For a president who rarely shows emotion, Barack Obama’s surprisingly personal blast at Republican critics of Susan Rice, his U.N ambassador, suggested two things. One, Obama genuinely admires Rice and thinks she’s being unfairly criticized for giving an controversial explanation of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack that later didn’t hold up. And two, he may well intend to name her his second-term secretary of State, as some reports indicate.
Obama made a fair point when he said Rice “had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received.” All Rice did was to carefully articulate on the Sunday TV talk shows what the administration knew at the time, “based on the best information we have to date,” as she put it.
But there are other issues with Rice’s record, both as U.N. ambassador and earlier as a senior Clinton administration official, that are all but certain to come out at any confirmation hearing, many of them concerning her performance in Africa. Critics say that since her failure to advocate an intervention in the terrible genocide in Rwanda in 1994 — Bill Clinton later said his administration's unwillingness to act was the worst mistake of his presidency — she has conducted a dubious and naïve policy of looking the other way at allies who commit atrocities, reflecting to some degree the stark and emotionless realpolitik sometimes associated with Obama, who is traveling this week to another formerly isolated dictatorship: Burma.
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Most recently, critics say, Rice held up publication of a U.N. report that concluded that the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, with whom she has a long and close relationship, was supplying and financing a brutal Congolese rebel force known as the M23 Movement. M23’s leader, Bosco Ntaganda, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers and is accused of committing atrocities. She has even wrangled with Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, and others in the department, who all have been more critical of the Rwandans, according to some human-rights activists who speak with State's Africa team frequently.
Rice claimed she wanted Rwanda to get a fair hearing and examine the report first, and her spokesman, Payton Knopf, says that “it’s patently incorrect to say she slowed [it] down.” But Jason Stearns, a Yale scholar who worked for 10 years in the Congo and wrote a book called Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, says “that is not common practice with these reports. Even when Rwanda did get a hearing, all they did was to use it to smear the report and say how wrong it was.” The report has since been published.
Mark Lagon, a former assistant secretary of State under George W. Bush and a human-rights specialist at Georgetown, has generally positive things to say about Rice’s tenure as U.N. ambassador, especially her leadership in the intervention in Libya against Muammar el-Qaddafi and her revival of the administration’s failing policy on Darfur. But he too says she has fallen short on Africa. “In recent months, there is documentary evidence of atrocities in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], and their umbilical cord is back in Rwanda. These issues have not been raised in the Security Council, and Susan has fought the U.N. raising them in the Security Council,” Lagon says.
In September, Rice also delivered a glowing eulogy for the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whom many rights activists considered to have been a repressive dictator.
Recently, during a meeting at the U.N. mission of France, after the French ambassador told Rice that the U.N. needed to do more to intervene in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rice was said to have replied: “It’s the eastern DRC. If it’s not M23, it’s going to be some other group,” according to an account given by a human-rights worker who spoke with several people in the room. (Rice’s spokesman said he was familiar with the meeting but did not know if she made the comment.)
If true, that rather jaded observation would appear to echo a Rice remark that Howard French, a long-time New York Times correspondent in Africa, related in an essay in the New York Review of Books in 2009, which was highly critical of Rice. In the article, headlined “Kagame’s Secret War in the Congo,” in which French calls the largely ignored conflict “one of the most destructive wars in modern history,” he suggests that Rice either naïvely or callously trusted new African leaders such as Kagame and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda to stop any future genocide, saying, “They know how to deal with that. The only thing we have to do is look the other way.” Stearns, the author, says that during Rice’s time in the Clinton administration “they were complicit to the extent that they turned a blind eye and took at face value Rwandan assurances that Rwanda was looking only after its own security interests.”
Knopf, Rice’s spokesman, says “she clearly has relationships, some of which are very close, with African leaders, and Kagame is one of them. Her view and our view is that these relationships have given her an opportunity to influence events.”
At the same time, however, Knopf says Rice has been tough and forthright in criticizing Rwandan abuses, and backed a “very strong statement out of the Security Council in August about M23.” (The statement, though, did not refer to Rwandan support directly.)