Last month, as the president prepared to strike the Assad regime, Power unleashed a broadside against Russia, Syria's primary patron. Moscow's persistent opposition to a Security Council action reining in Syria, she alleged, had emboldened the regime to use chemical weapons and forced the United States to move outside the Council to act. On Twitter, she linked to a 12-minute-long video montage of images of children writhing in agony from the apparent effects of toxic agents. In Washington, she told an audience of foreign policy wonks that the "costs of not taking targeted, limited military action are far greater than the risks of going forward."
But Power's case, like the president's, was drawn narrowly around the use of chemical weapons, which have killed a tiny minority of Syria's victims. "The United States cannot police every crisis," she said, assuring her audience that there would be "no American boots" on the ground in Syria. In the end, the administration has settled on a deal that offers the hope, if not the certainty, that Syria can be persuaded to destroy its entire chemical weapons arsenal. If it succeeds, the deal could mark a major landmark in efforts to contain the use of chemical weapons. But opposition figures fear it provides more false hopes, providing Assad's government with another opportunity to buy time while he continues his military campaign against the opposition.
Power rose to national prominence on the weight of her writings on genocide, particularly her blunt, often damning accounts of America's repeated failures to confront mass murder over the past century. Those works have made her "an atrocities prevention rock star," according to Simon Adams, the director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.
But in her current position she has highlighted the limits of American power.
"Unlike most U.N. ambassadors, Samantha Power has lived war -- was a witness to its horrors," added Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, who first met Power in Bosnia in 1994, when she was working as a freelance journalist and he served as a U.N. political officer. "No one doubts she will represent the U.S. faithfully and ably," he said. "Although it is her exposure to the atrocities of the Balkan wars many years ago, and her academic and public performance since, which gives her a moral standing of some distinction among her peers here, opening the way for her to fix, ultimately, her own personal signature on the work we do at the U.N."
But Power has her critics, who feel she has learned all the wrong lessons from her years witnessing war. David Rieff -- an American writer who, like Power, covered the Bosnian conflict -- sees Power as all-too-willing to devote U.S. firepower to causes it has no business being in. In that way, Rieff said, Power wasn't all that different from Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. Rieff, a fierce critic of humanitarian intervention, recalled an encounter with Power back a book festival on the UCLA campus in which she took issue with that assessment: "She said 'I'm not Paul Wolfowitz.' And I said, 'actually, you know, you are.' And I actually do think she is. Paul Wolfowitz was sincere, too."
In her voluminous writings, Power defined her own brand of American exceptionalism, making the case that the promotion of human rights is compatible with broader national security interests. A great power like the United States, in her view, must exhibit the intellectual honesty and courage to come to terms with its past failings to remain truly great. It must dispense criticism equally to our friends and foes. Why for instance, she asked, do we upbraid the Palestinians for abusing human rights, while turning a blind eye to the excesses of close allies like Pakistan or major world powers like Russia?
"We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States," she wrote in a 2003 article in the New Republic. "A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors." President Bill Clinton's apology to Rwandans for failing to do more to halt the 1994 genocide, and the former German Chancellor Willie Brandt's apology to the Jews for the Holocaust, as cathartic gestures that gratified the survivors and elevated the moral standing of those offering the apology.
Of course, it's easier to make that point as a writer than as a presidential aide or cabinet officer. During her stint on the National Security Council, Power has curbed her instincts for the kind of candor that produced the New Republic piece -- or landed her in hot water during the 2008 presidential campaign, when she described Obama's then-rival Hillary Rodham Clinton as a "monster."
Under questioning by Senator Marco Rubio (R-N.J.) and other Republican senators at her confirmation hearing, Power repudiated some of her strongly held views, reciting her love for country again and again like a mantra: "I, as an immigrant to this country, think that this country is the greatest country on Earth," she said. "I would never apologize for America." On Israel, a country that she had criticized as a scholar, she assured American Jewish leaders and the Senate that she didn't really mean everything she had said. "The United States has no greater friend in the world than the state of Israel," she assured the Senate. "I will stand up for Israel and work tirelessly to defend it."
Adams said that many of Samantha Power's most ardent fans were taken aback by the performance. "Their jaws dropped," he said. Adams said he was less troubled, noting that this is what one has to do to get confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He said he believes her appointment to the top job is "amazing."
Assessing one official's influence on an administration's policies is always difficult to nail down, given the confidential nature of internal deliberations. Power has been credited with establishing the Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency body that was created in April 2012 to make sure that the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities was a priority at the highest level of government.
But the Obama administration's record has been more mixed.
The United States did little to halt the killing of more than 70,000 people in Sri Lanka. Power has been identified as advocating for military action in Libya, where the United States, after some initial hesitancy, led a NATO air campaign that toppled a bloodthirsty Libyan regime.
Syria has proven to be a bridge too far, however. "I know most Americans don't want to think about war and rightly so but it's the responsibility of figures like Samantha Power and other to make the case to the American public and to the world," Ghadbian said. "This is something that must not be allowed to go unpunished, and I believe she is in a position to make a difference."