The Buzz

Why Is Samantha Power Speaking to Invisible Children?

“O-M-G.” These were the opening words—letters?—of Samantha Power’s first major speech as America’s permanent representative to the United Nations. It was an appropriate reaction—Power had just walked out onto the stage at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit to screams and adulatory applause, moments after a slick video introduction had lauded her achievements. She’s something of a rock star in liberal-interventionist circles, and on Saturday she looked the part, working the cheering crowd like a pro. No UN ambassador has likely ever enjoyed such a reception, at least not since Bill Richardson’s baseball days.

Yet why did Power choose Invisible Children for her debut? The organization is controversial in humanitarian circles. Founded to address atrocities by Uganda’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, the organization shot to fame early last year after its documentary on LRA head Joseph Kony went viral, plugged by celebrities and viewed tens of millions of times. Criticism swiftly followed—the film was trashed for grossly oversimplifying a complicated conflict, its fans for thinking that tweets and t-shirts could stop a war, and its producers for running an organization focused as much on “awareness” as on action. Most of the organization’s budget last year went to administrative costs, media production and “mobilization” efforts; less than 40 percent went to programs that directly address the impact of Kony and the LRA. Most of its revenue comes from sales of trendy merchandise. I’ve met my share of Africa wonks and development workers; I’ve yet to meet one with a positive view of Invisible Children.

That’s why Power’s move is odd. She’s no simpleton—her work as a reporter on the Yugoslav conflicts and her Pulitzer-winning 688-page brick of a book on genocide testify to that. She has to be intimately familiar with Invisible Children’s problems. Her speech showed she knows the organization’s style—it’s a mix of inspirational platitudes, praise for the audience and social-media plugs. And it was at times painfully naive, suggesting that human nature and political realities can be transcended by youthful passion and moral clarity—“The most powerful weapon of all...is YOU. It is the next generation that is unencumbered by 68 years of doing things a certain way, but that still feels deeply connected to the same urgency, the same vision, the same belief that drove the creation of the UN. Peace.”

Power’s appropriation of Invisible Children’s approach hints at her reasoning. Invisible Children isn’t the most effective humanitarian organization, or the richest. But it has the biggest media presence and a proven ability to mobilize swarms of supporters, and it's far more willing than mainstream aid groups to urge military action. It also cuts across traditional political lines, courting lefty college students and evangelical Christians alike. If Power is hoping to use her spot on Obama’s cabinet to push America toward a foreign policy of armed altruism, Invisible Children would be a powerful backer. “Your activism enables us to do more,” said Power, continuing that “without you, it’s not at all obvious that there would be such strong bi-partisan support for sending U.S. military advisors to central Africa to help defeat a warlord.”

It’s a savvy political move, especially for someone who’s never held an elected office. But it says nothing good about liberal interventionism that one of its most powerful proponents sees a constituency in an ill-informed band of young idealists.