Plenty of issues to chase for former Obama adviser

by Carlin Romano

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

9 April 2008


They did the “Monster Mash” last month—the world’s media, that is—and the mashee was Samantha Power, forced to resign as Barack Obama’s senior foreign-policy adviser after using the “M” word to describe Hillary Clinton.

But if you think the brilliant 37-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor and author of the newly published “Chasing the Flame” (Penguin) immediately ditched her breakneck schedule of foreign policy talks and book-tour interviews to self-flagellate somewhere, think again.

cover art

Chasing the Flame

Samantha Power

Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World


One doesn’t get to Samantha Power’s place in the world by crumpling when the soundbite culture bites you. While the Irish-born redhead who emigrated to Pittsburgh with her parents at age 9 is both contrite and explanatory about the incident, she’s still talking a mile a minute—not only about her remark heard round the world, but about China, Tibet, the Olympics, Darfur, Iraq, and, yes, her respect for Hillary Clinton.

“Would I campaign for her if she ever wanted me to campaign for her?” says Power, asked if she’d hit the trail if Clinton won the nomination. “I would campaign for her to the heavens. I would campaign for her absolutely.”

This vote, Power stresses, “is the most important election of my lifetime,” and “the important thing is that a Democrat wins, that we get out of Iraq responsibly.”

Does she still hope to work for Senator or President Obama?

“If he won and he ever wanted me back in some fashion,” she says, “if I could just do a teeney-weeney bit of good for somebody of his vision and gifts, if I could move the dial of American foreign policy one one-hundreth of a millimeter ...”

That’s a yes.

How about working for a President Hillary Clinton?

“The short answer,” Power says, “is I’d be honored to work either for Senator Clinton or Senator Obama. And if Senator Clinton wanted me to work for her, I would really do it in a flash. It would just be a question of finding something that made sense, that I could actually be useful at doing.”

Squeezing in an interview between a flight from Boston and commitments in Chicago and New Orleans, Power never takes off her coat as she talks in an empty private dining room of the Loews Regency Hotel.

Every once in a while, her cell phone rings. She ignores it, concentrating, understandably, on the words coming out of her mouth.

Because it’s clear that Power, a Harvard Law School grad and former journalist who established her reputation with “A Problem From Hell” (2002)—a critical look at America’s failure to act against genocides around the world that won major book prizes—has learned that her down-to-earth talking style can implode, and “it’s going to take awhile for people to not associate me with that comment.”

The “comment” came in an interview with The Scotsman. Power, thinking she was off the record, described Clinton as a “monster” who would “do anything to win.”

As soon as her comment became public, Power, knowing it clashed with the campaign tone Obama wants, e-mailed him. He called her the next day. “By mutual agreement,” she says, she resigned.

“Right now, I just miss the team—I really miss the work,” she says of her 14 months as an unpaid adviser. “The most rewarding experience of my entire career, by far, has been working on this campaign and believing in someone in the way I have believed in Sen. Obama.”

Given the fallout from her remark, Power says she doesn’t want to go on the record about the Scotsman interview. She’s afraid she’ll sound as if she’s trying to justify a word she shouldn’t have said in the first place.

“Obviously I was deeply ashamed, as a teacher, as somebody who preaches tolerance and so forth, to have this thing taken as the sum of my view,” says Power. Since then, Power has emphasized her respect for Clinton.

Yet it’s clear from what Power says on the record that the Red Sox fanatic remains deeply frustrated over how the brouhaha played out. Americans, she notes, “don’t talk like political robots,” and neither does she.

“It was the kind of thing you say at a baseball game about Alex Rodriguez,” Power observes. “It’s not a thing that you mean about a human being.”

Power also explains that her reported comment at a recent Columbia Law School appearance—that it made sense for her “to step aside at least for a while”—was poorly phrased. She says there’s no “subterranean arrangement” between her and Obama that she’ll return later to his team.

Yet listening to Power talk fluently on world affairs also reminds one of why Obama brought her aboard in the first place, having requested a meeting in 2005 after reading “A Problem From Hell.”

She is resolutely “not an ideologue,” Power asserts. Her views on world crises repeatedly return to cost-benefit analyses-whether policy will achieve goals.

That’s one reason she wrote “Chasing the Flame,” subtitled “Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.” For Power, Vieira de Mello, the dashing U.N. special envoy killed in 2003 by a suicide bomber in Baghdad, exemplified the ability of veteran diplomats to make the best of intractable global situations.

So, too, says Power, she thinks pragmatically about world problems. In regard to China’s activities in Tibet and Sudan, she considers “linkage” to the Olympics “reasonable,” and favors “sustained diplomatic pressure.” But not a boycott, because she believes it wouldn’t extract concessions.

Even in regard to Darfur, this activist once referred to by others as the “genocide chick,” a self-described “humanitarian hawk,” opposes U.S. military intervention. She says she cares far more about the “human consequences” of policy than applying “genocide” as a label. She “can’t think of anyplace” in the world today where U.S. military intervention is warranted.

“The only thing worse than mass atrocity against the people of Darfur,” she says, “is mass atrocity plus jihad”—that is, an influx of terrorists, a la Iraq.

Now sadly aware that she “can’t speak for Obama in the way that I would have a few weeks ago, even in conveying his positions,” Power doesn’t think her “getting into trouble, or needing to resign from the campaign, somehow is an indictment of politics,” she concludes. “I shouldn’t have said something hateful. To me, that’s the lesson. And it’s one I didn’t think I had to learn.”

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