Samantha Power

By Dante Ramos
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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IN HER most influential book, Samantha Power’s sympathies lay with the “screamers’’ — the policy makers of the past who tried desperately but fruitlessly to bring US power to bear against genocide in places like Cambodia and the Balkans. Power, 40, is now a top National Security Council aide, but she made her name as a journalist documenting the horrors of Bosnia. Her reporting then, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,’’ spoke to the moral urgency of stopping madmen from killing people. If news reports in recent days are any indication, she’s making that argument persuasively behind the scenes.

Along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Power is being credited (or blamed) with convincing President Obama to start bombing Libya to thwart air attacks by dictator Moammar Khadafy against rebels. And for all the predictable boys-versus-girls commentary about how three powerful women prevailed over more skeptical men, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the more relevant distinction is that Rice and Power, at least, were more profoundly influenced by the bloody massacres of the ’90s. Rice, a former Bill Clinton aide, has expressed regrets — in a magazine piece by Power, no less — for not doing more to stop the Rwandan genocide.

Power’s path to public office hardly seems foreordained. An Irish-born Yale graduate, she reported from Bosnia for a number of publications, including the Globe, and later took up a post at the Kennedy School. Obama, then a senator, cultivated her as an adviser, but her transition into the policy world wasn’t a painless one. In 2008, she infamously referred to Hillary Clinton, then Obama’s rival, as a “monster’’ — which helps explain why, after Obama made Clinton his secretary of state, Power ended up in a different agency.

And while she’s still being put forth as a moral conscience for the administration, the lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda aren’t so easy to apply. One reason the bloodletting in those cases seemed so horrifying was that, back then, America’s capacity to stop it seemed all but limitless; now, the military looks overextended. And while the violence in Libya is a dictator’s brutal way of keeping power, it’s not the systematic campaign of murder that Power witnessed in the Balkans.

Power’s work shows that it’s been all too easy for American leaders to find reasons not to save people in danger. After surveying decades of US inaction in the face of multiple humanitarian crises, she asked, “how can something so clear in retrospect become so muddled at the time by rationalizations, institutional constraints, and a lack of imagination? How can it be that those who fight on behalf of those principles are the ones deemed unreasonable?’’

If Obama’s Libyan intervention goes awry, Power might soon be learning the answers to those questions.