Polarising Power is on the brink of making a difference
Former war reporter is in talks aimed at eliminating Syria’s chemical arsenal
Samantha Power was in Ireland at a family reunion when the chemical attack in Syria occurred.
Nearly a year before the world woke up to images of Syrians dying in a large-scale chemical weapons attack, Samantha Power was quietly pushing US president Barack Obama for a military strike to stop what she calls the “grotesque tactics” of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. For a fleeting moment this month, it seemed she had prevailed.
Now Power, a former senior aide on the National Security Council and a former war reporter born in Ireland, must negotiate for peace in a new public role as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations.
The president’s abrupt decision not to use force in Syria has thrust her into the middle of contentious talks to create a UN Security Council resolution mandating the elimination of Assad’s chemical arsenal by the middle of next year.
She makes her diplomatic debut as Obama arrives in New York for the UN General Assembly. A woman known for her closeness to the president and the soaring prose of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, A Problem From Hell, Power is the lead American negotiator in the difficult, gritty business of arguing with the Russians, Syria’s patrons, who have already rejected the notion of using force if Assad does not comply.
Even her supporters wonder if the untested Power will be tough enough, a question with big implications. Secretary of state John Kerry will work with her on the UN resolution, but her role is so central that her performance – in her first weeks in the job – will help determine America’s future course in Syria.
“Most diplomats in a career of 40 years would never get this kind of opportunity to make such a difference at such a critical moment,” said Edward Luck, the dean of the School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego and a former senior UN adviser on peacekeeping issues. “The stakes could not be higher.”
At the UN headquarters last week Power, who turned 43 on Saturday, looked harried as she swept through the corridors with her entourage. In brief comments to reporters, she deflected questions about how she would handle Russia’s resistance to authorising the use of force if Assad refused to comply.
“We are determined to have an enforceable and binding resolution,” Power said, in the kind of bland, bureaucratic language she might have shunned as a writer for The New Yorker, which she once was. Beyond that, “I think I’m not going to comment.” She declined to be interviewed for this article.
Over the past 2½ years, as Syria descended into civil war and bloodshed, Power – who in her role in the White House in 2011 helped orchestrate the American intervention in Libya – was unable to persuade the president to do the same in Syria.
One person close to Power said she had been advocating military action at least since then, and as far back as December of last year.
The sarin gas attack of August 21st, which American intelligence agencies say killed more than 1,400 Syrians, nearly a third of them children, forced the issue on to Obama’s agenda.