A new documentary called “Watchers of the Sky” tells the moving story of Raphael Lemkin, Polish lawyer and resistance fighter who spent his final years seeking to secure legislation against the crime of genocide at the United Nations. Lemkin’s struggle to guarantee a legal order capable of preventing the slaughter of civilians is brought to life through the narration of Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and famed diplomat who earned renown with her 2002 book, “A Problem From Hell,” documenting the international community’s failure to stop genocide in Rwanda.
Power emerges during the film not only as Lemkin’s biographer, but as his natural successor. She appears as a towering crusader for human rights using her influence as the US Ambassador to the UN to ensure that the phrase, “Never again,” is not just an empty slogan. A tireless advocate for the oppressed described by journalist Tara McKelvey as the “femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world,” her quest to keep Lemkin’s legacy alive seems to transcend American foreign policy objectives.
“The hardest part about my position is having great visibility into a lot of the pain that’s out there,” Power declares in a voice trembling with emotion. “It’s not someone else’s responsibility or the fodder for an article. It’s the fodder for what we can do about it.”
In her five years in government, however, Power has done nothing of substance to prevent atrocities. In fact, her most notable accomplishment might be her enabling of their most ruthless perpetrators, primarily through her protection of Israel, a serial human rights abuser and the world’s only active settler-colonial state. In Syria, meanwhile, where one of the greatest atrocities of modern times continues to devour civilian lives, Power’s high-profile initiatives have done little more than generate publicity for herself. And in Libya, where Power’s demand for military intervention influenced President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize force, the US has thrown open the floodgates of chaos, transforming a repressive but functional state into a destabilized battleground for local warlords and jihadists.
Without any mention of her actual accomplishments in government, “Watchers of the Sky” feels like a whitewash of a failure and moral fraud. But perhaps that was the point. Honored with the Ostrovsky Award by an Israeli foundation at the Jerusalem Film Festival during the height of Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip, “Watchers of the Sky” appears to be Power’s reward for her role in protecting Israel from international scrutiny and advancing American unilateralism. Through her active participation in the film, Power reveals herself as a dangerous cynic intent on shrouding her real record behind the aura of a long-dead human rights icon.
Indeed, while the film plays in cities around the US, earning critical acclaim along the way, Power remains an active enabler of some of the most egregious crimes against humanity.
Power entered Obama’s orbit just as excitement was building around his campaign for president. She endeared herself to the candidate first with a 2007 memo blaming “Washington’s conventional wisdom” for the “strategic blunder” of invading Iraq. She claimed that electing Obama would mean “a break from a broken way of doing things,” ushering in a new era of “fresh strategic thinking and common sense.”
“Barack Obama says we have to turn the page,” Power declared. “We cannot afford any more of this kind of bankrupt conventional wisdom. He has laid out a foreign policy that is bold, clear, principled, and tailored for the 21st century.”
Elected with a mandate to change Washington, Obama appointed Power as Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the National Security Council. The newfangled position sounded like it was custom tailored for a fresh strategic thinker like her. She played basketball with George Clooney and posed for spreads in glossy fashion magazines. Marie Claire declared her “the Smartest Woman in America.” Her book on the martyred Brazilian UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and his “fight to save the world” earned critical raves. Nearly everything Power did was under the media’s spotlight — everything except her actual duties inside the White House.
Described by White House foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes as “the point person at the White House on all issues related to Israel at the UN,” Power routinely coordinated with the Israeli government to help protect its occupation of Palestinian territory. It was a decidedly conventional task that began with her leading of the efforts to weaken the impact of the Goldstone Report that found Israel guilty of crimes against humanity during its assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. She then helped shield Israel from legal scrutiny after its commandos massacred 8 Turkish activists and one US citizen in international waters on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010. Next, Power spearheaded the US strategy to undermine the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations.
“Not a week went by without Samantha [Power] and me coordinating on an initiative to defend Israel from being singled out for unfair criticism at the UN or to protect against unilateral moves,” said US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
So much for breaking with a broken way of doing things.
In 2012, Power turned her attention to Syria, responding to the miasma of bloodshed by convincing the White House to establish an Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). Since its dramatic roll-out by President Barack Obama at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, the vaunted APB remains an empty shell. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a Democratic think tank that usually serves the goals of the Obama administration, concluded in a sharply critical 2013 assessment, “the continuing tragedy in Syria has cast a pall over the board’s work and has led many to sharply question its overall efficacy.” A few months later, a congressional staffer described the APB’s activities to CAP’s John Norris as “a complete black hole.” Thanks to the board’s curious lack of transparency, it is unknown if it sounded the alarm on the rise of ISIS, which was precisely the sort of thing it was created to do.
