The brilliant Samantha Power’s two problems: China and her ‘monster’ comment about another powerful woman

Special to

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is on a fast track, and that’s not just in terms of her hot-shot career. She’s up against a tight deadline. She’s got until Jan. 20 to persuade the U.N. Security Council to strengthen what she says is already the toughest set of sanctions ever imposed by the U.N.

They were supposed to shut off North Korea so tightly, no way could Fearless Leader Kim Jong-Un order up more nuclear tests or press the button on more missiles. There was, however, a problem. He was still getting the money he needed, somehow, to pay for more, more, more ― more of everything, including nukes and missiles.

Samantha Power.
Samantha Power.

Power sounds like a whip-sharp persuader as she talks, as she did during five or six days in Tokyo and then Seoul, about working night and day to get all 14 UNSC members in line behind tougher, better, greater sanctions. She knows she has to work fast. If they don’t come around to her idea of the toughest sanctions in modern history, she might not get any real sanctions at all.

In fact, the deadline for her crusade may come much sooner than the inauguration of a new president on Jan. 20. She might not have much power after the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8. For sure, voices among UNSC members, not just the Chinese and Russians, will be saying, let’s wait until the next president takes office and appoints a new UN ambassador. By that time, of course, Kim Jong-Un may have ordered another nuclear test and popped off a few more missiles, adding ever more urgency to the debate.

Power has a terrible problem about waiting for the fast-approaching deadlines of the U.S. election and the inauguration of President Obama’s successor, and it’s not just Chinese and Russian lack of enthusiasm.

She’s shown a tremendous ability to survive under Obama, having served as foreign policy adviser during his first presidential campaign and then joining the National Security Council before he sent her off to the U.N. as ambassador ― a position that has the unique distinction among ambassadors of making whoever’s got it a member of the president’s cabinet.

The problem is that Power, for all her great statements and speeches, made the critical error while working on the first Obama campaign in 2008 of telling a British reporter that Hillary Clinton was “a monster.”

Now there are those who might agree with that description, but Power isn’t counting on any of them to come to her rescue. She’s apologized to no end, said she didn’t know what she was saying, that she’s a big admirer of Hillary, just about anything to get past that remark. Fine, but will Hillary buy it and retain her as UN ambassador or give her some equally prestigious position?

C’mon. Hillary, as the whole world knows by now, is not all that nice or forgiving. Ok, she may be nicer than Donald Trump, but would Hillary be so magnanimous as to say, “Sure, Samantha, what’s past is past, you didn’t mean it and all is forgiven”? Samantha, being the sharp and clever insider she is, might just be able to wriggle her way past the Hillary problem and get on her team, but that’s a big “might.”

Yes, Power knows her days at the U.N. are numbered and that everyone on the UNSC is aware of this “monster” problem. That knowledge adds a certain desperation to her quest for tougher sanctions ― maybe wishful thinking too.

Does she realistically think China is going to go beyond unconvincing displays of cooperation and staunch the flow of funds by Chinese middlemen into North Korea? Will China slow or even suspend oil shipments into North Korea? And what about the import of North Korean coal by both China and Russia? Does Power think that’s going to stop too?

One thing about Power is easy to overlook. She is inexperienced in dealing with Asia. She undoubtedly thinks she knows just about everything in pursuing this airtight set of really tough sanctions.

It’s not hard to see why she’s so self-confident. This poised, well-spoken brilliant woman has already been a star journalist in eastern Europe, has won a Pulitzer prize for her book about genocide, has been a professor at Harvard, where she got a law degree, and has won near universal respect from a raft of peers and colleagues. On top of all that, she’s married to a Harvard law professor, a former Obama administration biggie, and they’ve got two kids.

But do all those undoubted accomplishments mean she can ram new sanctions through the UNSC in the weeks before the election or at the latest before the next president, presumably Clinton, takes office in January?

What makes her think the Chinese will be any more susceptible to her firm, logical, brilliant talk than they’ve been to much the same talk from others? Power may discover the meaning of hubris when her great new sanctions either don’t get adopted — or don’t prove more effective than all the others.

Donald Kirk has been covering negotiations with North Korea ever since the North-South Red Cross talks in 1972. He’s reachable at [email protected].