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Samantha Power Talks About Her New Book (Interview)

"Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere."--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the charismatic Brazilian chief of the U.N. Mission to Iraq, with 21 others in a Baghdad terrorist bombing in August 2003 presaged the failure of US policy in Iraq. He suffered for several hours under tons of rubble because heroic yet poorly equipped rescuers from most powerful military in history lacked the training and equipment to free him.

Vieira de Mello left a legacy of decades of inspiring and unconventional efforts to bring peace and sanity to the most brutal war zones in recent history, including Lebanon, Cambodia, Congo, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Iraq.

Foreign policy expert Prof. Samantha Power unearths the legacy of her friend in a sweeping new biography, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (Penguin Press, 2008)—her monumental effort to understand the dashing UN diplomat’s original, “transformational” responses to the modern challenges of poverty, genocide, racism, terrorism and civil war. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called Chasing the Flame a “majestic, profoundly important book . . . the defining work for our generation.”

Power, 37, is the Anna Lindh Professor of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Her groundbreaking book "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and wide acclaim in 2003.

Power is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School. From 1993 to 1996, she covered wars in the former Yugoslavia. She remains a working journalist, reporting from such places as Burundi, East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, and contributing to the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Power also is advising on two forthcoming films about Vieira de Mello: a documentary by Greg Barker (Ghosts of Rwanda) and a feature film by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda),

Power made headlines in early March when she resigned as a senior foreign policy advisor to Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign after an unguarded, off-the-record remark to a British reporter in which she referred to Obama rival Sen. Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” Power began working with Obama in 2005 after he met with her to discuss her genocide study, "A Problem from Hell." Obama was the sole lawmaker to contact Power about the book.

Samantha Power recently sat down in Seattle for a lengthy conversation about her human rights work, her new book, her remorse for the Clinton “blunder,” and more.

Robin Lindley: More than anyone now, you’re the face of the human rights movement. Were you obsessed with peace and justice as a little girl?

Prof. Samantha Power: Not at all. I was a little brat. I played sports, and threw myself into them. I wanted to be a sports reporter or sportscaster. Perhaps, having family in Ireland, I had a more international orientation, but never with the idea I could do anything to change or even tweak the world. At no point in college at Yale did I self-identify as a human rights person or take human rights classes. I was mainly interested in my sports radio talk show and being a sports reporter.

But the [1993] images of the concentration camps in Bosnia 50 years after the Holocaust shook me out of my navel-gazing, and I said, “God, what am I doing with my life?” I’d been a journalist, and ended up being a reporter in Bosnia, where these [human rights] commitments were entrenched without me knowing it. In law school, people said you’re a human rights person because you cared about genocide in Bosnia. And I said, “I am? What does that mean?” My lowest grade in law school was in my human rights class.

RL: How did you leap from journalism to law?

SP: I was in Bosnia for two and a half years [1993-1996] and I did a lot of writing, but I was doing daily or weekly journalism where I wasn’t sinking my teeth into anything. I wasn’t breaking much in the way of new ground. I felt that I wasn’t achieving much. Srebrenica was seized just before I left [Bosnia], and men and boys in that safe area had been massacred en masse, so I didn’t have a sense of my journalism being able to make a difference.

I romanticized law [as] a more concrete tool. Yet, in law school, I started doing a deeper kind of journalism. I began ["A Problem from Hell," the genocide book], and did a long piece for the Atlantic Monthly, and started writing more for the New Republic. Law school was my day job, and I was able to spend more time on the articles I wrote: book reviews and things like that I threw myself into. I realized I was better doing journalism as a part time job, because if I was doing it as a full time job, I felt this need to continue to feed the beast, to keep producing more shallow work. I was better at journalism part time. I did one article every six months, so I could put a lot of energy and thought into the article. That’s been the pattern since then.

RL: How did you come to write the genocide book?

