“Samantha Power: Genocide and Idealism”
Letter to the Editors, New York Review of Books (appearing September 2020, Volume LXVII, Number 13)
Steve Coll’s well-informed and insightful review of Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist [NYR, May 28, 2020], gives, rightly, large play to the Obama administration’s decisions about Libya and Syria, and how Power’s own views about “idealism” and “realism” align with those decisions. But more attention should have been paid, I believe, to the decision to abandon the non-Arab people of Darfur, who in 2008 were enjoying their last year as a true human rights cause célèbre.
Before entering the administration, Power had been a powerful voice in pointing out that the counter-insurgency against Darfuri rebels waged by the regime of Omar al-Bashir was “genocidal”—that the real targets of the brutal militia forces and regular Sudan army were civilians perceived as supporting the rebels. Obama himself had declared as candidate for president that,
When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls. . . . We can’t say “never again” and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.
But in fact, over whatever protestations Power might have made privately, the Obama administration did in fact turn a “blind eye,” that blindness most conspicuous in the selection of a hopelessly incompetent and unqualified special envoy for Sudan, Air Force Major General (Ret.) Scott Gration. Gration—who had no history as a diplomat, no particular knowledge of Sudan, and no Arabic—managed in the two years of his tenure to set back immeasurably the prospects for any peaceful resolution of the Darfur conflict or for holding accountable those in the al-Bashir regime responsible for genocide (Gration’s singular virtue was having served the Obama campaign well with the military establishment). Al-Bashir, who was deposed last year, had earlier been served arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court in 2009 and 2010, charging him and others in his regime with genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur..
Yet for someone who had gained fame as a historian of genocide, Power seemed unable to find her voice in public commentary on the continuing catastrophe. The real determination of U.S. policy in the face of genocidal conflict whose death toll now exceeds 500,000—with some 2.5 million non-Arab Darfuris either internally displaced or refugees in eastern Chad—was held hostage to the U.S. intelligence community’s lust for a relationship with Khartoum that would yield “valuable” counter-terrorism information.
Some might see this as the quintessence of “realism”; others might see it as the ultimate failure in the face of conspicuous genocide. Some discussion of how Power came down in arbitrating the competing claims of these world views would have provided a fuller view of her “education as an idealist.”
Eric Reeves, Fellow, Rift Valley Institute