WASHINGTON — Samantha Power took the podium at Columbia University on Monday night sounding hoarse and looking uncomfortable. In two hours, President Obama would address the nation on Libya and Ms. Power, the fiery human rights crusader who now advises Mr. Obama on foreign policy, did not want to get out in front of the boss.
“I’m not going to talk much about Libya,” she began, though when it came time for questions she could not help herself. “Our best judgment,” she said, defending the decision to establish a no-fly zone to prevent atrocities, was that failure to do so would have been “extremely chilling, deadly and indeed a stain on our collective conscience.”
That the president used almost precisely the same language was hardly a surprise. For nearly 20 years, since her days as a young war correspondent in Bosnia, Ms. Power has championed the idea that nations have a moral obligation to prevent genocide. Now, from her perch on the National Security Council, she is in a position to make that case to the commander in chief — and to watch him translate her ideas into action.
The Irish-born Ms. Power, 40, functions as kind of an institutional memory bank on genocide; her 2002 book on the topic, “A Problem from Hell,” won the Pulitzer Prize. While she was by no means alone in advocating military intervention in Libya — Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state, was a pivotal voice — the president’s decision to pursue that course is something of a personal triumph for her.
It is also a public relations headache. Critics say Ms. Power is pushing the United States into another Iraq. (Ms. Power, like Mr. Obama, was a vocal opponent of that war.) American Thinker, a conservative Web site, complains that Mr. Obama has “outsourced foreign policy” to Ms. Power. The Daily Beast calls her “the femme fatale of the humanitarian assistance world.”
Ms. Power, who declined an interview, is trying to maintain a low profile, still seared, perhaps, by the memory of how she flamed out as an Obama campaign adviser by calling Mrs. Clinton “a monster.” The women have patched it up — the late diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, friend to Mrs. Clinton and mentor to Ms. Power, arranged a reconciliation — and Ms. Power arrived at the White House determined to “stay in her lane,” in the words of one friend, and avoid headlines.
Yet for all her efforts to shun the spotlight, there has long been a whiff of celebrity about her. Aside from her Pulitzer and two Ivy League degrees (Yale undergraduate, Harvard Law), she has posed in an evening gown for Men’s Vogue and once played basketball with George Clooney.
When she married the constitutional law scholar Cass Sunstein — they met on the Obama campaign trail and he now runs the White House Office of Regulatory Affairs — Esquire dubbed them “The Fun Couple of the 21st Century” and photographed them on the squash court, in tennis whites.
She arrived in Bosnia as a freelance journalist at age 22, “a flame-haired, freckled girl with guts,” in the words of one reporter who knew her. Diplomats admired her intellect and passion. She was not shy about haranguing American officials for what she saw as the United States’ failure to act.
“She would argue that the failure of the Clinton administration to engage in airstrikes against the Serbs, and to take military action to stop the genocide was immoral,” said Peter W. Galbraith, ambassador to Croatia at the time.
He recently turned the tables on Ms. Power, sending her an e-mail in which he warned her not to let Libya become “Obama’s Rwanda,” a reference to former President Bill Clinton, who has expressed deep regret over failing to intervene to prevent atrocities there. Mr. Galbraith said Ms. Power, having learned the lesson that “when you’re inside government, you live with constraints,” did not reply.
Friends say Ms. Power is sensitive to any notion that she has outsize influence with the president.
The United States did not go to war in Libya because “there was some dramatic meeting in the Oval Office where everybody tried to persuade the president not to do this, and Samantha rolled in with her flowing red hair and said, ‘Mr. President, I stand here alone in telling you that history calls upon you to perform this act,’ ” said Tom Malinowski, who runs the Washington office of Human Rights Watch and is a friend of Ms. Power. Mr. Obama sought her out in early 2005, when he was a new senator and had just read her book. After a four-hour dinner, they found themselves so much in sync that she volunteered to take a leave from her Harvard professorship to work for him.
The book argues that genocides — in places like Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia and Rwanda — have occurred because governments averted their eyes and individuals made conscious choices not to intervene. “The most common response,” Ms. Power wrote, “is, ‘We didn’t know.’ This is not true.”
As a journalist, she was one of the first to chronicle the bloody ethnic cleansing in Sudan. In 2004, on assignment for The New Yorker, she visited refugee camps in Chad and slipped into rebel-held areas in Darfur, to interview survivors and see villages that were burned to the ground. Some experts say her work helped persuade President George W. Bush to apply the label genocide to the situation.
But if Ms. Power was able to prick the collective conscience of elected officials as an outsider, on the inside she has confronted the difficulties of making policy in a complex environment with competing demands.
She has been successful in urging the Obama administration to embrace Congressional legislation calling for the arrest of the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which enslaves children as guerrilla fighters. As of last year, the White House has a full-time staff members devoted to monitoring atrocities — a position Ms. Power pushed for. But in Darfur, violence has escalated as the administration has shifted its attention to south Sudan.
On Libya, Ms. Power’s critics — and even some admirers — suggest she may be helping to set a precedent that will invariably fail. “I think what she is doing is good,” said Bill Nash, a retired Army general who commanded forces in Bosnia. “But I suspect it is more black and white to her than the real world portrays.”
In her long-scheduled speech at Columbia on Monday night, Ms. Power did not dwell on such questions. Rather, she gave a bland recitation of Mr. Obama’s human rights policy. When it was over, she was mobbed by book-toting autograph-seekers. When she spied a gaggle of reporters, she cupped her hands to her temples and lowered her head as if to say: no questions.