During her days as a journalist, Power scolded “bystanders to genocide” and exposed the failures of “people in offices” in Washington who had missed countless opportunities to halt the killing in Rwanda. She suggested that the best course of action for an advisor frustrated by presidential inaction in the face of atrocities was “a telling moment for a high-profile resignation.” But during the Syria crisis — one of the greatest moral tests of her tenure in the White House — Power performed no better than the foreign policy handlers she once roasted.
When White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough urged support for the Syrian status quo, arguing that a devastating war between Iranian proxies and Al Qaeda affiliates worked to America’s advantage, the best response Power could muster was to urge more military support for the loose conglomeration of Syrian rebels whose “moderates” were as elusive as the Yetti. When Obama adopted McDonough’s position just as the civilian death toll approached 100,000, Power was hardly prepared to stage a high-profile resignation.
Tears for Dershowitz, Drinks with Shmuley
Inside a conference hall in June 2013, Power stood before 40 of the most influential members of America’s Jewish establishment and openly cried. Having just been nominated by Obama to serve as the US Ambassador to the UN, the far-right Zionist Organization of America had attacked her for her supposed compassion for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. With her ambitions on the line, Power was determined to mollify the fanatics.
Power “suddenly became deeply emotional and struggled to complete her presentation as she expressed how deeply such accusations had affected her,” recalled Shmuley Boteach, the right-wing celebrity rabbi she had courted as her consigliere. “Tears streamed down her cheeks and I think it fair to say that there was no one in the room who wasn’t deeply moved by this incredible display of pain and emotion.”
The spectacle earned Power all the support she believed she needed to secure her confirmation. Marty Peretz, the former New Republic publisher who once opined that “Muslim life is cheap,” emerged as one of Power’s most vociferous defenders (“Samantha is a friend, a good friend,” he wrote). Alan Dershowitz, America’s most prominent supporter of the Israeli government and of the practice of torturing criminal suspects, called Power “a perfect choice.” And Michael Oren, the neoconservative pundit then serving as Israel’s Ambassador to the US, placed an unsolicited call to the New York Times offering his own effusive endorsement of Power.
Even with her confirmation virtually ensured, Power was not taking any chances. “We need to deter the Palestinians in any way we can — and we need to get their attention,” Power proclaimed before the Senate, earning effusive praise from Republican Sen. John McCain. Hours later, Power was seen celebrating her confirmation at a local Irish pub with Boteach, her consigliere who had recently justified atrocities committed against Palestinians by likening them to the Nazis.
With Power seated at the UN, the Israel lobby chalked up one of its greatest political coups of the Obama era, securing perhaps the most high profile product of the human rights industrial complex as a weapon in its war on the Palestinians. As a renewed assault on Gaza approached, Power was in their hands.
Defending the Gaza Slaughter
Known as Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip began on July 8. 51 days later, over 2100 residents of the besieged coastal enclave lay dead, most of them civilians. Over 11,000 were wounded in the war, leaving over 1000 children with lifelong disabilities; as many as 1500 children were orphaned and 89 entire families were completely liquidated by Israeli attacks. Almost 20,000 housing units were totally destroyed or badly damaged, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Gaza lay in ruins, with its border areas transformed into apocalyptic moonscapes of devastation. The violence against the occupied population was unprecedented in scale, raising widespread debate about whether Israel was carrying out atrocities with genocidal intent.
During the war, Power defended Israel with drone-like reliability. Even when she condemned Israeli assaults on UN schools where civilians fleeing their destroyed homes had taken shelter, Power placed the blame on Hamas and scarcely mentioned Israel. What’s more, she parroted the baseless claims that the schools had been used as bases for rocket launches, essentially justifying attacks on facilities maintained by the international institution she had once presented as the last, best hope against genocide.
On July 18, the day Israeli naval gunners massacred four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach before the eyes of dozens of foreign correspondents, Power opened her speech by stating, “the United States is deeply concerned about the rocket attacks by Hamas.” Four days later, Power stood before the UN and placed full responsibility for civilian suffering in Gaza on Hamas while noting that “we have consistently recognized Israel’s right to defend itself.”
There would be no tears for the people of Gaza.
Echoing Israel lobby criticism of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s plans to investigate Protective Edge, Power declared towards the final stage of assault on Gaza that the council “has shown itself incapable of engaging constructively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” More recently, Power was credited with persuading members of the UN Security Council to block a resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines — to essentially shield the occupation of the West Bank from international law.
If her appearance in “Watchers of the Sky” is any indication, Power has yet to reckon with the consequences of her role in enabling some of the worst atrocities ever committed against one of the world’s longest-suffering populations. It is as if the more than 500 children killed in Gaza this summer never existed; as though they were ghosts.
Towards the end of the documentary, after nearly two hours of heart-rending footage of atrocities from Auschwitz to Rwanda to Darfur (genocides committed by US allies are never mentioned), Power begins to tear up, just as she did in her fateful appearance before the pro-Israel lobby.
“I always think about the privilege of getting to try,” she says. “Just to try.”
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