Human Wrongs

Liberalism in the 20th century made two enduring contributions to American foreign policy. Early on, it contended that global stability and prosperity were better guaranteed by architectures of international cooperation than by great-power competition. Later, it brought the human-rights revolution to the center of geopolitics, declaring that state sovereignty provided no excuse for impunity. As the 21st century began, Samantha Power, a journalist barely in her 30s, exposed the hollowness at the core of those contributions.

A Problem from Hell, Power's first book and her masterpiece, explored the United States' consistent lack of interest in preventing and stopping genocide, a problem that the foreign-policy establishment did not realize it had. Power, returning from a searing experience of reporting from the Balkans, discovered that respect for human rights was a liberal fiction that did not survive first contact with organized eliminationist slaughter. In a hybrid style that blended historical scholarship, outraged polemicism, and unabashed activism, Power revealed that such indifference was a feature, not a bug. "The system, as it stands now," she charged, "is working."

Before Power, I didn't appreciate how U.S. support for human rights was so empty; how the architecture of international power needed so drastically to be reshaped in order to preserve human rights; or how radical the human-rights revolution actually is. Until I read Power's book, I only thought I was a progressive.

The structure of A Problem From Hell is frighteningly similar to the horrific phenomenon it documents. Each chapter, a case study of a different genocide, proceeds in stages: warning signs of the bloodbath to proceed; recognition by U.S. policy-makers of its imminence or execution; and then an insufficient response. The fourth stage, empty recrimination, unfolds only implicitly throughout the narrative. The repetition both builds the intensity of each wrenching story and underscores how pitilessly the nightmare unfolds unimpeded. Power doesn't write this book so much as she curates it.

Its target is your conscience. Every excuse for allowing a genocide to proceed is herded to the abattoir. We didn't know; we couldn't have stopped it; intervention would have been ultimately more damaging; how could we adjudicate ancient hatreds; what responsibility did we have to act? -- every one of these objections is a fallback position after Power relentlessly demolishes the conscience's prior defenses. Lesser writers would have feared alienating their audiences by implicating them in a systemic government failure to stop genocide. "Americans outside the executive branch were largely mute when it mattered," Power observes instead. All the weary reader can do is accept blame and vow to break the cycle.

When it mattered, Power did not allow her work to be twisted. Neocons and liberal hawks borrowed emotionally manipulative justifications to make the case for invading Iraq, such as avenging Saddam's earlier genocide of the Kurds. But Power bravely defended human rights from cynical misuse. "Oh dear," she wrote in a 2003 essay for The New Republic. "Here are the '90s, inverted: power without the liberalism, without the humility it requires in acknowledgment that none of us possesses absolute truths."

One of the people who felt similarly was Barack Obama. In the spring of 2005, Power got word that the new senator wanted to meet with her in Washington. Having been largely unimpressed by politicians' engagement with the book, Power walked into a Capitol Hill steakhouse expecting a perfunctory meeting. Four hours later, she and Obama were still mapping out the place of human rights in American strategy. Power would remain an Obama confidante for the next several years, helping him refine his vision for America's place in the world.

The first time I heard that story was the first time I took seriously the idea that Obama can change the world. Early in his political ascent, he allied himself with a writer who, in an important sense, already has.

But to what end? Power is now the National Security Council director for multilateral affairs and human rights, at the heart of the very foreign-policy establishment her book challenged. Already, human-rights activists have been disappointed by the administration's failure to place clear pressures on the genocidaire government of Sudan. "It is no secret that governments tend to have some difficulty turning to issues of this nature in a timely fashion," Power conceded in a White House Webcast on Darfur in November. Among the enduring achievements of A Problem From Hell is the solemn obligation it places on its author.