Samantha, Powerless: Obama’s Problem from Hell in Syria

Michael J. Totten

Michael J. Totten

Contributing Editor, World Affairs and City Journal

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In 2003, Samantha Power won the Pulitzer Prize for A Problem from Hell, her searing critique of American responses to genocides from Bosnia to Iraq. More than a decade later, the unrestrained brutality in Syria has turned the administration that appointed Power as UN Ambassador into the deadliest case study of our time.

It’s hard to imagine a greater foreign policy failure than the American response to the conflict in Syria, which has mushroomed into one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.

What started as a series of peaceful demonstrations for democratic and civil society reform in 2011 has since degenerated into a brutal multi-front conflict involving the Assad regime in Damascus, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a smorgasbord of mostly Islamist rebel groups including al-Qaeda, secular left-wing Kurdish militias, and, of course, ISIS—the most psychopathic army of killers on the planet.

Rather than live up to his earlier and undeserved reputation as a “reformer,” President Bashar al-Assad has proven himself the most violent dictator in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein.

ISIS, meanwhile, rather than living up to U.S. President Barack Obama’s description as al-Qaeda’s “JV team,” has evolved from a ragtag terrorist organization to a full-blown genocidal army massacring its way through Syria, Iraq and beyond.

The American response so far is only a tad more robust than the sound of chirping crickets.

Perhaps no one is as chagrined at all this as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She began her career as a war correspondent in Bosnia during the near-apocalyptic civil war there, and she was so shocked and appalled at what she saw—first the mass-murder and ethnic cleansing waged by Serb genocidaires in the heart of Europe, and second the near-total paralysis of the Clinton administration—that she dedicated years of her life to researching and writing her first book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Her conclusion: despite the cries of “never again” after the Holocaust, the international community, including the United States, nearly always stands aside when mass-murderers go to work.

After Power finishes her current stint as a diplomat, she’ll need to update her book with a new chapter on Syria. Only this time she’ll have to blast the very administration she works for.

For the better part of a century, American leaders have repeatedly failed to stop the world’s monsters from turning swaths of the globe into killing fields. It’s not a uniquely American problem, nor should policing the world be a uniquely American burden, but nevertheless the United States has, as Samantha Power notes, inverted Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy doctrine, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” to “speak loudly and look for a stick.”

The change, she argues, was deliberate and bipartisan. “Contrary to any assumption I may have harbored while I traveled around the former Yugoslavia,” she writes, “the Bush and Clinton administrations’ responses to atrocities in Bosnia were consistent with prior American responses to genocide.”

Early warnings of massive bloodshed proliferated. The spewing of inflammatory propaganda escalated. The massacres and deportations started. U.S. policymakers struggled to wrap their minds around the horrors. Refugee stories and press reports of atrocities became too numerous to deny. Few Americans at home pressed for intervention. A hopeful but passive and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced. And genocide proceeded unimpeded by U.S. action and often emboldened by U.S. inaction.

Before building her case, she tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, the architect of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer from Poland who came to the United States in 1941, two years after Nazi Germany invaded his native country. It was Lemkin who coined the word “genocide” in the early 1940s to describe what he called the “race murder” of Jews, but of course the Nazis hardly invented the crime. Josef Stalin’s peacetime genocide in Ukraine—the Holodomor, or hunger-famine—took place during the previous decade, and the Turkish genocide against Armenians during World War I only two decades before that.

Lemkin campaigned tirelessly in the United Nations to get the international community to agree on the definition of genocide, to recognize it as a crime, and to spell out the measures for its prevention and punishment. It finally did so through UN General Assembly Resolution 260, which went in force in 1951.

In Article 2 of the resolution, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

• Killing members of the group;
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

After providing the historical background, Power follows with a series of case studies that expose how the United States largely failed to prevent or punish one genocide after another, from Bosnia and Cambodia to Rwanda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Her case studies of the American reception to these atrocities follow the same pattern: Warning, Recognition, Response and Aftermath.

