The Irish Power behind Obama
Caitriona Palmer reports from Washington on the President's key White House lieutenant
Published 20/05/2011 | 05:00
AS a young freelance war correspondent in Bosnia in July 1995, Samantha Power called her editors at The Washington Post to urge them to publish a piece about Serbian General Ratko Mladic's advance on the Bosnia town of Srebrenica.
Several thousand miles away, Power's colleagues on the newspaper's foreign desk demurred. The very next day, Mladic took control of the town and ordered the execution of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
That experience scarred and shaped Samantha Power, and is part of the reason why the United States went to war last month with Libya.
Along with Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, the Irish-born Power - who moved to the United States from Ireland with her family when she was nine -has been identified as one of the White House advisers most responsible for urging Obama to intervene in Libya.
"She is right in the heart of this one," NBC political analyst and author Richard Wolffe told the Irish Independent. "She is one of a handful of critical voices that has shaped the response."
Since her meteoric rise from war correspondent, to Harvard academic, to White House staffer, 40-year-old Power has quietly become one of the most important and influential figures on Obama's national security team.
Her groundbreaking 2002 book, A Problem from Hell, won her the Pulitzer Prize at a fabulously young age and garnered the self-described "genocide chick" a host of influential admirers, among them Barack Obama.
In 2005, after reading a copy of Power's book, the then-Senator Obama asked to meet the academic for dinner in Washington.
The two immediately hit it off. One hour stretched into four and by the end of the meal, Power found herself offering to actually leave her prestigious professorship at Harvard to come and work for free for the up-and-coming senator.
"There's no-one else I would even seriously consider moving into a hotel room for," Power joked at the time.
A few years later Power was appointed as a foreign-policy adviser to Obama's presidential campaign but her forthright and passionate nature -- which up until then had won her influential admirers -- served as a death knell on the campaign.
In an unguarded moment with a Scottish journalist, Power referred to Obama's Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton as a "monster" and was immediately forced to resign from the campaign.
She returned to Harvard to lick her wounds but the following year was quietly reinstated as a White House adviser on foreign affairs and put to work with her old nemesis, Clinton.
An influential mentor and friend of Clinton's, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who once referred to Power as "mesmerising", brokered a reconciliation between the two women.
As senior director of multilateral affairs for the National Security Council, Power has kept a low profile since joining the White House team. Badly burned by what is now known as "monstergate" she remains guarded about talking to the press.
Flame-haired and freckled, the charismatic Power no longer shoots hoops with celebrity pal George Clooney or poses in evening dress for 'Men's Vogue', which once referred to her as a "rare Harvard brainiac".
And despite the celebrity magazine buzz about her marriage in Ireland in 2008 to fellow academic and Obama's regulatory czar, 56- year-old Cass Sunstein, the couple have maintained a low profile in Washington, particularly since the birth of their son, Declan, in April 2009.
Observers point out that a number of factors -- the fact that she is a woman, her self-imposed low profile, and a failure by the press corps to properly document or understand the dynamics in Obama's foreign policy team -- have led Washington insiders to underestimate Power's influence over the president.
"It is not surprising that they underestimate her because they'd don't really have a sense of how these debates have been playing out," said Richard Wolffe.
"I would say, based on what's been happening in the Middle East, (Power) is one of the most influential advisers that nobody ever sees or hears from."
Power's motivating philosophy -- that nations have a moral obligation to prevent genocide -- is now being directly translated into action by her boss in the Oval Office.
White House influence
Her influence could be clearly heard last month when Obama addressed the nation on why he authorised air strikes against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. "Left unchecked," he said, "we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die."
In defending the administration's decision to bomb Libya, White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross invoked the 1995 massacre that inspired Power's human rights journey and provided her with the moral compass for her book.
"We're looking at 'Srebrenica on steroids' -- the real or imminent possibility that up to a hundred-thousand people could be massacred, and that everyone would blame us for it," he said.
But Power, who despite her extraordinary success remains level-headed and self-deprecating, would be mortified to think that she alone has the president's ear, friends say.
Obama did not authorise air strikes in Libya because "Samantha rolled in with her flowing red hair and said, 'Mr. President, I stand here alone in telling you that history calls upon you to perform this act,'" Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch told 'The New York Times'.
Even greater things ...
But no matter her influence with Obama, those close to Power -- who refer to her simply as 'Sam' -- say that this Irishwoman is destined for even greater things.
Even the conservative foreign policy magazine 'The National Interest' last month grudgingly referred to Power as "the most influential journalist-turned-presidential adviser" in America since World War One.
"Perhaps Power's next destination is to become United Nations ambassador," said the magazine. "Maybe she will follow in the footsteps of Madeleine Albright and ultimately become secretary of state."
An immediate leap from the national security team to an ambassadorship or cabinet position would be unusual, said Richard Wolffe, but thus far this woman from Dublin has broken all conventional wisdom in her extraordinary rise to the top of American foreign policy.
"Does she have the capacity to do it?" asked Wolffe. "For sure."
Irish Independent Supplement