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
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
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
"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,"
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
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
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