Admirers of Power’s work were thrilled when President Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to the United Nations in 2013. Finally, they thought, we might be in for a course correction. She’s only one person in a large administration and she can’t set foreign policy all by herself, but one could presume that the president must at least partly agree with her. Otherwise, why appoint her in the first place?

But the Syrian civil war and America’s epic-sized non-response have proven the optimists wrong. The Assad regime is perilously close to crossing the genocidal line—if it hasn’t already—and ISIS has clearly already crossed it with its brutal assaults on minorities like Christians and Yezidis. Meanwhile, the United States, in keeping with the precedents patiently described by Power, dithers impotently on the sidelines.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are ideological opposites. ISIS is brutally Islamist and theocratic, while the Assad regime is avowedly secular and at least nominally “Leftist.” Nevertheless, and despite ISIS harking back to a previous millennium, they’re both totalitarian political movements in the classic 20th-century mold.

All such movements, despite their variety, share the same basic set of ideas which Paul Berman spelled out in his landmark book, Terror and Liberalism. And the potential to commit genocide is baked into every single one of them.

“There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society,” he writes. “But society’s health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world.”

The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation—an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements—a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.

The Assad regime matched that description from the very beginning.

Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, seized power in a coup d’état in 1970. His government forged a close alliance with the Soviet Union, placed members of the minority heterodox Alawite religion in nearly all positions of power over the majority Sunni Muslim population, and clamped down on the entire country with a totalitarian state modeled on Moscow’s. Human rights were at absolute zero.

When the Muslim Brotherhood rose up against him in 1982, his armed forces killed tens of thousands of people in the city of Hama in a single month, most of them over a single weekend. After the fires were out and the smoke cleared, the government paved over the rubble, turned it into vast parking lots, and brought thousands of people out by the busload to cast their gaze over it. Middle East scholar Robin Wright described it as one of “the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”

The overwhelming majority of the dead were civilians. And there was never any good reason to believe Hafez’s son Bashar would rule or fight with any more restraint than his father, and he hasn’t. The number of dead during the Syrian civil war is now roughly ten times the number of dead during the Hama massacre three decades earlier.

Assad the younger’s violent repression started in the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011 with the mass murder of peaceful protesters asking for nothing more than democratic reform. His victims endured imprisonment, torture and murder for months before anyone but the government fired a single shot.

Assad nevertheless labeled them terrorists. But there were no active terrorists in Syria at the time except those on the government payroll. Assad had a bit of a propaganda problem. So he let hundreds of Islamist extremists out of prison to run wild in Syria to bolster the initially ludicrous claim that terrorists were trying to take over the country.

ISIS and the Assad regime are both totalitarian political movements in the classic 20th-century mold who are committing ethnic cleansing and likely genocide.

Lebanese scholar Nadim Shehadi once told me over coffee in Beirut that anyone who wants to become a Middle East dictator should just copy the House of Assad. “What you should do,” he said, “is establish the idea that you’re indispensable, that you’re irreplaceable, that beyond you is the abyss of sectarian civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and the breakup of the state. Create problems that only you can resolve.”

But Assad doesn’t actually resolve the problems he creates. He’s an arsonist who sets fires, sells the water to douse them and then doesn’t deliver. Had he succeeded—had he let loose a terrorist insurrection, rallied support around him from the international community, then beat it back and restored some semblance of stability—his scheme would have worked smashingly.

Instead, hundreds of thousands are dead, Syria has three separate governments (the Assads in Damascus, ISIS in the eastern desert, and Kurdish Rojava in the north), the war has destroyed any possibility that a moderate government will succeed his in Damascus, and it has entrenched a powerful terrorist army that may be with us for years or even decades to come.

And things may still get worse. We’ve already received a few early warnings that Assad might be inclined toward genocidal behavior. The U.S. government estimates that the regime killed 1,429 people with chemical weapons in Ghouta outside Damascus on August 21, 2013, and a few dozen more in Aleppo earlier that year.

