It only took Samantha Power a few minutes to win over her critics in the pro-Israel community and refute other challenges to her appointment as the next United States ambassador to the United Nations. By now it’s known that I have strongly supported Samantha’s nomination and that her life’s work of genocide prevention has influenced me deeply, especially her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
At her confirmation hearing last week, which I attended, Samantha made some of the most positive pro-Israel remarks on record. “The United States has no greater friend in the world than the state of Israel.” When she was later pressed by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) to address her comments on Israel from 2002, calling for the US government to possibly withdraw money from Israel and deploy troops to protect Palestinians from Israelis, Samantha made statements that we rarely hear from a public servant, let alone in such a sensitive public hearing. She repudiated her remarks from over a decade ago and humbly dismissed that interview as “rambling and remarkably incoherent.” That act of humility took the sting out of much of what was to follow. Senators were still going to ask her tough questions about policy, but much of the original hostility was gone because the average American politician knows how rare it is to hear candor and self-abnegation in a public setting.
Samantha Power is a new breed of American public servant in that she speaks her mind and can get in trouble for it. But as Senator Kane of Virginia said at the hearing, a candid and plain-spoken American Ambassador is exactly what’s needed to combat the foggy grey zones of United Nations amorality (I’m paraphrasing here). For me Samantha is a relief from the sanitized, dull political culture we have today. Politicians simply conform to partisan party lines instead of being honest. We often speak of how partisanship leaves the country mired in gridlock, and that’s true. But we overlook how it also makes the political environment a yawning bore. When I ran for Congress it’s what I hated most. Speaking your mind and following your convictions is not rewarded but punished in politics. And it’s this aspect of politics that continues to turn me off.
In addition, punishing people for previous statements and not allowing them to repudiate them means that years before an individual runs for office they are already stripped of any interesting opinion or personal convictions for fear it will come back to haunt them later.
I have no interest in someone as bright as Samantha Power changing her opinion on the Middle East to accommodate the pro-Israel community. Conviction is essential. But less so do I believe that people cannot evolve or change opinions over time, based on personal circumstances and experience.
Americans tune-out when politicians speak because they’ve lost their ability to engage the public. Even President Obama who once electrified the nation with his speeches today commands a fraction of the audiences he once garnered. Samantha has many critics. But that’s the price one pays for being a real person, not a caricature. She has emerged as the foremost anti-genocide activist because she’s travelled to war zones and witnessed human suffering firsthand. She has been seen the plight of slaughtered people across the globe and it has informed her humanitarian worldview throughout her career. And it’s this aspect of her life – standing up for human life and condemning tyrants who slaughter their people – that has earned my lasting respect.
Next week I will be taking “America’s Doctor” Mehmet Oz to Israel on his first trip to the holy land, along with his family. Right afterward I’ll be visiting Rwanda for the second time in a year. Senator Marco Rubio asked Samantha to address her comments when she was a Harvard professor in 2003 about America’s “sins.” In her answer many felt she was evasive. But while I agree with Samantha that America is the “greatest country in the world… America is the light,” there is no question that we blew it completely in Rwanda.
To be sure, I do not believe in America being globocop. We can’t expend the lives of our selfless soldiers and endless national treasure to stop every human rights abuse in the world. But neither can we ignore the most egregious violations, of which Rwanda was the worst in the past 20 years. Stopping the genocide there would have necessitated only minimal involvement from the United States and other Western nations. But we remained inactive throughout the duration of a slaughter that took nearly one million lives.
Rwanda currently holds the Africa seat on the UN Security Council, something that Israel has unjustly never been allowed to do and Samantha committed to fight for Israel to obtain a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and combat the “unacceptable bias” against Israel at the U.N.
To be sure, Samantha still needs to prove herself in policy, not just in words and gestures. But it is my firm belief that she will bring her life’s work of human rights and genocide prevention to a body that protects dictators and makes a mockery of human rights, and will hold governments that slaughter their people accountable. She will make sure that rogue regimes pay a price for the oppression of innocent citizens while challenging the doublespeak and misplaced ethics that has characterized the United Nations in recent history.
The confirmation process, it turns out, has been the easy part. Changing an entrenched UN culture of amorality will be Samantha’s real challenge.