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

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.

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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ways, but American policy there remains stale and stuck in the past: unambitious, underinvested and conceptually outdated.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.

Rice's public response to the genocide was to issue a number of powerfully worded statements with the air of mea culpa about them. They have amounted to a paraphrasing and elaboration on the famous post-Holocaust oath of "Never again."

Put to the hard test of African realities, however, this pledge quickly shrunk and withered into something far more narrow and selective. Indeed, it failed its first test, in Congo, right next door to Rwanda. Since Rice's famous expressions of contrition began, more than five times as many people have died in a series of wars in Congo than were killed in the Rwandan genocide.

Most pertinent to this discussion, as the United Nations and reports by a variety of international human rights organizations have exhaustively documented, a great many of these people were killed in wars of targeted ethnic extermination, implicating the U.S.-supported post-genocide Rwandan armed forces and a number of surrogates, who have invaded the vastly larger and richer Congo repeatedly. Even in times of relative peace, they have sought to control large swaths of the country's territory.

What this leaves us with, in effect, is a policy stripped of any real moral force. Never again, in effect, has come to mean never let down Rwanda's post-genocide regime and its leader, Paul Kagame.

On a broader level, the old paradigm of Cold War policy, with its momentous ideological competition, has been repurposed to work for something far more inchoate and hollow: the War on Terror. Accordingly, the United States has persisted in its embrace of leaders who align with Washington on that basis in places like Sudan and Somalia, mirroring the style of cherry-picking allies during the struggle against communism.

Susan Rice isn't by any means the sole person responsible for this approach. She was, however, present at its creation, when the Clinton administration began to elevate a group of youngish autocrats who all came to power by the gun (and who have clung determinedly to personalized power ever since), as Africa's new generation of so-called "renaissance leaders." And although this phraseology has been dropped, ever since two of the countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, fought a calamitous war with each other in the late 1990s, Rice has clung enthusiastically to most of these loyalties ever since.

"Susan venerates the 'new leaders,' who over the years have come to be repressive autocrats and despots who feel like they can manipulate the outside world to give them lots of space," said Morrison of CSIS. "It has been an enduring attachment that hasn't softened over time."

Two recent episodes provide compelling evidence of this. As the United States' representative to the United Nations, Rice worked hard last year to block the release of a U.N. experts report detailing Rwandan atrocities in the Congo, reportedly drawing pushback over this even within the State Department.

When blocking the report proved impossible, diplomats and human rights experts who were involved in this struggle say that she sought to have it sanitized. In the end, it was leaked, which amounted to an end-run around Rice and assured its publication.

"It ultimately comes down to why would the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. not want things that are true [about that part of the world] to be reported," said Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College. "It is really not clear why it was worth it."

In September, Rice paid fervent and emotional tribute at the funeral of the late Ethiopian dictator, Meles Zenawi, praising him unreservedly as "uncommonly wise, able to see the big picture and the long game".

Zenawi's Ethiopia was a country where journalists and dissidents regularly disappeared and imprisoned.

Asked about Washington's enduring fondness for the people it had once dubbed Africa's renaissance figures, people like Meles Zenawi, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Yoweri Musveni of Uganda, John Shattuck, a former Clinton Administration assistant secretary of state, who is now president of the Central European University in Budapest said: "These were authoritarian leaders from the beginning and over time they all became worse. I think Africa has become very poorly served by this kind of rule, and that's very clear. This has been true for most of the past 20 years."

Some have argued that steadfast American support for a circle of autocrats is justified by their reputation for strong public administration or fast economic growth, but this has always been a specious justification. If the United States says it favors countries with booming economies no matter how undemocratic or repressive their leaders are, then we have curiously embraced a position not unlike that of China, which has always said it is not its business how other countries conduct their internal affairs. Besides, there is simply no lack of fast-growing economies in Africa now.

There are two obvious ways for the United States to help Africa consolidate its recent gains and move forward into an era of greater prosperity and representative government. This, at the same time, would position Washington to advance its interests and preserve its influence and prestige on this continent in the decades ahead.

The first involves engaging much more strongly in the Congo crisis, helping one of the continent's biggest countries to finally establish control over all of its territory and begin delivering services to its people for the first time in history.

The other requires treating African democracies as our real friends, matching our diplomacy for once with our rhetoric and values. What is less clear, given her record, is whether Susan Rice is the right person to accomplish this.