Six takeaways from Samantha Power’s congressional hearing to serve as US aid chief

Former UN ambassador addressed her record under Obama and her vision for the future of USAID

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who is President Joe Biden's choice to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, gives an opening statement at her U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, DC, U.S., March 23, 2021. Greg Nash/Pool via REUTERS
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Veteran diplomat Samantha Power fielded questions from Congress for two hours on Tuesday, a necessary prerequisite before the Senate holds votes to confirm her to an important – yet often overlooked – position to serve as President Joe Biden’s administrator overseeing US foreign aid operations throughout the world.

During the hearing, senators grilled Ms Power on her record in the Middle East under the Obama administration and her vision to guide the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as the US competes with China for global influence and soft power.

A former US ambassador to the UN, Ms Power is an unusually high-profile nominee to serve as USAID administrator, reflecting the Biden administration's desire to reinvigorate American global assistance following former president Donald Trump's scepticism and efforts to slash foreign aid.

Here are the six biggest takeaways from Ms Power’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Power is set to play a conspicuous role in Biden’s Yemen policy

Texas Republican Ted Cruz pressed Ms Power over her thoughts on the Biden administration’s recent decision to undo former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s last-minute decision to designate the Houthi rebels as a terrorist organisation in January.

Ms Power defended the Biden administration’s rationale for removing the terrorist designation, arguing that it blocked the US from delivering life-saving aid to the 80 per cent of Yemenis who live under Houthi control.

“When I was at the United Nations, the Houthis overran a sovereign government, used military force for territorial acquisition, have used food as a weapon of war,” said Ms Power. “I’m on record condemning the actions, and specifically – again – the use of humanitarian aid.”

“The challenge is the vast majority of Yemenis live under Houthi control at the moment – unless and until there is a political settlement. And so it is really important, given that that’s the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe right now, that we find a way to give food to those vulnerable [people].”

The Trump administration cut off US aid to Houthi-held northern Yemen last year, but the Biden administration has touted the resumption of that assistance as a key pillar of its Yemen policy alongside its diplomatic push to resolve the conflict.

Saudi Arabia on Monday announced its own proposal to put in place a national ceasefire in Yemen, a plan that the US and the UN have endorsed.

Power defended her record on Israel

Mr Cruz also pushed Ms Power over the Obama administration’s decision not to use US veto power to halt a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank during her final months as ambassador.

The non-binding resolution, which Mr Cruz characterised as “a pile of lies, motivated by anti-Semitism, by hatred of Israel", condemned Israeli settlements as “a flagrant violation” of international law and passed the UN General Assembly 14-0 with the US abstaining.

“There were two, sort of, guiding principles that I relied upon as UN ambassador as it relates to Israel,” said Ms Power. “The first was to combat bias and anti-Semitism, and the unfair way that Israel has been treated at the UN and is treated at the UN. And the second, following [former] president Obama’s directive of course, was to preserve space for a two-state solution.”

Despite abstaining from the resolution, Ms Power also told Mr Cruz she does not believe that Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, which lies in the occupied eastern half of the city, qualifies as “illegally occupied territory".

She went on to tell Mr Cruz that his “question does not reflect the reality of my four years at the UN" and trotted out a list of pro-Israel accomplishments during her ambassadorship.

“Under my leadership, we secured Yom Kippur as a UN holiday,” said Ms Power. “We convened the first-ever General Assembly condemning anti-Semitism in the same chamber as the Zionism-is-racism resolution was passed decades before. And we integrated Israel in a way that had never been done before in chairing committees.”

Power pushed back on criticism of her Libya record

Although the USAID administrator has no role in US military matters, Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky grilled Ms Power over her aggressive push for Mr Obama to intervene in Libya when she served on his National Security Council.

Ms Power defended the intervention on the grounds that it protected civilians in Benghazi from Mr Qaddafi.