SP: I wrote a paper for law school on American responses to genocide. It was supposed to be a 20-page paper, and it was 80 pages, and that became the core for the genocide book. I worked on the book in my second and third year of law school, then took a year off from law school, and published it a few years after law school

RL: You’ve put yourself in harm’s way to get stories. For a 2004 New Yorker story, you met a janjaweed leader who committed atrocities in Darfur.

SP: Yes. A real monster. That’s what I hate most about my [monster] comment. I know real monsters, and it’s important to choose your words carefully.

I’m more careful now. I ask myself for every story is the possible finding worth the risk. In the case of Darfur, nobody had spent time with the head of the janjaweed, and a comprehensive article on the genocide had not been written. While there were risks, it wasn’t like going to Iraq where journalists are targeted [and] the ability to make a difference in our consciousness is very small. So I do a kind of cost-benefit analysis before I go anywhere, and tend to go where other journalists aren’t setting up shop in the hopes of adding value and new knowledge.

RL: You’ve helped bring the mass killings in Darfur to the consciousness of the country and now there’s a growing anti-genocide network.

SP: There really is. That’s a huge source of pride, and a club I want to be member of.

RL: What’s going on in Darfur now, and what should be done?

SP: It’s bad. There’s a 26,000 troop peacekeeping force authorized, and only 9,000 troops have shown up. The key is to get those extra troops who will come from countries other than the United States.

[Human rights activist John] Prendergast and Obama talk about the three P’s: protection, a high-level peace process and punishment. You’ve got to get the rest of the troops for that force. That requires high-level diplomacy potentially using US transport to move people into the region, to assist with logistics. We’ve got to launch a high-level peace process, which will require a US envoy of significant clout. And there’s got to be some kind of punishment—asset freezes or travel bans—something that makes Sudanese officials feel that they’re vulnerable, or they won’t allow that force to deploy.

Basically, we need new leadership in the United States, a President Clinton or President Obama—someone who’s out there internationally with the clout to talk through these issues and get other countries to come to our side.

In the wake of Iraq, it’ll be a long time before the United States will be doing genocide prevention or suppression. I wouldn’t recommend that we [establish] a ground presence in the Islamic world for a long time. For us to play a role in combating genocide, we’ll have to summon other countries and be credible with their leaders and also their publics. That’s true on global warming, on counterterrorism, on public health issues like SARS or avian flu.

Right now we’ve so eroded our summoning power and that’s something we’ve got to recoup not just because it will feel better for us to be less hated in the world but because, for practical reasons, if we’re going to deal with global challenges, we’ll need global standing. We should be in a hurry to recoup that, and that requires first adhering to the Constitution, and then reintegrating with the Geneva Conventions and the other international instruments that we’ve repudiated.

RL: Would you like to see the International Criminal Court become a priority?

SP: I would, but the ICC is a challenge until the United States has its house in order more than it has now.

As one who cares about seeing the ICC get off to a good start, I worry about the personnel who work for the International Criminal Court who are nervous about US ratification of the Rome Treaty because they worry that if US becomes a signatory to the treaty and involved, that countries in the developing world would assume that the ICC is a stooge of American power. The rest of the world looks and sees that the US rarely becomes part of an institution it doesn’t control; therefore it must control the ICC. And the ICC is having a hard time getting cooperation from the developing world.

It’s important as we think about the US relationship to the ICC, that we think not only about US interests and the importance of being part of international institutions, but also think about the effect on the court, and listen to court personnel about how that can be sequenced. It’s also going to take a difficult domestic conversation with the American people who have been convinced that the ICC is a threat to US soldiers, and a difficult conversation with the US military. This may take time, but in the meantime there’s a lot the US can be doing to share intelligence with the prosecutor on Congo, or on Uganda, or on Darfur—to wish it well from afar. That would be very special.

RL: I was stunned by John Bolton’s comment to the effect that he was proud of whiting-out Bill Clinton’s signature on the Rome Treaty.

SP: He said it was the best day of his life. Not an active life.

