The Controversial Africa Policy of Susan Rice

America's potential next secretary of state was involved in a major policy shift in Washington's approach toward Africa. But was it a positive one?

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Allison Joyce/Reuters

On November 14, President Obama vigorously defended U.N. ambassador Susan Rice during a press conference in the White House's Rose Garden, perhaps signaling that he was unworried by the possibility of a drawn-out battle with Republicans looking to block Rice's possible nomination as secretary of state. Rice, who has been criticized for her promoting a now-disproven explanation for the deadly attack on an American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, apparently has the full support of the president that could nominate her for the highest diplomatic position in the land.

Things are not quite as amicable at U.N. headquarters. As the conflict in the Eastern DRC escalated, and as two U.N. reports provided extensive evidence of official Rwandan and Ugandan support for the M23 rebel group, Rice's delegation blocked any mention of the conflict's most important state actors in a Security Council statement. And in June, the U.S. attempted to delay the release of a UN Group of Experts report alleging ties between Rwanda and M23.

Peter Rosenblum, a respected human rights lawyer and professor at Columbia Law School, says that the U.S.'s reticence in singling out state actors is significant, especially at the U.N. "It shows [Rice] is willing to expend political capital to cast something of a shield over Rwanda and Uganda," he says. "These are the things that in diplomatic settings, they are remarked upon. People see that the U.S. is still there defending the leaders of these countries at a time when many of their other closest allies have just grown sort of increasingly weary and dismayed."

Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch agrees that the U.S. should be more active in naming potential obstacles in resolving the eastern DRC conflict. "It's unacceptable for Rwanda to be violating UN Security Council resolutions and meddling in international peace and security," she says. "I think the U.S. government has a very powerful voice and they need to use it."

For some, Rice embodies a period in American policy in which U.S. influence was not put to particularly effective use in Africa. Rice served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during Bill Clinton's second term as president. As Rosenblum explained in a 2002 article in Current History [$], the second Clinton administration began with a full-fledged pivot to Africa, with Madeline Albright undertaking a high-profile visit to the continent early in her tenure as secretary of state. It was a substantive trip -- Albright gathered some of Africa's most dynamic newly-installed heads of state in Entebbe and Addis Ababa, where she articulated America's intention to change its relationship with the continent.

But Rosenblum explains that this approach meant embracing now-problematic leaders like Rwanda's Paul Kagame, Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, and, to a lesser extent, DRC's Laurent Kabila and Eritrea's Isais Afewerki. Under Clinton's Africa policy, these leaders -- all of whom were former rebels who had taken power through violent means -- would serve as a vanguard for the social and political transformation of the continent. Above all, they would be treated as normal allies of the United States, regarded as equal partners and autonomous actors, rather than countries that were only important insomuch as they could be exploited or ignored. Redefining and strengthening Washington's relationship to Africa was a laudable aim that arguably presaged the much greater degree of engagement that followed under George W. Bush and Obama.

Yet Rosenblum believes Rice helped usher in a policy that counted very few successes, even if he says that he has been "very impressed" with her tenure as UN ambassador. "Rice was a major force in this new, very personalized engagement with a group of leaders who had come to power through military means but who represented, for the Clinton policy people, something new and admirable," he says. "The group they bonded to included leaders who were eventually at war with each other within a period of two or three years." By the end of Clinton's presidency, Afewerki and Zenawi had fought a war that killed between 70,000 and 100,000 people; Kagame and Museveni fought Kabila in the eastern DRC, and then turned their guns on each other. Many, including the author and former U.N. investigator Jason Stearns, believe that Clinton's policy enabled both Rwandan and Ugandan adventurism in Eastern Congo, prolonging a conflict that still reverberates.

Perhaps more jarring is this anecdote in an essay by Howard French in the New York Review of Books that directly relates to Rice:

In allowing the Rwandan invasion of Zaire, the United States had two very different goals. The most immediate was the clearing of over one million Hutu refugees from U.N. camps near the Rwandan border, which had become bases for vengeful elements of the defeated Hutu army and Interahamwe militia, the agents of the Rwandan genocide. In [Gerard] Prunier's telling:

"When Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice came back from her first trip to the Great Lakes region [of East Africa], a member of her staff said, 'Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame agree that the basic problem in the Great Lakes is the danger of a resurgence of genocide and they know how to deal with that. The only thing we [i.e., the U.S.] have to do is look the other way.'"

The gist of Prunier's anecdote is correct, except that participants have confirmed to me that it was Rice herself who spoke these words.

Was this actually a reflection of policy -- did the U.S. really expect nothing of their allies on the human rights front? This is debatable, but it is clear that the U.S. considered many of the biggest problems in the region to emanate from Kinshasa. Jendayi Frazer, who held the assistant secretary for African affairs position during George W. Bush's second term and is now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, notes that "the Clinton administration had become very antagonistic with the Congolese government -- for many good reasons, but nevertheless, they had become very antagonistic."

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."

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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.