What Susan Rice Has Meant for U.S. Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa

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How the possible-next Secretary of State helped the U.S. continue a Cold War-style approach to the continent -- and aided a new generation of dictators in the process.

Rice South Sudan banner.jpg
Rice, then the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, walks through a market in southern Sudan (now the independent state of South Sudan) on November 19th, 2000. (Boris Grdanoski/AP Photo)

There is another way to think about the prospective nomination of Susan Rice for secretary of state.

It is one that is immeasurably more consequential than the Washington-centered and highly politicized controversy over her role in explaining the September 11 attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi.

It is a way of thinking that looks at what kind of power the United States has been over the last 20 years, and it asks probingly about what kind of role it will play in the thick of this present century.

In any discussion of Susan Rice's career, there is no escaping Africa. It is the place where she cut her teeth and built her essential record as a diplomat and national security official. Although there has been nary a hint of this in the fuss about Benghazi, I would go further still and say that one would be hard pressed to find anyone in American government who has played a larger and more sustained role in shaping Washington's diplomacy toward that continent over the last two decades.

If Rice survives the current controversy over Libya and is nominated to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, understanding the details of her past work in Africa, and drawing her out about Washington's approach toward the continent in the future, should be a matter of serious national concern.

Right now, Africa is changing with extraordinary speed and in surprising ways, but American policy there remains stale and stuck in the past: unambitious, underinvested and conceptually outdated.

This holds true at a time when the continent is growing demographically and urbanizing faster than any place before in history. Africa is booming economically as well, with an overall growth rate faster than Asia, and an emerging middle class larger than India's.

China, the United States' preeminent global rival, clearly gets this, and treats Africa not just as a place from which to extract mineral wealth -- which of course it does -- but also as a vital source of growth for the world economy going forward. China also views Africa as a geopolitical space of rapidly developing markets and huge business opportunities, including a nearly endless supply of new and underserved consumers.

China is not alone, either. Brazil, India, Turkey and Vietnam, to name just a few of the other fast-growing players, see Africa in much the same way, and are racing to establish a new, mature style of relations with the continent -- one driven by promise, and not by the pity and strong paternalism that have characterized so much Western engagement for so long.

The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in an approach whose foundation dates to the Cold War, when we cherry-picked strongmen among Africa's leaders, autocrats we could "work with," according to the old diplomatic cliché.

These were men like Zaire's late dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, whose anti-democratic politics, systematic human rights violations, and high tolerance for corruption we were willing to overlook so long as they stayed on our side in the great strategic struggles of the day. We counted on them to hold down the fort in their respective countries and regions, and in so doing, as the thinking went, to protect U.S. interests.

The binary jousting of the Cold War that seemed to justify this strategy is long gone, along with our old adversary, the Soviet Union. But the American approach to Africa remains strangely stuck in that mold even now, and this fact owes far more than the public recognizes to the diplomacy of Susan Rice.

When I first encountered Rice in Mali, during a visit there by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1996, she was a well-connected and high-achieving senior NSC staffer in her early thirties. She was possessed of a quick step and a look of complete self-confidence.

Most unusually for someone her age, she already had a career-defining crisis behind her, one in which she has played an important role: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

According to Samantha Power, Rice's advice to the Clinton White House in the critical early phases of the killing there was to avoid any public recognition that actual genocide was being committed, because to do so would legally require the United States to take action, and this (echoes of Benghazi?) might affect upcoming congressional elections.

Former senior State Department officials who knew Rice in her next job, as assistant secretary for African affairs, give her great credit for not giving up on Africa. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a policy planning official at the State Department during this period, told me that Rice's predecessor, George Moose, had been told by higher-ups to "keep Africa off the screen, because it doesn't matter."

"Well, she took a different approach, and said it does matter, and we're not doing enough in Africa," Morrison said. "And she got the president to make two trips to the continent, and deserves some credit for that."

An enormous part of why it mattered, however, was bound up in America's failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda. And it is Rice's takeaway from that tragedy, and from her role in it -- arguably more visceral, personal and emotional than rational -- that shaped her approach to the continent ever since.

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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the co-author, with Qiu Xiaolong, of Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

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