RL: Have we repaired any of the damage since Bolton’s term at the UN?

SP: I think the current US ambassador to the UN, [Zalmay] Kahlilzad, is very good. He’s the anti-Bolton. He’s an internationalist. He’s lived in these messy places like Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s really respected by other diplomats. If he thinks it’s pragmatic, he’s willing to give the UN a central role in dealing with these difficult challenges.

RL: What sparked your massive biography on UN Diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello?

SP: It began as an article. My editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Cullen Murphy, proposed this story.

Sergio was a friend, and instinctively I wouldn’t have thought of him as a great man. I brought a twentieth-century understanding of who political biographies would be written about. We write biographies about Churchill, FDR, Kennedy, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Tommy Franks, and Paul Bremer even. They’re all people affiliated with states.

As I got into Sergio’s life, I realized he’d been in many more war zones than I’d understood, and that he had negotiated with more killers than anybody in history. I thought, my God, this is the guy for now. We’re just starting to tackle these questions. It would be incredible if we could short-circuit our learning by walking in his shoes to capture that legacy.

Even in the wake of his death, we must capture all that he spent these decades learning. If we could somehow short-circuit our learning by walking in his shoes that would be incredible to capture that legacy and all that adaptation he did over those years. So that was the logic of it, and again, I never would have come up with it on my own.

Now I’m a proselytizer for books and films about twenty-first century forms of leadership. We’re still set on these twentieth-century models. Tracy Kidder did a great book on Paul Farmer [Mountains Beyond Mountains], and I view Paul Farmer, a great AIDS doctor, as someone like Sergio. I’m sure there are others. We’ve got to get into these lives, understand them, learn from them, and give our young people more modern models of what to aspire to be. And if our young people get exposed to people and movements that cross borders, they’ll be more sophisticated at how to talk across divides.

RL: You explore Vieira de Mello’s unconventional approach to conflict as he served the UN in the most brutal war zones.

SP: Sergio always went to the worst places first. In the seventies, he deals with refugee flows and wars of independence, and he’s in the thick of war. In the early eighties, he’s in Lebanon dealing with the PLO use of the UN base as a staging ground, the Israeli invasion, the birth of Hezbollah, and the attacks on US installations. Then, in Cambodia, he’s dealing with the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, and returning Cambodians to their homes. In Bosnia, he’s in the middle of a war. In Congo, just after the [Rwandan] genocide, he’s deciding what to do with the [Hutu] genocidaires. In 1999, he deals with both Kosovo and East Timor as a nation builder, a governor—much like Paul Bremer in Iraq.

I think that what makes him distinct is that he went into harm’s way at all stages of conflict, and did see conflict on a continuum, and never rested easily once a place degenerated into genocide or into a failing state. He knew there weren’t any quick fixes, so he was very adamant that we bring a longer attention span to our regard for these places. We in the States tend to focus on war torn countries only at the moment they become threats to us, and only for as long as they are seen as threats to us. Sergio saw the world as more connected than that, and was ahead of his time in seeing, as he put it in one instance, “There’s no such thing as a distant crises.”

Obama talks about common security, common humanity. We’re locked into this globe, whether it’s dealing melting icecaps or terrorists across borders or refugee flows that know no boundaries. We’ve got to pool our resources or these things will fester.

RL: And you stress Sergio’s empathy for individuals.

SP: I think my favorite scene in the book is where he treats an old Azerbaijani woman like a head of state. He asks, “What do you wish for yourself?” And she says, “I wish that I could go up into the sky, turn into a cloud, and that the cloud could travel across the sky until it’s over my land, and then that I could turn into rain and root myself in the soil of the land that I love.” Sergio talked to this woman as though she held the key to world peace. That’s very unusual. Even for people who talk a great game on human rights or humanitarian issues, very few disaggregate the human in human rights or humanitarian, and Sergio was very special in that way.

