Craig Ruttle/AP

Benghazi may be the least of Susan Rice's problems

Rights activists say she's been dancing with African dictators since the '90s.

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 a 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.

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.)

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.”

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