A Further Perspective

Susan Rice for Secretary of State?

The candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton has whose interests in mind?

By 12.11.12

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I shouldn't be, but I nevertheless am struck by the outpouring of incomprehension in response to what obviously was a sarcastic little piece regarding what has become the Susan Rice affair. What should have been obvious, a tongue in cheek argument for Mrs. Rice on the grounds that she is the spitting image of the administration in which she serves and all this implies by way of prima facie indictment of our government's reckless and feckless foreign policy, was misread as everything from a defense of lying and cheating to an assault upon the constitutionally defined role of the Senate in the appointment of the Republic's highest non-elected officials. It is a sad and alarming commentary on our times that we no longer read but with the deadly earnest of political apparatniks. Knives drawn, comrades, and at the slightest hint of irony, read it literally -- the worst we can do is indict wise guys who had it coming anyway. I note in passing that Robespierre had no sense of humor, nor did the extremists North and South who brought on the Civil War. Do I digress? Yes, and quite deliberately.

And yet, I admit I set myself up. For however deplorable the tendency of the party out of power to attack a foreign policy on every conceivable ground, from the moral or intellectual fitness of its agents to its damage to our national prestige and interests, not to mention its cost in blood and treasure, this is the way our democracy has debated foreign policy since the beginning, and it is not likely to change.

Still, for this very reason the attacking party should be prepared to take the heat as much as it dishes it out. Deceit in public presentation of a foreign fiasco is scarcely a Democratic monopoly, nor are conflicts of interests in dealings with foreign potentates. Mrs. Rice is accused of lying to protect the administration's preferred version of how things are going in the world these days, and in this version the al Q. terror networks are on the run and beaten and therefore are incapable of a coordinated, well-planned, and executed act of war against our Benghazi consulate.

She is also taken to task for conflicts of interest in areas for which she has had high responsibilities since her years in the Clinton administration, leading to a favorable disposition and the promotion of an appeasement policy toward aggressor regimes and militias in the Great Lakes region, chiefly eastern Congo. And were these sins not sufficient to disqualify her for taking over Mrs. Clinton's cabinet position as the head of the State Department, she is reputed to have made investments in the energy sector that would render suspect any counsels she might offer the president regarding dealings with the Canadians or companies doing business with them (this is of interest to Americans concerned with the fate of the earth) and with the Persians or companies doing business with them (which is of interest to Americans concerned with the fate of America).

Naturally, when deceit lies at the heart of a given policy, the opposition or the press should expose it if it harms the national interest. Although as a general rule truth and transparency are the better part of virtue in democratic regimes including our own, it may be advisable to think twice before jumping into a fray that may expose divisions or shed light on policies or initiatives that would be better kept hidden from our enemies. In this regard, I cannot think of a better examples of wisdom and political wickedness in the realm of foreign policy than the early novels of Allen Drury, Advise and Consent, A Shade of Difference, and Capable of Honor (which has an African theme), book about whose enduring value I wrote some years ago in the pages of Policy Review, edited by the thoughtful Adam Meyerson, though at the time I believe the journal was in the able hands of Tod Lindberg. Permitting myself an aside, however, it is unfortunate that in the high councils of the Republican Party such bright young men as Messrs. Lindberg and Meyerson, not to mention wise and crafty (and patriotic) writers like the great, late Allen Drury, do not receive more attention. It is at least partly for this reason that our campaigns are boring and stupid, our candidates usually witless, and our appeal to the public based on a bet it will prefer the less-bad.

Mrs. Rice's policy choices in the African area, on which she has concentrated since taking a PhD at Oxford with a thesis on the aftershocks of Britain's abandonment of Southern Rhodesia, perhaps deserve careful scrutiny by senators, for they may provide clues regarding her thinking on the Continent and our interests there, as well as regarding how she thinks about foreign policy. One commentator who has made such a study concluded, as I remarked the other day, that the evidence seems to be that Mrs. Rice really showed very little interest in Africa or even in foreign policy. This is possible; people get PhD's, and take jobs that seem to match their supposed expertise, for all kinds of reasons and not always out of real passion for the subject. If this were not so, we would have far fewer lawyers, to name only that field, far fewer education PhD's, far fewer -- but you see my point. I have not read Mrs. Rice's thesis and I cannot comment in detail about her policy recommendations as NSC staffer or assistant secretary of state for Africa, or even as U.N. ambassador, her current post. However, according to credible reports she has not denied, her positions do seem to have been characterized by a certain consistency of support for men who favored her career, which surely cannot be held against her.

President Clinton fancied himself a friend of Africa, though he took fewer initiatives beneficial, or putatively so, to the Continent than his successor, who in turn took more than his successor. Maybe it is that Democrats understand that charity, and patronage, begin at home. In any case, Clinton was horrified by the idea of getting involved in African wars and as a result he beat a hasty retreat from Somalia as soon as lawless savages attacked and killed several Americans in Mogadishu. He had no notion what to do about the Ethiopian-Eritrean wars, and had no practical sympathy for the tribes of south Sudan, enslaved and massacred for decades by the Afro-Arab regime in Khartoum. When the closely related catastrophes in Rwanda and eastern Congo got under way in '94, he looked the other way.

