Bait and Switch: The Politics of Samantha Power

The image above of the US exercising its veto power on the United Nations Security Council is not a rare one. The US has done so on dozens of occasions since it cast its first UNSC veto in 1970 to protect the white supremacist regime of Rhodesia. Since that time it has become the most frequent user of the UNSC veto. Most of these veto votes, including the one deployed above, have been in the service of the Israeli occupation. In that sense, the image is also unremarkable. 

The image is also unexceptional for another reason, although it may be illustrative. Samantha Power, the UN Ambassador from the United States that sits and raises her hand in defense of the decades long illegal Israeli occupation, is praised in the liberal press as a "child of Bosnia," "obsessed" with stopping genocide and crimes against humanity. To liberal eyes, Power is deemed remarkable and altogether different from brutal realist statesmen such as Kissinger or Bolton. 

But Samantha Power is not unique. Since the 1970's "human rights" have become part of the American foreign policy lexicon, like "democracy" or "economic freedom." Administrations have had some variance in their implementation of "human rights" as a principal. Carter at least made some improvements in US military aid policy, while Reagan openly opposed human rights even rhetorically, in favor of "fighting communism."

Despite small differences between administrations, US policy towards human rights has remained fairly consistent. The US supports human rights in enemy states, such as Iran and North Korea. When it comes to friendly clients and allies the US has generally shielded them from criticism or actively participated in their violations of human rights. Julie A. Mertus (2008) refers to this as the "bait and switch" approach to human rights, where the terminology of human rights is deployed to serve US strategic and ideological interests.  

The politics of Samantha Power almost perfectly conforms to "bait and switch." One only has to look to her twitter feed to find the evidence. Power finds it "absurd" that nations could fail to condemn DAESH or the Syrian regime. She points out the atrocious use of crude "barrel bombs" by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians, she fails to understand how countries could be "silent" in the face of North Korean crimes, and she condemns Palestinian terrorist attacks that kill praying civilians. Power's book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide plays similarly. In it she recounts crimes committed in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia. The only criticism of the United States is that it "stood by" while others conducted genocide. She fails to note that the US supported genocide in Cambodia for a time, and only briefly mentions the case of East Timor, a genocide in which the US did not "stand by" but actively assisted in its orchestration. In recent months, Power has ignored the Iraqi government's use of "barrel bombs" that, according to Human Rights Watch, have killed scores of civilians. Power also did not submit UNSC resolutions condemning recent human rights violations in a number of states such as Egypt, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia...all friends of the US.     

The recent veto of the UNSC resolution on Palestine only adds to the "bait and switch" hypothesis and only further illustrates the unexceptional nature of Power as UN Ambassador. When Palestinians resort to violence against small numbers of Israeli civilians, Power immediately issues condemnation. When the Israeli state flouts international law, conducts a half-century long illegal occupation, kills Palestinians daily, and conducts savage bombing campaigns that kill thousands, Power is relatively silent at best and reiterates the Israeli right to "self defense" at worst.   

It is difficult to tell, as it is with many politicians, if Power believes the words she speaks. Regardless, the liberal obsession with "noble individuals" and "change from within" only obscures the underlying consistency of US policy. The most praise one should give Power is that she has been predictable at least.