Liz O'Donnell: Washington better get ready for a radical at the top table
Published 11/06/2013 | 17:00
HUMAN rights defenders will rejoice at US President Barack Obama's nomination of Irish-born Samantha Power to the post of US Ambassador to the United Nations.
A self-proclaimed "humanitarian hawk", her reputation is well established when it comes to the collective response to human rights abuses and mass atrocities.
She is a strong advocate for early military intervention to prevent genocide. Her critics call her approach cavalier.
Her beliefs are carved from direct experience, having witnessed the horrors of war and genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s as a journalist.
That war was striking for its savagery, rape and mass killings, the account of which is still being played out in the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. In that case, the UN hesitated for far too long to prevent mass atrocity. But that reluctance to intervene is a regrettable feature of the United Nations.
Madeleine Albright, in her memoir, states the failure of the international community to intervene in Rwanda, when over 800,000 people were slaughtered in a genocide that lasted 100 days, was the greatest regret of her career. Similar regrets inform the views of Susan Rice, Mr Obama's newly appointed National Security Adviser, who served in the Clinton administration at the time.
Ms Albright was then US Envoy to the United Nations, a post she held before taking up the post of US Secretary of State in Mr Clinton's second term.
So, how significant are these two key appointments to US foreign policy?
The critical international challenge facing the United Nations is the on-going civil war in Syria, which has cost the lives of over 80,000 people with reported human rights abuses on both sides.
The EU is hopelessly divided, having recently failed to reach agreement on providing arms to the rebel forces. Meanwhile, Russia is providing missiles to the Assad regime and protecting its assets in Syria with the presence of a fleet of navy ships in the Mediterranean at Tartous. Peace talks are not materialising. The UN, as usual, is playing the waiting game.
And the war is getting fiercer and its reach more ominous. It is reported that over 1,000 Hezbollah fighters helped rout the rebels from the town of Qusair, restoring the town to government control.
Last week, the UN Security Council moved to prevent the disintegration of the UN observer mission deployed along the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The skirmishes and advances around the Golan Heights border crossing prompted Austria, the major contributor to the UN mission, to state it would withdraw its troops from the force, which would be a major blow.
The concern is that Israel would, in the absence of peacekeepers, advance into Syria to create a buffer zone to prevent the conflict spilling into the Golan Heights where 20,000 of its citizens live.
This is a massive humanitarian disaster. It is expected that half of Syria's population of 23 million will need food aid to the tune of $5bn (€3.7bn) by the end of this year.
The UN figures for refugees are at 1.6 million and expected to rise to 3.45 million seeking refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Up to seven million are internally displaced. There is a view that conditions are rife for outside military intervention to protect civilians.
Ms Power is a Pulitzer-winning writer and Harvard Academic.
Her seminal work, 'A Problem from Hell', a tirade against the moral shortcomings of the US response to genocide in the 20th Century, inspired Mr Obama to hire her in 2005 on his campaign.
Her second book, 'Chasing the Flame', reviews the success and failures of the UN in responding to human security emergencies, through the eyes of UN official Sergio de Mello, who died in the 2003 UN compound bombing in Iraq.
Ms Power's strong belief is that major states have a responsibility to protect vulnerable masses of people, examining "every tool in the toolbox" (diplomatic, economic, political and military) to respond to mass atrocity.
Mr Obama is said to be a "cautious realist" and recent opinion polls show no public appetite for further foreign engagements. There will be forces who will seek to prevent her appointment, which must be confirmed by the Senate. She will need to ingratiate herself with Israel.
Her key role in the Libyan intervention and her already expressed support on arming Syrian rebels will be a lightning rod for opponents of Mr Obama's foreign policy.
Intervening in a murky and unpredictable civil war is loaded with dangers for the United States.
Ms Power's hawkish humanitarian ideals, while desperately needed at the highest level of global leadership, will influence but not decide policy. Ultimately, that falls to the president. Uneasy is the head that wears a crown.