He’s not a perfect hero by any means. He [was] flawed and made mistakes about how to advance human dignity and collective security. Also, he wasn’t so good with his own family—better in some ways with strangers than with those closest to him. The regret he had later in life was that he hadn’t spent more time with his sons. Even there, he had done a lot of personal growth and by the end of his life he had really changed and was ready to pursue a new course with this young woman he was engaged to and ready to start a new family with. It’s sad he never got a chance to balance the personal and the professional.

RL: Could you talk about Vieira de Mello’s final UN assignment in Iraq in 2003?

SP: He didn’t want to go to Iraq because he didn’t think the Americans were ready to take the advice of a UN troubleshooter. Then he thought if I care about Iraq, and I care about the UN, this is the most important place in the world. So he went. He spent that summer trying to prevail upon [Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul] Bremer to give up power quickly, and to reconstitute the Iraqi army and deal with Iraqi military grievances. He failed in those efforts.

He constructed the UN headquarters [in Baghdad] as an anti-Green Zone—a place where Iraqis could file grievances and check e-mail. That made it quite porous. Al Qaeda in Iraq had a young jihadi pull a truck up right outside Sergio’s office, and a bomb went off. There were amazing individual heroic efforts [by US soldiers and Marines], but they didn’t have the equipment or the training to do an industrial rescue effort, which is what Sergio needed. The Americans were left, despite the $500 billion Pentagon budget, trying to rescue Sergio with a lady’s basket handbag and a curtain rope from a UN office that they turned into a pulley system with their bare hands, but he was pinned under thousands of pounds of rubble. They would have needed cutting equipment, plywood, an automated lifting device, and none of that had been allocated.

He was alive for three and a half hours. The most powerful military in the history of mankind was woefully unprepared to deal with large-scale terrorist attacks against civilian targets, even though that was part of Bush’s logic for the war. That haunts me more than the non-rescue.

He died like a refugee, like the stateless people he had spent his life trying to help.

RL: And the UN building in Baghdad lacked security.

SP: But again, that was willful. It’s anachronistic to project backwards and the lack of security cost Sergio his life, but there had never been an attack on a civilian target. He thought he’d be giving up his valuable intermediary role he was trying to perform if he turned the Canal Hotel [UN Headquarters] into a fortress. He saw that as a real trade off. He gambled wrong, but it would be wrong to suggest that he had missed signs that others had seen. The Red Cross was hit a few weeks later. Aid workers were being hit. The attack on the UN was a turning point and had another agency been hit first, I think he’d have made the adjustments, and still be with us. He wanted to keep his agency open to Iraqis, and that proved to be a mistake.

RL: If he had survived, do you think Vieira de Mello would have had succeeded in addressing problems the US has run into since the bombing?

SP: That was the stirrings of the multi-pronged, Hydra-headed insurgency. We know from history that the United States was not ready to take UN advice for a long time. Sergio had managed to charm Bremer and made a good impression on President Bush, but the United States would have needed to acknowledge it needed help for Sergio to be of real value. Even when that acknowledgment came in 2004, the things that doomed Iraq were out of Pandora’s box. The borders had gone unsealed, too few troops had been sent, looting had been allowed to occur, sectarian forces were elevated in the governing council.

Sergio was the most capable international civil servant ever maybe, certainly in the last century, but he was not a messiah. He couldn’t undo history. He would have done the most damage control that any outside actor could have done, but I don’t think he could have saved Iraq from the place this series of blunders led it to.

RL: How did your relationship with Sergio affect the writing of the biography?

SP: I spent nine months excavating the last three and a half hours of his life. I found that brutal. I felt like I was in the hole with him, in the shaft. I had to know what happened at the end. I had to reconstruct that at a level of detail that arguably was unnecessary to the narrative. Nowhere else in the book do you get 40 pages on three hours, but in it you saw so much of Sergio’s character. He didn’t lord his authority over anybody. He asked about the rest of the staff. He kept his sense of humor. He kept his will.

