I am not interested in joining the debate about whether US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice should be the Obama administration’s next Secretary of State. Nor am I interested in the political controversy concerning Amb. Rice’s remarks about the attacks in Benghazi. Nor, finally, am I much interested in criticisms of Amb. Rice’s personal style and how that affects US relations with other countries, although I do feel that diplomats’ personal styles are important. What does interest me are the critical perspectives that the debate about the Ambassador’s longer record is opening regarding the last two decades of US policy in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the most important lessons from looking at these criticisms and controversies is that some of the same dilemmas that US policymakers wrestled with in the 1990s still haunt them today, particularly when it comes to working with African leaders like President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
Amb. Rice has been a key foreign policy thinker for the Democratic Party since 1988, when she was an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Governor Michael Dukakis. She served on the National Security Council and in other positions during President Clinton’s first term, and was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during his second term. A senior foreign policy adviser to then-Senator Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign, she served as Ambassador to the United Nations during President Obama’s first term, and holds that position still. Given her experience working in senior positions for the last Democratic president and the current one, Amb. Rice has been involved in a number of important decisions related to US policy in sub-Saharan Africa – as well, of course, as other parts of the world.
Mainstream criticism of the Ambassador’s policy preferences on sub-Saharan Africa focuses on three specific issues (arranged in chronological order from most recent to furthest past). Again, although the criticisms of Amb. Rice are extremely serious, I want to discuss the decisions and principles involved, which involved multiple actors and institutions. With each point I highlight the criticism against her and then what I see as the broader issue.
- Rwanda 2012. Critics charge that Amb. Rice has made the violent conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) harder to resolve by blocking efforts to charge Rwanda with responsibility for backing the M23 militia. (Pieces by Armin Rosen, Jason Stearns, and Colum Lynch outline the issues at play, and Rosen’s piece quotes several critics of the Ambassador.) For me, the key question is: To what extent should the US attempt to shield its allies from criticism and international reaction?
- DRC 1996-2001. Critics charge that Amb. Rice endorsed Rwanda and Uganda’s intervention in the present-day DRC circa 1998, feeling that such intervention would help prevent renewed genocide in the region. (See Howard French’s piece here.) This support, French writes, reflected a broader Clinton administration policy of “promoting a group of men it called the New African Leaders, including the heads of state of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. As Clinton officials saw it, these New Leaders were sympathetic and businesslike, drawn together by such desirable goals as overthrowing Mobutu, by antagonism toward the Islamist government of Sudan, which shares a border with northeast Congo, and by talk of rethinking Africa’s hitherto sacrosanct borders, as a means of creating more viable states.” For me, the key question is similar to the one raised above: To what extent should the US support allies in Africa who have, themselves, questionable foreign policies and domestic records?
- Sudan 1997. Critics charge that Amb. Rice’s opposition to reopening the US embassy in Sudan in 1997 prevented an opportunity to influence Sudanese attitudes and hampered US intelligence-gathering about Al Qaeda and other armed Muslim groups (see Roger Cohen’s opinion piece on the topic). For me, the key question is: To what extent should the US prioritize punitive actions and “sending a message” to states policymakers believe have committed or abetted serious crimes, and to what extent should the US prioritize open diplomatic exchange in the interest of information-gathering and the normalization of relations?
These questions and complex situations could be boiled down even further, to a set of interrelated questions: How does Washington define its allies, and do these alliances make sense? And how does Washington define its enemies, and does treating these states and leaders as enemies make sense? That these questions have haunted US policy in the Great Lakes region of Africa and in Sudan from the 1990s to the present suggests how difficult such questions are to resolve; Rosen writes that with the DRC and Rwanda, events in 1998 and 2012 “have played out in an eerily similar fashion.” The similarities between past and present also suggest that the US approach has limited Washington’s ability to halt violence in these areas. Howard French argues forcefully that Washington’s Africa policy of the past two decades, as symbolized by Amb. Rice, has failed: “The United States…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…What this leaves us with, in effect, is a policy stripped of any real moral force.”