In a speech she gave at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology in November 2011, Rice took Kagame’s government to task for a political culture that “remains comparatively closed. Press restrictions persist. Civil-society activists, journalists, and political opponents of the government often fear organizing peacefully and speaking out. Some have been harassed. Some have been intimidated by late-night callers. Some have simply disappeared.”
The long conflict in Congo has sometimes been called “Africa’s World War,” because it has led to a staggering 5.4 million deaths — far more than any war anywhere since World War II. Throughout it, Kagame has appeared to play a clever game of pretending to intervene to impose peace and deliver Western-friendly policies, while in fact carving out a sphere of influence by which he can control parts of Congo’s mineral wealth.
Ironically, much of the controversy that surrounds Rice’s relationship with Kagame and other African leaders goes back to the event that Rice herself has admitted was personally wrenching for her, and influenced much of her later views: her failure to stop the Rwandan genocide.
At the time, under National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, Rice was in charge of advising Clinton’s National Security Council on peacekeeping and international organizations such as the United Nations. “Essentially, they wanted [Rwanda] to go away,” scholar Michael Barnett, who worked at the U.S. mission to the United Nations then and later wrote the book Eyewitness to Genocide, told me in an interview in 2008. “There was little interest by Rice or Lake in trying to stir up any action in Washington.”
Both Lake and Rice later said they were haunted by their inaction. In an interview in 2008, Rice told me that she was too “junior”at the time to have affected decision-making then, but that “everyone who lived through that feels profoundly remorseful and bothered by it.”
“I will never forget the horror of walking through a church and an adjacent schoolyard where one of the massacres had occurred,” Rice said in her 2011 speech in Kigali. “Six months later, the decomposing bodies of those who had been so cruelly murdered still lay strewn around what should have been a place of peace. For me, the memory of stepping around and over those corpses will remain the most searing reminder imaginable of what humans can do to one another.”
Rice’s relationship with Kagame began with her efforts to form a new African leaders group in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Among them were Museveni and Ethiopia’s Zenawi. The Clinton administration “believed in an African renaissance,” says Stearns. “She backed this somewhat naïvely, because they were forward-looking leaders who spoke a different language. They spoke about markets.”
While Rice was serving — and despite her later denials before Congress — the Clinton administration appeared to back an invasion of the troubled Congo by Rwanda and Uganda, according to a 2002 article in the journal Current History by Columbia University scholar Peter Rosenblum. In the article, titled “Irrational Exuberance: The Clinton Administration in Africa,” Rosenblum called the invasion “a public relations disaster from which the United States has not recovered.”