Last week, Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin broke the story that the Obama White House had decided to quietly waive sanctions against four countries—Chad, Yemen, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—that use child soldiers. Through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) fund, the United States supports a number of military training and counter terrorism programs in each of these countries. If the Obama adminstration had adhered to 2008’s Child Soldiers Prevention Act—a law the president himself co-sponsored when he served in the Senate—that funding should have been yanked. Instead, the administration effectively gave the four offending countries a pass, with the State Department arguing that withdrawing the assistance would jeopardize America’s ability to “positively influence the negative behavoir patterns currently exhibited.”
Naturally, the decision to waive sanctions angered human rights activists and others who believed the adminstration was caving on a key issue. On Friday the White House hosted a conference call to smooth things over with Hill staffers and represenatives of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, and World Vision. On the White House end of the line was Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. “Given the way you all heard about the implementation of the statute,” she said on the call, “I can understand why some of the reactions that you had were prevalent.”
Power covered the wars in the Balkans in the mid-’90s before attending Harvard Law School. She’s also a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and authored the Pulitzer-prize winning A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a sweeping history of the persisting causes of genocide. In it, Power argues that countries like the United States must consider how their interests in other parts of the world profoundly shape those countries’ human rights equations.
Power’s book doesn’t let anyone off the hook, so it’s more than a little jarring to hear that Power was forced to defend the White House’s non-announcement of the controversial waiver. Participants on the call argued that the four countries have had plenty of time to adapt to the Child Soldier Prevention Act’s rules on child soldiers, and that military aid hasn’t had any palpable impact on reforming their practices so far. Even worse, the United States loses leverage over those four countries by forgoing sanctions. Power said that the Obama administration still plans to fight the use of child soldiers, and warn Chad, Yemen, Sudan, and the DRC that they wont get off so easy next time.
Power repeatedly attempted to argue that the attention over the president’s decision to waive sanctions was exactly the kind of public pressure needed to spur violator governments to change. However, her argument was complicated by the fact that the administration failed to tell anyone about the decision and announced it with no rollout or explanation whatsoever.
Power’s knack for spin isn’t why she was brought onto the Obama campaign as an advisor back in 2008 and later given a job on the NSC. Presumably it was her staunch commitment to human rights, which was in line with Obama’s own campaign pledges on the subject. Working as a top aide to the president, though, she’s required to sell his policies. But you have to wonder if she’s actually on board with this one.