Chemical weapons—like all weapons of mass destruction—kill indiscriminately. Their use doesn’t necessarily constitute genocide—non-genocidal Western armies used them during World War I—but they do make perfect genocide weapons.

That was the first warning. And it was immediately recognized by the White House as such. A red line had been crossed and President Obama promised to punish Assad with air strikes.

But the president backed down and did…nothing. Samantha Power must have felt a powerful sense of déjà vu.

President Barack Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Memorial for United Nations staff killed in Iraq at the UN Headquarters in New York City, Sept. 23, 2009. Photo: Pete Souza / White House / flickr

President Barack Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Memorial for United Nations staff killed in Iraq at the UN Headquarters in New York City, Sept. 23, 2009. Photo: Pete Souza / White House / flickr

Even so, Assad eased up on the chemical weapons lest Obama change his mind. There are other ways to kill huge numbers of people indiscriminately. The government even invented a new one—barrel bombs, air-borne improvised explosive devices designed to explode over wide areas. The Syrian air force has dropped thousands of them throughout cities and residential neighborhoods; the BBC estimates that 99 percent of the barrel-bombed dead are civilians.

Other warnings of potentially genocidal behavior have been ongoing. The government and its local allies—Revolutionary Guard Corps from Iran and Hezbollah from Lebanon—have been plausibly accused of ethnically cleansing Sunni Arabs around the core cities of Damascus, Homs and Latakia.

It started with a war against Palestinian refugees near Latakia, the largest Alawite-majority city in Syria. In August of 2011, Assad’s Shabiha (ghost) militia raided the Palestinian refugee camp in the al-Ramel neighborhood while warships shelled Sunni areas of the city and its environs from the sea. The regime and its paramilitaries then bulldozed homes and forced Sunni civilians out of the area.

No longtime Syrian observer was the least bit surprised. If Assad were to lose his grip in the capital, he’d retreat to the coastal areas and declare the rump state an independent Alawite homeland. A large Sunni population in the area would be, shall we say, inconvenient.

We saw more ethnic cleansing in the city of Qusayr the following year. The city has a Muslim majority and a substantial Christian minority. It’s strategically crucial because it connects Damascus to the Alawite heartland and is only an hour’s walk from the Lebanese border.

Tens of thousands of Syrian Army soldiers, along with Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, attacked the city in 2012, hoping to take it back from the Free Syrian Army, and expelled huge number of Sunnis. Many observers decried it, too, as ethnic cleansing from what may one day be an Alawite enclave.

Things may still get worse. We’ve already received a few early warnings that Assad might be inclined toward genocidal behavior.

“Such an enclave would allow for the protection of population groups loyal to the regime,” Jonathan Spyer wrote in these pages at the time. “In particular, this would include the 12 percent Alawi minority. Assad and his family are Alawi, and the community constitutes both the regime’s power base and a demographic majority in the western coastal area. It is also likely that Christians and Druze, fearing the victory of Sunni Islamist rebels, would seek refuge in an Assad-ruled enclave.”

Was it really ethnic cleansing, or were massive numbers of people simply fleeing the violence? It’s hard to say for sure. And it’s not clear how many people were actually displaced. The BBC estimated Qusayr’s population at roughly 40,000 in 2012. By 2013, according to The New York Times, the number dropped almost by half to 25,000.

More recently, during the summer of 2015, another round of ethnic cleansing was attempted in Zabadani, a town 17 miles from Damascus and a mere five miles from Lebanon along Hezbollah’s supply line.

Hezbollah and the Syria army surrounded Zabadani and devastated it with barrel bombs and artillery fire. Zabadani was a summer resort town before Assad destroyed it—it’s higher in elevation and cooler than Damascus, and it’s covered in snow during parts of the winter—but its halcyon days are over forever.

After the Syrian army blasted the area, Iran attempted to negotiate a transfer of the Sunni population out of Zabadani and to the interior. Rebel groups said it was blatant “sectarian cleansing” that, again, would help enable a cleaner partition of the country.

