GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Televised comments made by Amb. Susan Rice shortly after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi have dominated the debate over her probable nomination for secretary of state. This is a bit surprising, since it's clear that she played only a marginal role in the affair and appears to have just been reading from the briefing notes provided. It's also unfortunate that the "scandal" has crowded out a healthy discussion of her two-decade record as U.S. diplomat and policymaker prior to Sept. 2012 -- and drawn attention away from actions for which she bears far greater responsibility than Benghazi.
Her role in shaping U.S. policy toward Central Africa should feature high on this list. Between 1993 and 2001, she helped form U.S. responses to the Rwandan genocide, events in post-genocide Rwanda, mass violence in Burundi, and two ruinous wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
She did not get off to an auspicious start. During her first year in government, there was a vigorous debate within the Clinton administration over whether to describe the killing in Rwanda as a "genocide," a designation that would necessitate an international response under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. In a now infamous incident from that April, which was reported in her now State Department colleague Samantha Power's book, A Problem from Hell, Rice -- at the time still a junior official at the National Security Council -- stunned her colleagues by asking during a meeting, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?" She later regretted this language, telling Power, "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." And she has indeed emerged as one of the more forceful advocates for humanitarian intervention in U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, she has also often seemed to overcompensate for her earlier misstep on Rwanda with an uncritical embrace of the the country's new leaders.
Rwanda was the most compelling, moving story out of the bunch. After a cataclysm of Dantean proportions -- 800,000 people massacred in a hundred days -- Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front was able to reduce crime in the country to the lowest levels anywhere in Africa; rebuild its economy, making it one of the easiest countries on the continent to do business; and pioneer new ways of managing health care and dealing with genocide-related crimes. The word "phoenix" often comes up in conversations about Rwanda, and deservedly so.
It was in this context that Rwanda's invasion of its much larger neighbor should be seen. In 1996, with the support of Uganda and a slew of other African countries, Rwanda invaded the Congo (then called Zaire) to root out the Hutu militias that had attempted to exterminate the Tutsi population of Rwanda two years previously from the refugee camps where they had fled and were reportedly regrouping. After dismantling these camps, Rwandan forces along with Congolese rebels pushed all the way to the capital and overthrew longtime strongman Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997.
Laurent Kabila, the president put in power by the rebellion, quickly fell out with his Rwandan backers -- when he asked them to leave, they launched a new rebellion in the East, while Kabila recruited the very rebels that Rwanda had initially invaded the country to crush. On the face of things, Rwanda once again had good justification for its actions -- who could begrudge them the protection of their borders and citizens?
This facile truth, however, obfuscates the messy reality of the Rwandan intervention. Earlier in 1996, Rwandan troops had carried out vicious revenge massacres against civilian Hutu refugees who fled into the Congolese jungles, killing thousands, according to a detailed U.N. investigation and reports in the U.S. press at the time. But the United States, along with other governments, focused its opprobrium on Kabila, withholding aid to Congo and demanding an investigation. There was no official sanction of Rwanda. During this period, Susan Rice was first senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council and then assistant secretary of state for Africa. When a U.N. investigation into these massacres was concluded in 2010, Susan Rice tried to block its publication. According to a senior official involved in the report, "she didn't see how opening up old wounds would help."
Perhaps the most damning anecdote -- told by French academic Gérard Prunier and confirmed by New York Times journalist Howard French -- was of a private converation Rice had after her first trip to Central Africa around this time: "Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame agree that the basic problem in the Great Lakes is the danger of a resurgence of genocide and they know how to deal with that. The only thing we [i.e., the United States] have to do is look the other way."