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Obama's U.N. nominee calls inaction on Syria 'disgrace'

Samantha Power, a former White House aide and Harvard professor, testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing
Samantha Power, a former White House aide and Harvard professor, testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Samantha Power, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, promised to push for action on Syria and fight what she termed "unacceptable bias" against Israel at the world body during her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

"We see the failure of the U.N. Security Council to respond to the slaughter in Syria - a disgrace that history will judge harshly," Power, best known as a human rights advocate, said in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The 42-year-old's confirmation is expected to win strong support in both the committee and full Senate. The foreign relations panel will likely vote on Power's nomination next Tuesday, said Senator Robert Menendez, its chairman.

The committee's approval would pave the way for a vote in the 100-member Senate shortly afterward.

During mostly friendly questioning, Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her study of U.S. failures to prevent genocide, called Syria one of the "most devastating cases of mass atrocity that I have ever seen."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government has "written a new playbook for brutality," she said. She said Washington needs to push Russia in particular on Syria, although she acknowledged that she does not expect action soon.

One U.N. Security Council diplomat expressed skepticism about Powers' ability to bring Russia and China around to an anti-Assad stance on Syria, saying on condition of anonymity, "Good luck."

Power said the United Nations should do more to push Iran to negotiate an end to its nuclear program. Noting that she had been part of the Obama administration push for tough sanctions, Power said she backed tightening them by closing loopholes.

Nominated to replace new National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Power also took a tough line on attitudes in the United Nations on Israel.

She promised to end what she termed "unacceptable bias and attacks" against the close U.S. ally, and criticized Iran, calling for tightened sanctions.

She also said she would lobby for Israel to get a seat on the U.N. Security Council, a U.S. policy that has been blocked by the large number of countries that are cold or hostile toward the Jewish state.

Power had been criticized by some conservatives for seeming to suggest, in a 2002 interview with an academic, that the U.S. Army might be needed to police the Middle East conflict if either Israel or the Palestinians move toward genocide.

Power has disassociated herself many times from that comment. On Wednesday, she called it part of "a long, rambling and remarkably incoherent response to a hypothetical question that I should never have answered."

REPUBLICAN PRAISE

There was some pointed questioning about past statements - some made more than a decade ago - but Power was praised by many Republicans, as well as by Obama's fellow Democrats. Several senators said they looked forward to her U.N. tenure.

"I am confident that the same passion that she has for human rights, she has for this country," said Senator Saxby Chambliss, one of two Republican senators from Georgia who introduced Power, who grew up in the state.

Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the committee, said he expected Power would be "a significant and positive force at the United Nations," but was one of several senators who urged her to pursue reforms at the world body.

"All too often the U.N. acts as a place where bad actors deflect criticism," he said.

Some senators also pushed for more control of the U.N. budget, particularly the amount that Washington spends on peacekeeping, which Power promised to support.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a committee member, introduced legislation shortly before the hearing that would reduce U.S. funding to the United Nations unless there are major changes at the world body.

(Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Alistair Bell and Stacey Joyce)

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