“Iran insists on displacing civilians from Zabadani and nearby areas which we refused,” said a spokesman for the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham. “The plan for sect based displacement— emptying Damascus, its surroundings and all the areas along the border with Lebanon of Sunni presence is now in its final stages.”

There have been plenty of warnings, one after another. It’s not clear that the Obama administration has even reached Samantha Power’s Recognition stage, let alone the Response stage.

Ethnic cleansing, though, isn’t the same thing as genocide. Theoretically, an area could be ethnically cleansed without a single fatality. And the regime isn’t attempting to kill or displace every Sunni from the territory it wishes to permanently hold if it later partitions the country. But the Genocide Convention doesn’t strictly require that.

In practice, modern armies that commit ethnic cleansing usually commit genocide. At the very least, it’s a warning that genocide may be coming.

Whether or not Assad has crossed the line yet is debatable. The numbers of Sunni Arabs marked for death or displacement for no reason aside from the fact that they are Sunni Arabs has been relatively small so far. Lawyers could make short work of both sides of the argument. Maybe it’s genocide and maybe it’s not. Assad is right near the line. It’s a little ambiguous.

But there’s another army doing grisly work in Syria that has clearly crossed the line and is unambiguously guilty of genocide now.

No ideology in the world right now is more inherently genocidal than that of ISIS.

It began its life as Al Qaeda in Iraq under the Jordanian jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, also known as the Sheikh of the Slaughterers. He hated no one on his planet—not Christians, not Jews, not atheists—as much as he despised Shia Muslims. The Shia, he wrote, are “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom.”

“Genocidal rhetoric,” Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write in their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, “was followed by genocidal behavior,” from ruthless sectarian “cleansing” to videotaped mass executions.

Lest there be any doubt, Abu Bakr Naji published a book online outlining the organization’s strategy and vision with the appalling but at least honest title, The Management of Savagery. “Jihad,” he wrote, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

Current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is no better. Al-Baghdadi, Weiss and Hassan write, has “so far demonstrated nothing short of annihilationist intention…To ISIS, the Shia are religiously void, deceitful, and marked only for death.”

But Shia Muslims are hardly the only group marked for destruction by ISIS. All non-Sunnis are in the crosshairs, as are insufficiently fanatical Sunnis who refuse to follow ISIS’ deranged criminal code that includes the death penalty for smoking a cigarette.

The Kurdish Yezidis are the most vulnerable. They’re not even the “wrong” kind of Muslims. Theirs is a monotheistic ancient religion that incorporates beliefs and customs from other faiths in the region, including ancient Zoroastrianism in Persia. Theirs is also the original religion of the Kurds before Arabs invaded during the ninth century and converted most of them to Islam.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power (second from right) and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (third from right) participate in an event commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. Photo: Eskinder Debebe / United Nations

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power (second from right) and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (third from right) participate in an event commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. Photo: Eskinder Debebe / United Nations

In the summer of 2014, ISIS waged a full-bore extermination campaign against the Yezidis in Iraq. They butchered thousands, hauled off thousands of women into sexual slavery, and buried women and children alive. In the Sinjar region, thousands were ordered to convert to Islam or die. Many did convert, but were later gunned down anyway. In some villages, nearly every single last man was murdered and every single last woman was kidnapped.

Fifty thousand fled that rampage to Mount Sinjar, where they were surrounded on an arid mountaintop without food or water.

That was, in the parlance of Samantha Power’s Problem from Hell, the Warning. Unlike Assad’s crimes, those of ISIS were instinctively and immediately recognized as genocidal or potentially genocidal, a recognition that was later formalized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

And the response was immediate. An international effort led by the United States, the United Kingdom and Kurdish fighters from Iraq and Syria rescued the stranded Yezidis on Mount Sinjar, and the United States has been at war with ISIS ever since.