None of this is necessarily to be held against Mr. Clinton; however, this is not the place to review what various alternatives to our policy of passivity in eastern Africa in the 1990s might have accomplished. At the very least, greater concentration on the several African sub-regions by minds attuned to their subtleties might have prepared us for -- might even have allowed us to pre-empt -- the conflicts in which we became engaged at the turn of the century.

What is pertinent to Miss Rice's qualifications -- if any other than total loyalty to the president are demanded in our cabinet system as it is now practiced -- is that she epitomized the quietism of 1990s foreign policy. There is no record of her viewing with alarm the signs of things to come: neither the civil war in Algeria pitting jihadists against a military regime, nor the forebodings of jihadi-linked terrorism in Sudan, Kenya, or Somalia, nor the encroaching disaster in ex-Southern Rhodesia, which, renamed Zimbabwe and ruled by the despot Robert Mugabe, was well on its way to the catatonic dictatorship into which it has fully evolved, or rather descended.

When disaster struck Rwanda in 1994 -- and it was scarcely the first time such murderous mass frenzy had struck that country and neighboring Burundi, so one may assume an Oxford-educated east Africanist would have known what the issues were -- Mrs. Rice's advice to the president was to stay out of it, or at least keep a low profile. Rather than urge the French to restrain "their" Rwandans -- the Hutu group then in power -- from cleansing the place ethnically of the rival Tutsi group, American policy was to furnish low-key military aid to the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front, composed of Tutsi who had been driven to Uganda during earlier waves of persecution.

There is, as best I understand it, a consensus among observers that the Rwanda genocide began when the most "hard line" (meaning anti-Tutsi) Hutu faction within the single-party government of President Habyarimana seized the opportunity presented when the plane he was in was shot down -- by whom has never been established -- to launch a planned massacre of Tutsi. Anywhere from half a million to 800,000 people are believed to have perished in scarcely four months. There is no persuasive explanation of why the hardliners in the two camps hate each other.

Nor is it controversial, either, that as the massacres were taking place, the Rwandan Patriotic Front sortied from its Ugandan bases and routed the French-backed Hutu army, forcing it into eastern Congo. Beyond this there is considerable disagreement among observers. Did the "Hutu Power" extremists, under French protection, regroup in eastern Congo and attempt to reverse the Tutsi's bitter victory? Or did the RPF, using the pretext of a threat on Rwanda's western borderlands, pursue a war of revenge and pre-emptive extermination against the Hutu, killing, in the process, far more ordinary refugees from the Rwandan and Burundian wars, not to mention the Congolese ones -- as many as 400,000 by some estimates -- than Hutu power militants, who by definition were armed and prepared to defend themselves.

The Clinton administration did not exert itself on behalf of peace in the region, though to be fair they were putting a lot of brain power then into getting the ex-Yugoslavs to stop killing one another. Susan Rice had no opinion, at least that has been reported, on the matter, but she did argue against referring to the starting casus belli as a "genocide" because for the U.S. to have stood by during a perhaps preventable genocide might reflect badly on the Democrats.

With the end of Mrs. Rice's tenure as assistant secretary of state for Africa in 2000, she went to work for a Washington consulting firm, managing the Rwanda account. As reported somewhat belatedly in the New York Times and the Atlantic due to the attention Mrs. Rice has been receiving lately, her brief was to downplay the responsibility of Paul Kagame (by then Rwanda's president) in the continuing anarchy in eastern Congo. Neither report delves at any length into the possible financial interests Kagame and others in his government had, and still have, in eastern Congo, known for its mineral wealth. Nor does either report raise the question of whether Rwanda's Washington lobbyist may have had such interests.

As matters stand, such questions are pure speculation. The question that, at present, is not speculative is whether Mrs. Rice's involvements in east African affairs, as an official and as a consultant, should raise doubts about her ability to head U.S. diplomacy and sit at the President's side in the administration's foreign policy councils. According to a note published in Foreign Policy, as U.N. ambassador Mrs. Rice argued against condemning President Kagame for his role in the continuing violence in eastern Congo.

She may well have had a point -- just what good would any kind of censure do after the region turned into a permanent hell on earth, with three million killed, ubiquitous rapine, the enlistment of child soldiers, plunder, and the rest. She is reported to have been deeply affected by the Rwandan genocide, to have said she would never let such things happen again. They have continued to happen. But neither as a private person of some influence in African affairs, nor as a Cabinet-rank official, has she suggested privately or in policy-making councils that the U.S. might be able, or might at least try, to make them stop happening.

This in itself is cause for some puzzlement. Just what is Susan Rice's interest in Africa, or more precisely the well-being of Africans? Reportedly she was a hawk on Libya. There surely was an argument for being a hawk on Libya. The Libyan adventure, however, has had some sorry repercussions on large swathes of black Africa, and it has led to serious losses for our side in the war on terror. They are losses, however, that could bring us major gains if we set our minds to winning the next round. This should certainly be a matter of interest to the next secretary of state, and to the senators exercising their advisory duties in matters of executive appointments. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.