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Washington Post: Power vs Power

Published July 20, 2013 1:01 am

The Washington Post
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Samantha Power, author, wrote the book on "America's toleration of unspeakable atrocities." So it was poignant this week to hear Samantha Power, ambassador-designate to the United Nations, hewing, with regard to U.S. policy in Syria, to the toleration playbook she had described with such clarity in her book " 'A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide."

To be clear: We think the Senate should promptly confirm Ms. Power as U.N. ambassador. She has been a powerful voice for human rights, and she will be an effective advocate of U.S. interests, as President Obama defines them. She is not responsible for the passivity he has chosen in the face of what Ms. Power called, during her confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "the grotesque atrocities being carried out by the Assad regime."

In her study of past atrocities, Ms. Power asked: "Why does the United States stand so idly by?" Governments often claim, falsely, not to know what is happening, she wrote. They also pretend to have little influence, when even "small or belated steps" could save hundreds of thousands of lives. The complexities that Mr. Obama cites as unique reasons not to intervene in Syria are present in most cases, Ms. Power showed: The opposition is imperfect; the options for action, even more so. Battlefield reporting is murky.

The real problem, she wrote in 2002, has been "a lack of will," with administrations generally having two objectives: avoiding engagement and avoiding "the moral stigma" associated with allowing atrocities to take place.

"We see the failure of the U.N. Security Council to respond to the slaughter in Syria - a disgrace that history will judge harshly," Ms. Power testified this week. But as Ms. Power the author wrote, "America's leadership will be indispensable in encouraging . . . international institutions to step up." The Security Council is not some inscrutable, independent actor. It is a collection of nations - most notably, in this instance, the United States and Russia - acting in what they perceive as their interests. Russia will not abandon its ally, dictator Bashar Assad, unless President Vladimir Putin believes Mr. Assad is doomed. And Mr. Assad's downfall seems increasingly unlikely unless the United States provides more assistance to the Syrian opposition than Mr. Obama has favored so far.

The war in Syria is not, strictly speaking, a genocide, the subject of Ms. Power's book. It is, however, a one-sided fight that began as a peaceful, pro-democracy uprising and has turned into a "slaughter," as Ms. Power aptly said, of more than 100,000 people, many killed by Mr. Assad's indiscriminate use of missiles and air power, with millions more displaced from their homes. "One of the most devastating cases of mass atrocity that I have ever seen," she said.

We hope she will work from within to keep Syria from serving as the first chapter of a sequel that she might someday write.