A number of analysts believe that Barack Obama intends to replace retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with UN Ambassador Susan Rice, long a favorite of Obama. Such a move would be inherently more controversial than another oft-mentioned candidate for the job, Senator John Kerry, who would have sailed through to confirmation among his colleagues. Appointing Rice would only give Senate Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee a high-profile platform to demand answers from Rice about Benghazi, a topic that the White House should hope to avoid in the new year.
Benghazi may not be the only contentious topic in a confirmation hearing, and it may not just be Republicans who want to ask some tough questions. National Journal’s Michael Hirsh writes that human-rights activists may demand some answers of their own about Rice’s track record of “dancing with African dictators since the ’90s”:
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.
It’s not Rwanda that will dog Rice, Hirsh predicts:
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-timeNew 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.”
What makes this remarkable is the contrast between this and the foreign policy of the Obama administration toward strategic allies — notably Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. While Rice arguably danced with dictators in sub-Saharan Africa even though the US had relatively few security interests in those nations, Barack Obama personally pushed Mubarak to resign from office only eight days after mostly non-violent protests in Cairo. Mubarak had been a guarantor of peace with Israel and free access through the Suez Canal, a monumentally strategic point for American and NATO power.
Not long after, Obama ordered a war against Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi, one of the region’s more notorious tyrants, but one who had a vested interest in suppressing terrorist networks in Benghazi and eastern Libya and had been fitfully cooperative on other issues, including nuclear proliferation. That led to a massive expansion of terrorist activity in the region as central control collapsed with the regime, and the sacking of our consulate in Benghazi directly resulted from that intervention.
Perhaps Rice will claim that she was operating from the best data she had on Rwanda, the Congo, and other issues raised by Hirsh. That was her explanation for fronting a false story about the Benghazi attack days after it became obvious that it was a terrorist attack, which at least would give that defense the virtue of consistency. Paul Mirengoff argues, though, that if we are to take Rice at her word on that defense, then the Senate would have to consider the wisdom of confirming a nominee for the top diplomatic post in the US government whose best argument is that she’s easily duped:
Should someone who allowed herself to be used in this way by the White House — that is, an ambassador who agreed to provide facts about a matter of enormous importance even though she apparently lacked any knowledge of the matter, and who as a result provided false information — be the U.S. Secretary of State? Not in my opinion. How would the U.S. Senate that confirmed her be able to rely on her reports or, for that matter, her judgment? Having misused the prestige of the U.N. ambassador position to serve the White House spin machine, how could the Senate be confident that she wouldn’t misuse the even greater prestige of the Secretary of State for political purposes?
Moreover, Rice knew or should have discovered other information besides the CIA talking points that pointed to a different conclusion about the attack. The State Department had watched events in Benghazi unfold in real time and thus knew this was no spontaneous demonstration. And President Obama claims he had already characterized the attack as terrorism. Either Obama is lying or Susan Rice ignored the president’s characterization of the Benghazi attack.
Given the conflicting views about the attack, and given how obvious it was that this wasn’t a spontaneous event, Rice had a duty to inquire about the facts, rather than simply relying on talking points prepared by others. If Rice can show that she engaged in a reasonable inquiry and that she reached intelligent conclusions, then Senate Republicans should be receptive to confirming her, in the event she is nominated to be Secretary of State. Otherwise, they should vote against confirming a dupe.
Politically speaking, Obama would be better off sticking with Kerry for the Secretary of State position.