Michael Gerson: A Power of conviction

Published: June 12, 2013
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President Obama's newly designated national security adviser, Susan Rice, and his proposed United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, are political loyalists. They are also known as liberal interventionists — emotionally seared by American passivity during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and advocates for military action to prevent a Libyan bloodbath in 2011. So the question arises in Washington and foreign capitals (say, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus): Is the president repaying his debts or making a foreign policy statement?

To Rice, a debt is clearly owed. Following the Benghazi attack she was sent into talk-show battle with distorted guidance, leaving her both guiltless (in this matter) and unconfirmable as secretary of state. A White House staffer, however, serves at the president's pleasure — and Rice has earned his confidence.

Power is only beginning to earn her elevation. She does not have a resume that allows for a quiet, anonymous Senate confirmation. As an anti-genocide activist and writer, she made a career of inflicting discomfort on public officials. Congress may enjoy the turnabout. Power has been an opinionated, occasionally intemperate, journalist and academic, who has left a long paper trail on controversial topics.

She is also a superb choice.

I first got to know Power in her role as a thorn in the side. Having criticized President Clinton for dithering on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, she had taken to criticizing President Bush for dithering on atrocities in Darfur. (I presume she discovered, serving in Obama's National Security Council, the powerful institutional bias in favor of dithering on issues such as atrocities in Syria.) As a policy adviser to Bush, I sometimes found Power's criticisms to be unfair or partisan.

Meeting her, I found something else. This was intemperance in the best of causes: protecting the innocent from violence. Her passion, sincerity and candor were impressive. She held convictions worth getting worked up over.

Power would bring some uncommon qualifications to American diplomacy. She is a multilateralist who has also written extensively on the limits and failures of the United Nations. She understands the reality of evil in human affairs — the kind that fills mass graves with bodies and covers them with lime. She believes that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak. She is outraged at outrageous things. It is hard to argue that government has an excess of these qualities.

During her hearings, Power will be called upon to explain some past statements — contemplating absurd hypotheticals or engaging in partisan excess — that the nominee herself has called “weird” and evidence of “stupidity.” I suspect that the Foreign Relations Committee will find her blunt assumption of responsibility for past errors unusual and disarming.

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