You also saw how heroically certain Americans behaved, and yet how frustrated and hamstrung they were in putting their lives on the line to do what they were trained to do.

Knowing Sergio made me more relentless to get at things that were harder to find, and somehow feeling that some day his boys would read this book and know where their dad had been when they were kids. And of course, so that everyone who loved Sergio could know what his last hours were like because anybody who knew him would have wanted to be there for him in some way.

Because not that much had been written about any of his missions, I was very dependent on his colleagues, and his files, his notes, so a lot of oral history goes into this, and a ton of reporting. There were 400 interviews. A lot of them you don’t even use, but it’s all to build your understanding of someone. While he bears some resemblance to the person I knew, he’s a much richer, more self-critical, more adaptive giant of a man, I now realize. I didn’t know him well enough to know that when he was alive.

RL: And you have compared Sergio Vieira de Mello and Sen. Barack Obama.

SP: Sergio and Barack have an unusual combination of empirical and pragmatic rigor, and a deep and abiding compassion for people who are voiceless and invisible and not as empowered in their societies as they should be. I know a lot of people with intellectual and academic and analytic rigor, and I know a lot of compassionate people, but it’s the combination of that rigor and that passion that make both of them giants. Sergio because of 34 years of experience in violent places, and Barack because of his globalized being or his intellect, they both have a modern sense of the connectedness of all of us and the importance of standing up and embracing the challenge of what the twenty-first century is yielding.

It’s a complex world with a set of problems that we haven’t faced before individually or collectively, and that doesn’t scare Obama, and Sergio gravitated to it like a moth to the flame. Obama views it as exactly why it’s his time to be president. To deal with twenty-first century unconventional challenges you have to have an unconventional way of thinking. You can’t be bound to the way Washington has always done things. That’s not an advantage. It’s a liability. It blinds you to fresh eyes that you need to bring to fresh problems.

RL: Although your “monster” comment about Sen. Hillary Clinton made big news, the press hasn’t featured your oft-expressed admiration for her.

SP: If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it hundreds of times over the past 15 months. She’s a pioneer, brilliant, obviously incredibly capable, and if I weren’t working for Barack Obama, I’m sure I’d have put my foot in my mouth on her behalf.

RL: Do you know Sen. Clinton?

SP: I’ve only met her once, but I had a great experience meeting her at a dinner [with] a person [who] had just come back from Syria, and [Sen. Clinton] was just filled with questions and great insights and curiosity and totally pragmatic with the kind of mind and sensibility I like. I just got frustrated with the campaign. As a first-timer perhaps maybe oversensitive, overprotective, and overreacted obviously in a fit of temper and have apologized, and will continue to apologize, but hope I’ll be able to talk about other things at some point.

RL: You were courageous to appear on Stephen Colbert’s political satire show only days after your resignation from the Obama campaign.

SP: My basic rule is that I’ll do any media lined up prior to my blunder, and Colbert was lined up. I care so much about the ideas that Sergio embodied; canceling it would have been bad for the things I care about. And maybe it was good put to myself in a situation where someone else made light of [the blunder] because I find it very serious and quite terrible, and to be with somebody who turned it into the Cookie Monster, maybe that wasn’t the worse thing in the world.

RL: What do you hope for in post-Bush/Cheney foreign policy?

SP: I’d just say that the old twentieth-century dichotomy between human rights on the one hand and national security on the other is manifestly untenable in this century. Our violating human rights in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib have undermined our national security. It’s made people take up arms against us.

First and foremost, the United States has to get its own house in order and recover its regard for the principles that have made it a beacon for the world. To me, the regard for human rights makes America singular. If we’re just a country that pursues our national interest as defined in the short term, that won’t be good for our national interest in the long term. It’ll end up making us less able to get people to our side to deal with security and economic challenges that matter to Americans. We have to begin integrating a concern for human consequences at every stage of policy and be curious about what the effects of our policies are. And we’re not that curious sometimes.