The Struggle for Better

Samantha Power
Samantha Power; illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

From April 1992 until the summer of 1995, the newly independent republic of Bosnia endured the darkest violence to disfigure Europe since World War II. Bosnian Serb militias attacked the republic’s Muslim and Croat populations, killing tens of thousands of civilians. Their siege of the capital, Sarajevo, claimed more than five thousand civilian lives. The administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton took no decisive military action; they argued that there was no way to stop Serbian aggression without incurring an unacceptable number of American casualties. Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush, opposed committing US forces to war for what he called “unclear purposes.” William Perry, Clinton’s secretary of defense, explained that there was “no support, either in the public or in the Congress, for taking sides in [this] war as a combatant, so we will not.”

During the worst of the conflict, Samantha Power, an Irish-born American who was then in her early twenties and had recently graduated from Yale, moved to Sarajevo to work as a freelance journalist. As she documented the war’s cruelty—snipers picking off shoppers, shells smashing into schools and markets—she grew angry and then despairing about her government’s impotence. She came “to feel increasingly like a vulture, preying upon Bosnian misery to write my stories,” as she puts it in The Education of an Idealist, her recently published memoir.

Power decided to enroll at Harvard Law School. The war reached a turning point as she prepared to move home. In July 1995 Bosnian Serb authorities massacred more than eight thousand Muslim prisoners at Srebrenica, a slaughter that provoked public outrage in Europe and the US. At last, on August 30, NATO, led by the United States, launched a bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb targets. For just under three weeks, NATO bombers and cruise missiles badly damaged Serbian forces while suffering no combat casualties. After the assault, the Bosnian Serbs agreed to participate in peace talks, and in November, in Dayton, Ohio, the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke brokered an accord that ended the civil war. The agreement granted Bosnian Serbs territory captured through aggression, yet it stopped the violence, and the US deployed 20,000 troops to help keep the peace.

For Power, it seemed clear that many thousands of Bosnians had died unnecessarily because “realists” in the Bush and Clinton administrations had grossly overestimated the costs of intervention against the Serbs. After graduating law school, she directed a human rights center at Harvard and became involved in debates about how to strengthen the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. Power began research on what would become her magisterial history of failed US responses to mass atrocities after World War II, from Cambodia in the 1970s to Kosovo in 1999. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America and…

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