow-through. So a very bold investment in other people; where it’s clear that it’s not about us. And it’s not about us imposing our model on the rest of the world it’s actually about investing in schools.
Imagine if an American leader said that the United States is going to be the leader on educating girls around the world no matter where they lived. Or committed itself to ending malaria and getting mosquito nets to everyone who needs one. Mosquito nets policy – it’s just not that controversial. But these kinds of things, manifestly selfless, are not what we do. And they are the kinds of things that people notice.
The further something is from our national security, the more points we get. The more people think, “oh maybe they’re not so bad after all.”
US foreign policy has been focused on Iran, Iraq primarily. What are the global hotspots that are being ignored right now on the Hill?
I think the entire continent of Africa would be at the top of the list. Burundi is an incredibly fragile transitional place where it’s got a lot of hope for the first time. Congo’s got an election coming up.
And we treat—we the world not just we the United States— elections like the finish line. Rather than what they really are, destabilizing moments where you get a window into who the stakeholders are, who the powerbrokers are. It is precisely when you’ve put in place a new structure that you have to worry about defectors and people who were excluded by voters. So our approach to Congo, which is incredibly unstable as you know, is very much about ballot boxes and not about a development strategy that follows.
So I put that high on the list. Increasingly advocates for other causes in Africa feel the need to place their story of harm in the context of Darfur. You know, “Darfur only has child mortality rates of ‘x’. In Niger we have child mortality rates of ‘y’.” They are trying to make the suffering they care about stand out.
I understand the temptation. Darfur has gathered, generated all this public interest. With that public interest has come a colossal commitment of resources and now this new political investment. So others say, “we want some of that. So how can we make ourselves seem more like Darfur?“
I think Congo and some of the countries we could shore up, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, these are hopeful stories on the continent. That’s the hopeful time that you want to come in, when you’ve got these people in place who’ve finally got the will, lack the capacity, have the chance to marginalize the perpetrators or the extremists. They have a moment and the moment doesn’t last very long. And the moment we show up for is the handover or the election. But the hard part is the actual state-building that those countries are in the midst of.
Your time on the Hill? What are your reflections?
It’s very hard to be a minority party when one party controls all branches of government. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee seems largely toothless. It is not your father’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not your mother’s. No hearings on sensitive issues and that means no meaningful oversight.
Was it disillusioning?
Yes, on the oversight front for sure. Although I don’t think I’m here at a good time. I’m here in war time, with one party in control. And you’re starting to see Republicans with their own electoral fates on the line, peeling away a little bit.
So, on the one hand, very disillusioning on the oversight front. And yet, on the Darfur side I really see the degree to which the Congress drove the Bush administration to act – or, more precisely, to react. At its best the Congress can be the megaphone for constituents when they care. The Bush administration just can’t get away with pushing Darfur aside.
But the lack of oversight is so costly. The people who make bad judgments remain in power to blunder further, and they don’t get exposed so they have no incentive to do things differently. But also we send a signal to the rest of the world that we don’t have accountability in this country. When you make colossal moral and strategic errors, you don’t have to answer for them.
When you have to test your ideas out, by definition, you are going to get your game up. You’re going to do better planning if you have to come in and be subjected to scrutiny and challenge. Accountability will create a footstep effect that will enhance efficiency. I don’t think that this administration has ever had to get its game up. There’s no cost to screwing up – even this badly.
418 7th Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-2796
Phone: (202) 546-3950 Fax: (202) 546-3749