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Once an activist, U.S. envoy Power now fights as a diplomat

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Samantha Power visits the Mugunga III camp for internally displaced people in Goma, eastern Dem
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Samantha Power visits the Mugunga III camp for internally displaced people in Goma, eastern Dem

By Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Three months into Samantha Power's tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, human rights activists who favor military intervention have learned to temper their hopes that she would push aggressively for using force to end the humanitarian suffering in Syria.

Power, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who shot to fame for sharply criticizing U.S. failures to halt 20th century genocides, is now a diplomat, fighting most of her battles with words and resolutions. And her boss, President Barack Obama, has made it clear that despite his threats to launch air strikes in September in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria he is reluctant to intervene there.

Those who expected Power to force a sudden U.S. shift on the 2 1/2-year-old Syrian civil war - which has left more than 100,000 dead and created an estimated 2.2 million refugees - have likely been disappointed.

"Samantha has achieved almost rock star status amongst human rights activists, and I think a number of them expected her to act as the Ambassador for Mass Atrocity Prevention when she was appointed U.S. ambassador," said Simon Adams, head of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

"That was unrealistic. She's a diplomat now," said Adams, whose group works to raise awareness about and protect civilians from mass atrocities. "I think she's sometimes mistakenly pigeonholed as an interventionist hawk."

Power, 43, thinks she is sometimes pigeonholed, too. In an interview with Reuters last month, she said people often misunderstand the aim of her book, "A Problem from Hell," which chronicles the U.S. failure to stop genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere.

The book is not a blanket call for U.S. military intervention in conflicts, Power said.

"That's a very common misreading of the book, unless you're defining intervention with a small 'i,' covering the full range of diplomatic engagements - economic pressures, assistance and other tools," she said.

Military force, Power added, should be the "last tool in the toolbox."

FROM BOSNIA TO LIBYA TO SYRIA

After graduating from Yale University, Power traveled to Bosnia during the bloody 1992-95 war, where as a freelance journalist she chronicled the collapse of Yugoslavia, the machinery of mass slaughter and genocide, and the failure of U.N. peacekeepers to halt the violence.

According to U.S. officials, Power used her previous lower-profile post as Obama's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on the National Security Council to at least twice encourage him to intervene abroad: in the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, as well as in the hunt for former Ugandan guerrilla group leader Joseph Kony, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Power was also instrumental in setting up the White House's Atrocity Prevention Board during Obama's first term. The panel, which Power chaired, is aimed mainly at detecting early signs of human-rights crises and driving international action to preempt them.

In her Reuters interview, shortly after returning from a U.N. Security Council visit to Africa's Great Lakes region, Power said U.S. failure to deal with Rwanda's 1994 genocide "was all-system silence, all-system failure.

"Syria suffers no lack of high-level attention," she said. "For all the understandable frustration and heartbreak over the ongoing horrors in Syria, the only major tool in the toolbox that has not been employed is military force."

Some of Obama's critics would like to see Power do more to push the administration on the Syrian conflict. Many foreign diplomats and former U.S. officials say the president has set an uncertain course and missed a chance to affect the war by arming moderate rebels early in the conflict.

Some of those same critics say Power got off to a strong start. After Russia and China had vetoed three Security Council resolutions criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, Power said during her September 5 U.N. press debut that the Security Council had failed in Syria and that Washington would now turn its back on the body.

"There is no viable path forward in this Security Council," said the Harvard Law graduate, shortly after Obama threatened air strikes in retaliation for a deadly sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs, which Western powers blamed on Assad.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for the Washington Post, applauded the ambassador in a post entitled "Hats off to Samantha Power."

Rubin said Power's predecessor, current National Security Adviser Susan Rice, had "looked ridiculous and in turn the United States looked feeble going to the Security Council three times on Syria, only to be rebuffed by Russia each time.

"Samantha Power had enough of that pathetic demonstration of U.S. fecklessness," Rubin wrote.

BECOMING A DIPLOMAT

Power said her declaration that Washington had had enough of Russian intransigence on Syria, combined with Obama's threat of air strikes, had a positive impact and helped end the 15-nation Security Council's paralysis.

"In order to deal with a profound threat to peace and security, you need a Security Council that could deal with a threat to peace and security, and we can't. Period," she said.

Once Obama and Power slammed the door on U.N. diplomacy, U.S. officials say, the Russians rushed to reopen it and were suddenly cooperative in a way they had never been on Syria.

Power found herself doing the often unglamorous spade work and elliptical writing of a diplomat. She was in nonstop communication with veteran Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin as they negotiated a U.N. resolution demanding the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal.

"There was no time of night that I would call him where he wasn't ready to talk," Power said, adding that there was a period when it seemed as if she were spending more time with Churkin than with her children, husband and staff combined.

What Power described as a "crash course" in getting to know Churkin and her other U.N. counterparts paid off with a rare moment of Security Council unity when the resolution was unanimously adopted late on September 27, coinciding with the annual gathering of world leaders at U.N. headquarters.

Power has earned high marks from some of her Western colleagues during her first months on the job.

"Samantha has a winning combination of Irish charm and Pittsburgh steel," British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said. Power arrived in Pittsburgh after emigrating from Ireland with her family when she was 9 years old.

Others wonder whether she feels out of place in an administration that has proven so reluctant to intervene.

"She has been a forceful voice for U.S. intervention in the name of protecting victims of war crimes," said a U.S. academic, who asked not to be named to avoid any backlash. "So why did she hitch her wagon to a politician who has always been so obviously suspicious of American power?"

A senior Security Council diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity, put Power's past credentials in a different light - saying her roots as an activist who often favors military solutions over diplomatic ones are still apparent in her work on the council.

"I feel that she still wears the shoes of a human rights activist," he said. "Being too activist sometimes doesn't help in diplomacy."

Adams of the Global Centre welcomed the elevation of Power in an administration that he feels sometimes isn't as "activist" as it could be: "She is a genuine ally of those who want to end mass atrocities in the world, even if the administration she represents disappoints at times."

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Prudence Crowther)

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