But the war has been spectacularly ineffective and tepid. A few air strikes here and there over the course of a year have hardly even slowed ISIS down.

In early 2015, ISIS demolished the ancient Hellenic Seleucid Empire city of Hatra in Iraq’s Nineveh province because it was pagan. Because it contained “graven images.” Never mind that the city’s gorgeous ruins and artifacts had been preserved by various Islamic governments for more than a thousand years. ISIS leaders were hell-bent on destroying it.

They did the same thing in Nimrud for the same reasons.

These crimes didn’t register much. They made no international splash. But the entire world gasped when ISIS conquered Syria’s spectacular Roman Empire city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site an hour’s drive east of Homs and long known affectionately as the “bride of the desert.” After what they’d just done in Iraq, everyone knew they’d demolish Palmyra.

President Barack Obama talks with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Colin Kahl, National Security Advisor to the Vice President, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice outside the West Wing of the White House, July 15, 2015. Photo: Pete Souza / White House / Wikimedia

President Barack Obama talks with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Colin Kahl, National Security Advisor to the Vice President, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice outside the West Wing of the White House, July 15, 2015. Photo: Pete Souza / White House / Wikimedia

“This is the entire world’s battle,” said Syria’s antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, and he was right. Assad’s gangster regime is a totalitarian state sponsor of terrorism that’s guilty of committing crimes against humanity that are tantamount to genocide, but even it is cultured and civilized compared with ISIS.

ISIS promised to leave Palmyra alone. It’s entirely not clear why. Perhaps the fall of the city got so much media attention that ISIS feared retribution, even though no one promised retribution. Nothing happened. After a while, ISIS figured it had a free hand. So a few months later, its fighters destroyed the Temple of Bel.

This is cultural genocide. That’s a loose term, to be sure, and it isn’t defined in the Genocide Convention, but history has repeatedly shown that armies willing to commit cultural genocide will just as easily commit genocide against humans. In any case, ISIS is already guilty of genocide against humans. There is no reason to think Christian, Alawite or Druze civilians will fare any better than the Yezidis if they are conquered.

Yet despite it all, the response from the rest of the world, including the United States, is tired resignation. On July 7, 2015, President Obama, at a rare visit to the Pentagon, said defeating ISIS will most likely take decades.

Samantha Power’s dream of an American foreign policy establishment that says “never again” and means it is still just that—a dream—even with Power herself as part of the establishment.

She wrote A Problem from Hell a decade before the war in Syria started, but much of it could have been written today.

“Despite graphic media coverage,” she writes, “American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil.”

That’s truer than ever. Before the war broke out, the Obama administration reversed the Bush-era policy of isolating Syria by restoring diplomatic relations and sending Ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus. Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton both referred to Assad as a reformer despite the fact that he had reformed a grand total of nothing and threw even the tamest advocates for reform into dungeons.

“It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost,” she writes. “American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference. They reason that they will incur no costs if the United States remains uninvolved but will face steep risks if they engage.”

American public opinion certainly isn’t clamoring for intervention in Syria. That’s for damn sure. The last time Americans removed a despicable tyrant from the Middle East and made a valiant attempt at democratic nation-building, the U.S. faced a horrific insurgency made up in part by the precursor to ISIS and backed by a broad swath of the Arab world. Most Americans figure if that’s the kind of thanks we get, there’s no good reason to ever attempt it again, no matter how many atrocities Assad and ISIS commit unless we are the target.

It may only be a matter of time. ISIS attacked Paris repeatedly in 2015, first against the Charlie Hebdo offices and a Jewish supermarket in January, and again with a half-dozen coordinated attacks against restaurants and a concert hall in November.

And of course, there is a huge range of options between token theatrical air strikes and a full-blown ground invasion and occupation, but the White House isn’t interested. Barack Obama campaigned on ending wars, and he won twice, so that’s that.

Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt finds the whole business appalling, and he blames Obama and even Power herself.

