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AN ACTIVIST HUNGRY FOR HUMANITY
A study of genocide by the Harvard lawyer and journalist was used to justify war in Iraq. Paige Williams finds her undeterred and still trying to improve US foreign policy on human rights
  

FT WEEKEND MAGAZINE -
LUNCH WITH THE FT, SAMANTHA POWER
By Paige Williams, Financial Times
London, UK, March 13/March 14, 2004, W3

One of Samantha Power's favourite lunch spots is a place off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Casablanca. Decorated with 20ft murals of the movie, Bogart and Bergman gaze with melancholy at diners digging into their seared cod and mixed greens.

The theme has echoes of Hitler and of Hollywood, which resonate because Power's seminal writings on war and human rights have made her a celebrity favoured by the American left.

Heads turn as she strides past Bogey and Bergman and slides into a banquette. Power seems not to notice. She is so focused that I'm a little surprised she has not come dressed like a distracted professor (she lectures in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government). She wears a stylish leather coat, black slacks and a starched, striped muslin shirt with a silver and turquoise necklace. Long and lean, she has intense blue eyes and voluminous auburn hair. With a fedora she might look a little like Bergman, but with freckles.

Samantha Power, Financial Times, March 13/14, 2004
(Click on image to enlarge it)

She is equally distinguished in accomplishment. Over-achievement is "de rigueur" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but rarely does it come so globally at the age of 33. In her best-selling book of 2002, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," Power chronicled the role of the US in the history of genocide. The book criticises America's record of passivity in the face of international slaughter and has become required reading for anyone hoping to strengthen US foreign policy on human rights.

Power pushes the issue as founding executive director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard, where her obsessive tendencies have not gone unnoticed. (When she was working on the book she would crank the heat up to 80 deg F during the day so she could stay warm while she worked late into the night.)

Yet lately, to her dismay, she has been at risk of being interpreted as a bit more hawk than dove - of being appropriated to justify President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. She cringes at the idea.

"But, wait - food," Power says. "Let's get that out of the way."

She opens the menu. She is fond of the bluefish, but what she calls the "chicken roll" suddenly looks good: grilled, lemon-marinated chicken on a homemade pitta roll with feta. It comes with mixed greens in lemon vinaigrette. The bluefish cake, on the other hand, is made with shallots, creamy mustard and parsley.

"What do you think?" Power, ever the reporter, asks the server - who says she would go for the bluefish, but it doesn't come with mixed greens. Power orders the chicken and hands over the menu.

"No wait," she says. "You know what? I'll have the bluefish and the mixed greens." No appetiser? No wine?

"Diet Coke," Power says, yawning. "Wine would put me right to sleep. I was up until 3am." This makes her smile, almost shyly, and Power is not a shy woman.

Upon graduating from Yale University she went as a freelance reporter to cover the war in Bosnia. When her articles for The Boston Globe and The Washington Post failed to prompt a satisfactory US response, she decided to obtain a law degree in the hope of answering a question: why does the US consistently do so little to prevent genocide (Bosnia, Iraq, Cambodia, the Holocaust, Armenia)? After graduating from Harvard Law School she decided to answer the question and went into a mode that friends describe as "all genocide, all the time".

She spent six years researching and writing the book, which was rejected by almost every leading publishing house in Manhattan, before becoming the first acquisition of Basic Books editor Vanessa Mobley. This publishing upstart pushed it into print and on to win several of the biggest prizes in US literature, including the Pulitzer.

As Power takes a fork to her mixed greens, she says she has just agreed a new two-book deal with Mobley and Henry Holt and Company of New York. One book involves the lessons of German philosopher Hannah Arendt, the other the consequences of amnesia in US foreign policy. Neither is likely to trigger the rightwing appropriation that Power is experiencing with the genocide book, which will probably be a relief.

"It causes me great discomfort when my book is read in its most narrow sense, which is that, 'The United States should intervene militarily when it feels like it'," she says. She puts down her fork. "I mean, the book is the furthest thing from a plea for American military intervention, and certainly for unilateral military intervention on a whim or on a subjective set of excuses and justifications. It's not even about genocide. It's about are we injecting concern for foreign life, for human life, into our foreign policy as a matter of course and not as a fluke matter of convergence with national interests? And the answer remains no." Up comes the fork again.

Power has a husky voice that every now and then reveals a flicker of her native Dublin. She moved to the US when she was nine and credits her mother and stepfather (her father died when she was very young) with an intellectually supportive and stimulating childhood.

"My mother is epic," she says. "She played at Wimbledon, she has a PhD in biochemistry, she's a kidney transplant doctor, and she's hilarious - she's taking film classes and patching people up and running the New York marathon. Epic, truly. And also a great friend."

Power is hyper-articulate, and unhesitant in her delivery, which gives me a chance to work on the grilled pear salad. She is also fiercely accommodating of the tape recorder under her nose and doesn't knock it over once, even though she speaks with her hands: twisting and turning as though wringing out a point, this one being that the US should have intervened in Iraq not last year but in 1987-88, when Saddam Hussein's regime was exterminating an estimated 100,000 Kurds.

"I think the narrow read on my book is, 'Intervene when there is badness on the face of the earth, and if you can't get (UN) Security Council support, well, so what?'

"Having experienced a little of war in Bosnia, it is so awful that it really is something one should employ as an absolute last resort, and my criteria for military intervention - with a strong preference for multilateral intervention - is an immediate threat of large-scale loss of life. That's a standard that would have been met in Iraq in 1988, but wasn't in 2003."

The grilled bluefish came on hot oval plates with squiggled ribbons of fried onion. "Oh, could we have some bread, too, please?" Power asks. "Some of that good sesame bread? But wait, there was one other point I wanted to make.

"The war in Iraq very plainly was not about Saddam's genocide against the Kurds and human rights. It was about a perception of Saddam as a threat to very traditional American security interests. Now the so-called [WMD] security threat has been exposed as exaggerated, at best, and concocted, at worst, the only argument this administration has left for having gone to war is the human rights-democratisation-genocide argument. So they have an awful lot invested in trying to make Iraq a more humane place."

The fork comes up and starts taking apart the bluefish. The sesame bread arrives, but Power ignores it. In fact, lunch seems incidental to her. "A paradox is that I would hope I was a poster child for the integration of consideration of human rights into American foreign policy, and for the recognition that American interests will best be advanced if we do this," she says.

Other than her close friend Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian, Power is the only person I've met who can speak at such length while barely coming up for air.

She says it's critical for the US to win back some credibility, "and not be the bull in the china shop".

"Can this administration restore America's credibility?" I ask.

"No," Power says. "I don't think so."

The dessert menu arrives, but she decides not to open it. She doesn't even care for a coffee. "We're still going to have special interests no matter who's the president," she says. "We're still going to have a reluctance to subject ourselves to international law that we feel we're above. The unfortunate part of the relationship about human rights and security is that now we view the welfare of foreign citizens as valuable and relevant only in so far as it advances our security."

Power is sliding out of the banquette and into her leather coat. She has a student's paper to read before their 2.30 pm meeting, which was two minutes ago.

Later, long after Casablanca has closed, I stop by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and run into someone who says of Power, "She's brilliant, just brilliant. But it's such a lost cause."

"How's that?" I ask.

"Surely she doesn't think it will ever end: man's inhumanity to man."

Probably not. But unlike most of us, that is unlikely to stop Power trying.


"A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" is published in paperback by the US by Perennial (and by Flamingo in the UK).


Financial Times, London, UK, March 13/March 14, 2004
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY
 
 

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