Author and journalist
Addresses: Home—Winthrop, MA. Office—Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University, 79 J. F. Kennedy St., Cambridge, MA 02138.
Author, journalist, and educator. Reporter, U.S. News and World Report and Economist, 1993-96; political analyst, International Crisis Group, 1996; adjunct lecturer in public policy and executive director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Contributor to publications such as New Republic, New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly.
Awards: Pulitzer Prize, for A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, 2003.
Journalist and human-rights crusader Samantha Power won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power's treatise examined American foreign policy in the modern era, in particular what appeared to be a reticence to become involved in situations where the horrific slaughter of civilians was occurring. Once, she writes in her book, she had believed that U.S. foreign policy was a "failure" because of this skittishness, but then conceded it was instead "ruthlessly effective: No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence," she writes.
Power was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1970. Her father died when she was still quite young, and her mother, one of Ireland's leading female tennis players, eventually remarried. Power's mother went on to earn a doctorate in biochemistry and became a kidney transplant specialist in the United States after the family emigrated in the late 1970s. As a youngster, Power initially harbored an ambition to become a sports broadcaster, but her interest in the political was awakened by the footage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing, when Chinese authorities cracked down on student demonstrations in front of the world's television cameras.
That significant event occurred just as Power began her undergraduate education at Yale University. She eventually won an internship with a Washington, D.C. foundation that shared an address with the magazine offices of U.S. News and World Report. She was about to embark on a trip to a republic of the former Yugoslavia, and "one day, I introduced myself to an editor, said I was heading over to Bosnia, and asked if I could call him with stories," she recalled in an interview with Cosmopolitan writer Ruth Davis. The editor agreed, and thus Power began her career as a war correspondent. She wrote for U.S. News and World Report and the Economist, and her articles chronicled the ethnic-cleansing atrocities taking place across Serbian-held Bosnia. After a time, however, she grew perplexed by the fact that while most Americans back home agreed the violence against civilians in the Balkans was horrific, no one seemed willing to step in to help.
Power's first book, Breakdown in the Balkans: A Chronicle of Events, January, 1989 to May, 1993, was published in 1993. Her next title, co-edited with Graham Allison, was Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, which featured an impressive list of contributors on the topic, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. By then, Random House had signed Power to a book deal, and she worked on what would become her Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume while studying for her degree from Harvard Law School. She finished both, and took a position as the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Random House rejected her first manuscript, however, suggesting it should perhaps be a less political, more personal tale, but Power found another publisher and A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide appeared in 2002.
Power borrowed the title of her book from the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, of the first Clinton Administration, but devotes a large section to the life and work of a Polish attorney, Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term "genocide" in 1943. Power notes that most of Lemkin's family perished in the Holocaust, and he dedicated himself to petitioning international policy-makers at the United Nations to formally define and recognize similar acts of murder. Power goes on to chronicle the various incidences of this around the world since the landmark 1948 U.N. Convention on genocide, and the failure of U.S. administrations to deal with what seems to be a fight in someone else's backyard.
Power's book earned laudatory reviews, as well as the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category. At 32, she was one of the youngest writers ever to win the prestigious honor, and was frequently interviewed in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. A Problem from Hell, noted New York Times journalist Celestine Bohlen, "has stirred debate in foreign policy circles as diplomats and experts deal with the question of when and how American power, military and diplomatic, should be deployed on behalf of humanitarian goals."
Yet that same New York Times piece also revealed that in some circles, "Power's book was cited as an example of how humanitarian intervention as embraced by American liberals helped lay the groundwork for the Bush administration's policy of preemptive intervention, as now foreseen for Iraq," Bohlen wrote a few weeks before U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein occurred. A year later, Power continued to respond to such charges, telling Paige Williams of London's Financial Times that "it causes me great discomfort when my book is read in its most narrow sense, which is that, 'The United States should intervene militarily when it feels like it.'"
Power has discussed in the media the 1988 incident in which Saddam Hussein deployed chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq. A year later, the first President Bush doubled U.S. foreign aid to Iraq. The time to have intervened in Iraqi atrocities, Power has argued, was back then, when nearly 100,000 Kurds were thought to have been killed by Hussein's genocidal act. "The unfortunate part of the relationship about human rights and security is that now we view the welfare of foreign citizens as valuable and relevant only in so far as it advances our security," she contended in the Financial Times interview.
Power is planning a work on the ideas of Hannah Arendt, the German-American writer who wrote extensively on politics and authoritarianism. She views her work as a continuation of Lemkin's crusade, and believes that the best defense against preventing future Holocausts is to make human rights an integral part of U.S. foreign policy. Had that happened during the first Bush Administration, she argues, the 2003 invasion might not have been necessary. "You can't allow these kinds of crimes to go unnoticed," she pointed out in the New York Times interview with Bohlen, "and not have them come back and reflect on us."
Breakdown in the Balkans: A Chronicle of Events, January, 1989 to May, 1993, preface by Morton Abramowitz, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Washington, DC), 1993.
(Editor with Graham Allison) Realizing HumanRights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000.
A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Atlantic Monthly, September 2001, p. 8.
Commonweal, May 3, 2002, p. 21.
Cosmopolitan, August 2003, p. 62.
Financial Times, March 13, 2004, p. 14.
New Statesman, July 21, 2003, p. 48.
New York Times, February 5, 2003, p. E1.
Time, October 4, 2004, p. 63.
U.S. News and World Report, April 11, 1994, p. 15.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.