This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies: not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy…The fact that the woman who wrote the book on genocide, Samantha Power, and the woman who campaigned to bomb Sudan to save the people of Darfur, Susan Rice, could apparently in good conscience stay on as U.N. ambassador and national security adviser, respectively, lent further moral credibility to U.S. abdication.

Samantha Power herself should have seen that coming. “U.S. officials,” she continues in her book “spin themselves (as well as the American public) about the nature of the violence in question and the likely impact of American intervention. They render the bloodshed two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal. They insist that any proposed U.S. response will be futile. Indeed, it may even do more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims and jeopardizing other precious American moral or strategic interests.”

In fairness, though, it isn’t all spin. The war in Syria really isn’t one-sided. (It’s not even two-sided.) It’s not Hitler against the Jews. It’s not Pol Pot against everyone who wears glasses. It’s not Saddam Hussein versus the Kurds. It’s not Stalin versus “the kulaks.”

An early intervention—when no one had yet even heard the name ISIS and when the Free Syrian Army still had plenty of moderate fighters—might have worked. An American-backed Free Syrian Army might have removed Assad relatively quickly and prevented or diminished the rise of ISIS. Who knows? At least it might have failed less spectacularly.

At this point, however, intervention in Syria might actually be futile. After Iraq and Libya, it’s far from obvious that mass-murder and terrorism can be stopped in Syria any time soon even if the United States were to invade, occupy and baby-sit Syria in perpetuity.

Either way, whether the arguments against intervention are correct or misguided, nearly all of them at least in some ways echo the arguments against stopping just about everyone from Hitler and Pol Pot to Slobodan Milosevic and the genocidaires in Rwanda.

Each case is different, but we nearly always end up in the same passive place for many of the same stated reasons.

“I used to refer to U.S. policy toward Bosnia as a failure,” Power writes. “I have changed my mind.”

It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.

One might argue that today Power is guilty of same callous indifference herself, now that she works for an administration that behaves no differently, but she’s clearly unhappy about it and doesn’t shirk from saying so publicly.

In a speech presenting the Elie Wiesel Award at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, she rebuked her own boss. “In preventing mass atrocities,” she said, “we must redouble our emphasis on early engagement. The sooner we act, the more options we will have. That requires developing solutions to potential atrocities before they become actual ones. And to those who would argue that a head of state or government has to choose only between doing nothing and sending in the military—I maintain that is a constructed and false choice, an accompaniment only to disengagement and passivity.”

Is she referring to President Obama without naming him? Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, seems to think so.

“Samantha Power is a serious person,” he said to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “whose views on the horror of genocide and the immorality of inaction to prevent it are well known. Given that the administration has defined the alternatives in Syria as stay away versus boots-on-the-ground, it is difficult to read her stark statement about this ‘false choice’ as anything but a critique of the administration she has sworn to serve.”

It’s easy to imagine a better response to the Syrian disaster than a near-total non-response, but even if the United States had done everything right, the country would still be in terrible shape—though perhaps in slightly less terrible shape.

“We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in October. “We’ve tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya. And we’ve tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria. It’s not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work [in Iraq], subsequent policies have worked better.”

President Barack Obama talks with UN Ambassador Samantha Power following a Cabinet meeting, September 12, 2013. Photo: Pete Souza / White House / flickr

President Barack Obama talks with UN Ambassador Samantha Power following a Cabinet meeting, September 12, 2013. Photo: Pete Souza / White House / flickr

If the U.S. were to intervene more forcefully against Assad or ISIS, the likely result at this point would be boosting the relative strength of the other, but we’re rapidly approaching a scenario where both ISIS and Assad win roughly half of the country, and where Syria has two entrenched quasi-genocidal armies instead of one or zero.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power showed that every attempted genocide since the Holocaust—with the single exception of the one attempted by Serb forces in Kosovo—raged on with little or no intervention from the international community.

In Syria, likewise, mass-murder will continue unimpeded indefinitely.

Banner Photo: Red Maxwell / flickr