Even in Rwanda's relations with its troublesome neighbor, one might have forgiven Rice for detecting a promising trend. After all, in 2001, Rwandan leaders withdrew all of their troops from the eastern Congo, while their Congolese rebel allies joined a power-sharing government in Kinshasa in 2003. This fragile arrangement took a hit in 2006 when a new rebellion, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), swept across the region, but almost as soon as Rwanda was accused of backing the rebels by the United Nations, a peace deal was struck between Kinsasha and Kigali, integrating the rebels into the national Congolese army. The region appeared to be inching toward stability.
However, events this year have shattered this already shaky narrative. Since April, another rebellion has bared its teeth in eastern Congo. With hefty backing from Rwanda -- as has been documented by U.N. investigators, Human Rights Watch, and my own research -- the so-called M23 have expanded their area of control, taking control of Goma, the largest trade hub in the region, in October. Over 700,000 people now have been displaced by this fighting.
If it was difficult before, now it is almost impossible to justify this belligerence from Kagame's government. The threat of Rwandan rebels -- the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who seek to overthrow the government in Kigali -- is vastly diminished now, and the M23 has less support locally, even among the Congolese populations of Rwandan descent, than previous rebellions. And while there is no doubt that the Congolese government is corrupt and short on vision and leadership, there is little evidence that an armed rebellion will change that.
And yet, some officials in the U.S. government, led by Rice, continue to give Rwanda the benefit of the doubt. When a United Nations investigation submitted its report on the conflict to the U.N. Security Council in June, providing copious evidence of Rwandan involvement, the ambassador blocked its publication, insisting the Rwandan government be given a right of reply first (the investigators say they had tried to provide this, but had been rebuffed by officials in Kigali). It was eventually published, but Rice had signalled her sympathies in the matter. Several months later, Rice allegedly removed language from a Security Council resolution explicitly citing Rwanda and Uganda's well-documented support to the M23, replacing it with the anodyne phrase, "outside support."
According to some of her colleagues, Rice continues to weigh in on policy toward the region, questioning how much the administration should pressure Rwanda -- according to former colleages, she feels that more can be achieved by constructive engagement, not public censure. An official in the government familiar with the internal debates told me, "Her questioning of the proof of Rwanda's support for the M23 has likely diluted any tough message from other senior U.S. diplomats against Kigali. The Rwandans are paying attention to this, and feel with her support any criticism will be minimal."
The diplomats and officials interviewed for this article left no doubt that Rice is bright, ambitious, and extremely hard-working. But in her reluctance to criticize the Rwandan government's involvement in the Congo, she has also demonstrated critical lapses in judgment. Senators would do better to scrutinize this history, rathering than focusing on the Benghazi attacks.