“The decision that president Obama made when confronted with the risk of the people of Benghazi and other civilian centres was an incredibly difficult one,” said Ms Power. “And in sitting in the situation room, I think it’s hard now to remember, with the United Nations, Nato, the Arab League, this body [the Senate] unanimously calling for a no-fly zone.”

Mr Obama has called the Libya intervention “the worst mistake” of his presidency, citing the lack of US involvement in the country following the eventual removal and death of Muammar Qaddafi.

“Certainly, the fallout after the intervention – the centrifugal forces – have been incredibly difficult to manage and above all, hard on the Libyan people,” said Ms Power.

Still, Ms Power told Mr Paul that “in the face of mass atrocities, there’s a whole set of non-military tools that I hope you would support deploying", noting that they carry “far fewer risks” than military intervention.

She also emphasised the need for the US to support elections in Libya, which are currently slated for December, following last week's installation of an interim government after years of conflict between two rival Libyan governments and their foreign backers.

Key Biden ally revealed details of his White House-sanctioned trip to mediate in Ethiopia

Mr Biden dispatched Chris Coons, a close Democratic ally from his home state of Delaware, to Ethiopia last week to mediate the conflict in the Tigray region, while USAID announced $52 million in humanitarian aid to help address the crisis.

Mr Coons revealed new details of his trip during Ms Power’s confirmation hearing.

“I also met with the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, and discussed with him and with other international leaders about carrying out a thorough and independent investigation about human rights abuses,” said Mr Coons. “The UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has also talked recently about doing a joint investigation.”

The four-month conflict between Ethiopian soldiers and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has killed more than 50,000 people and displaced thousands more. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Addis Ababa of “ethnic cleansing” and called for the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray.

Ms Power endorsed Mr Coons’s call for an investigation into human rights abuses in Tigray, but warned of the various hurdles such an endeavour could face.

“There are many countries where atrocity allegations have occurred that have developed unfortunately creative traditions erecting roadblocks where it matters,” said Ms Power. “In other words, harassing and intimidating witnesses and so forth, denying visas to particular communities, blaming so-called militia.”

Congress and Power want to increase private development loans to counter China

Republican Todd Young of Indiana asked Ms Power about her views on whether the US could increase the use of private sector loans to counter Chinese soft influence in the developing world.

“Increasing co-ordination between the Millennium Challenge Corporation, [Development Finance Corporation], USAID and a range of other development actors is one answer,” said Ms Power.

The US Development Finance Corporation provides loans for private development projects in low-income countries.

“This has been a year of tremendous Chinese expansionism and aggressiveness when it comes to developing countries,” said Ms Power. “But it hasn’t gone that well for China. You actually see very poor polling when it comes to China’s standing in the world.”

“That creates an opening for the United States. I think our comparative advantages are support for accountable governance, which aligns with what citizens want worldwide, our ability not only to bring in the [Development Finance Corporation] but in parallel private sector investment, which countries hunger for.”

While there is bipartisan interest in expanding the corporation’s role, policymakers have yet to form a consensus on what that looks like.

A group of congressional Democrats, for instance, have advocated doubling the agency's loan cap as part of their proposed $12 billion increase in the US foreign affairs budget.

For his part, Mr Young suggested making corporation loans available to developed countries as well, noting that China also uses its Belt and Road Initiative to focus on development projects in middle-income countries.

Ms Power did not commit to or rebuff Mr Young’s proposal, noting that she would want to look into the specifics.

Power praised the Trump administration

Ms Power praised the Trump administration for successfully convincing Britain to ban China’s technology company Huawei from its 5G networks during an exchange with Republican Bill Hagerty of Tennessee.

“The last administration exerted a lot of diplomatic pressure on countries and some of it was ultimately effective,” said Ms Power. “For example, the United Kingdom reversing its prior decision on Huawei and 5G.”

The US has asked its allies and partners to follow its lead in banning Huawei from their 5G networks, arguing that failing to do so would pose a security threat.

Former president Donald Trump had threatened to alter Washington’s intelligence-sharing relationship with Britain last year if London accepted Huawei technology.