Samantha Power’s Syria problem

In her extraordinarily powerful book “A Problem from Hell,” the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power painstakingly and forcefully criticizes the United States on its unwillingness to stop and prevent global genocide during the twentieth century. The book, which was published in 2002 while Power was a professor of human rights at Harvard University, amounts to a categorical dressing-down of multiple U.S. administrations and it was widely lauded by the media and in academic circles.

In the book’s conclusion Power does not mince words. She notes that any modest advances made by the U.S. in its response to genocidal action around the world were ultimately “eclipsed by America’s toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view.”

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There could hardly be a more “unspeakable atrocity” taking place in the world right now than the three-year-long conflict in Syria. And the irony, of course, is that it’s unfolding as Power herself holds a key foreign policy position in the Obama administration. Each successive report on the brutality in Syria provides a mountain of grim statistics and shocking details.  A conservative estimate concludes that 150,000 Syrians—at least 10,000 of them children—have been killed to date.

According to UNICEF, up to one million children are living under siege in the country without any protection or humanitarian aid at all, and more than six million Syrians have been displaced within their own country. Chemical warfare, torture, sexual violence and other atrocities, on all sides of the conflict, have featured prominently. Those lucky enough to flee Syria have generally ended up living as refugees in overcrowded, underfunded and hastily built camps in neighboring countries where they live a brutal, stateless existence without access to proper food and medical care, not to mention education or employment. To say that this devastating conflict has created a lost generation in Syria would be a vast understatement, and there is no end in sight.

While media coverage of the Syrian conflict has ebbed and flowed over the last three years, the conditions, the atrocities and the death count have all been widely reported. This isn’t some mostly hidden holocaust or ruthlessly quick massacre. It has been happening in full view of the global community for more than three years. In an address to reporters at the UN last month, Power called the situation in Syria “the worst humanitarian crisis we have seen in a generation.” While public officials are readily known to offer empty words for the cameras, pandering to their audience as they  sit idly by, Power should be different. As somebody who has built a career on the back of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that specifically condemns the U.S. for its inaction during humanitarian crises she has set herself up for a higher standard. The fact that this atrocity is taking place on her watch creates a cruel and pathetic irony.

One can only assume that Samantha Power is using whatever power that she has at the UN and within the Obama administration to stop the human destruction in Syria. It is, after all, a very complex problem with a large cast of global players. But it must be humbling, and indeed heartbreaking, for Power to realize now that criticizing administrations for their lack of action on humanitarian crises is a far easier thing to do than trying to actually stop one.

Houle is a freelance writer living in New York. He writes about history and politics.

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