The Controversial Africa Policy of Susan Rice

Laurent Kabila, whom the Clinton administration had pressured in response to massacres of Hutu refugees in the eastern Congo in the years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, was assassinated just days before George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001. Frazer says that the Bush administration used the elevation of his son Joseph to the presidency as an opening for pursuing a regional peace agreement, which was eventually signed in 2003. Because of the change in leadership, "we were able to position ourselves in a more neutral fashion vis-a-vis Congo and Rwanda and Uganda and not be painted as being on one side or another," she said. She emphasized that this is not intended as a criticism of Clinton's policy, and adds that there is nothing in Rice's record that she considers disqualifying for secretary of state.

Frazer was, however, critical of the Obama administration's current approach in Central Africa. She says the U.S. could have pushed for MONUSCO, the U.N. peacekeeping force based in the eastern DRC, to take a more active role in the conflict, or it could have taken the lead on figuring out how or whether a multinational force agreed to by regional governments in July would be deployed. "I think the Obama team has been anemic in its Africa policy," she said. "And that is also expressed in the DRC and the Great Lakes region. They basically haven't been present. They haven't shaped events to the point where these problems that they're seeing today wouldn't be there."

Frazer notes that Rice hasn't even been officially nominated yet. Because Obama has strongly implied that she might be nominated without officially committing to her as his choice for the next secretary of state, Rice's candidacy has been debated among partisans and pundits rather than by the members of the Senate who have to confirm her. "Susan Rice finds herself getting vetted in public in the worst way," Frazer says, "without even the benefit of a nomination."

* * *

The past four years of American policy in Africa, and the larger tendency toward trusting, cooperating with, and even shielding troublesome governments, cannot be pinned on Rice alone. And Clinton, Albright and Rice were merely pursuing a policy that made sense at the time, and that might still make sense today. Since the outbreak of the conflict in the mid-1990s, American policymakers have assumed that it was impossible to make peace in the eastern Congo without the cooperation of Museveni and Kagame, especially given both Uganda and Rwanda's legitimate national security interests in the region (a heroes-and-villains-type dichotomy in a conflict as complex as the eastern DRC's would be counterproductive in any event). Frazer rejects the idea that Clinton should not have closely engaged with these governments. "I think the Clinton administration tried to structure regional approaches to address the peace and security challenges in Africa," she said. "There are times where it advances things, and there are times where it doesn't advance things as much as we like."

The real-world results of any policy are inherently unknowable, especially in a situation as dizzying as the eastern DRC in the late 1990s. This uncertainty should hardly exempt policymakers from accountability, and according to Rosenblum's article, it was unclear whether Rice really understood the consequences of the U.S.'s close relationship with Kagame, or the impact of running interference for a government that might have been working against regional stability and peace:

On September 15 [1998], Susan Rice addressed the growing perception of complicity in testimony before the Congress. "Mr. Chairman, let me be clear: the United States in no way supported, encouraged, or condoned the intervention of Rwandan or Ugandan forces in the Congo, as some have suggested. This is a specious and ridiculous accusation that I want to lay to rest once and for all." But these statements did little good. Nearly four years later, an official in the new Colin Powell State Department told me, the United States had gotten to the point where the French 'no longer believe that the United States is funding the war.' But that was about it.

Has anything changed since the early days of the 1998 crisis? Back then, Rosenblum notes, "The official State Department statements ... show[ed] a new concern for human rights problems in Congo balanced against tepid anti-war language." Today, the weeks since the escalation of the M23 crisis have played out in an eerily similar fashion. On November 20 and 21, 2012, State Department spokespeople wove their way through questions about Rwanda's role in the M23 crisis, and made an apparently conscious effort to avoid singling out Kagame's government. And there's the Security Council statement on the escalating crisis, which obliquely calls for "an end to any and all outside support" without saying whose support, exactly.

In 1998, the U.S. government believed it could use its existing close relations with Kagame's government to push for a negotiated solution. There was none to be had for another three years, and that was only after the leadership of the United States and the Congo had changed. Despite the failure of this strategy, this seems to be the Obama administration's plan of action today. The wars are broadly similar. The U.S. policy approach to ending them is similar. And at least one of the people at heart of American diplomacy in Africa is the same -- a gifted and respected diplomat who might be the U.S.'s next secretary of state.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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