The debate surrounding Ambassador Susan Rice's possible nomination to be secretary of state is stuck in a Washington echo chamber, reverberating between the content of Benghazi talking points and U.S. inaction during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when Rice was on the National Security Council. Neither point of departure is particularly revealing. I served as one of Rice's senior deputies for nearly four years while she was assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and would point to several events from those years that tell us considerably more about what kind of secretary of state she would be.
When Rice became assistant secretary in 1997, the prevailing attitudes toward Africa was that tax dollars spent on the continent amounted to "money down a rat hole," as the late Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) so memorably, and disastrously, characterized it. Indeed, Helms's sentiment -- and considerable influence -- was a significant factor in the decision to close USAID offices across the region and slash U.S. development assistance in health, education, and other social programs during the mid 1990s.
In early 1998, however, President Bill Clinton made an unprecedented swing through Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, and Senegal to highlight the democratic and economic progress being made on the continent. As a key player in organizing the trip, Rice persuaded Clinton's most senior advisors that the president should commit to restoring U.S. assistance to "historic levels." By the time Clinton left office, U.S. assistance to Africa had reached $935 million, up from a low of $670 million in 1996.
Throughout that presidential trip and her four years as assistant secretary, Rice worked with singular focus to persuade the administration and Congress that the United States had interests in Africa worth investing in. It was a fundamental break with prevailing Cold War attitudes toward the continent, and one that hints at the forward-looking mindset that Rice would bring to the job of secretary of state.
The Clinton administration's enlightened approach, nurtured in no small part by Rice, contributed to the emergence of a bipartisan consensus on the Hill that created the transformative African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2000 and, subsequently, President George W. Bush's anti-HIV/AIDS initiative, first funded at $15 billion and increased to $48 billion in 2008. Today, trade with Africa supports more than 100,000 jobs in the United States and both initiatives continue to be cornerstones of the U.S.-African relationship.
In addition to cultivating ties with Africa that were based on mutual interest and respect, and which prioritized trade, investment, and job creation, Rice worked tirelessly to manage a range of crises during her tenure in the Clinton administration. Three of them bear mentioning.
In May 1998, a border skirmish broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, igniting what would become the deadliest war in the world at that time. (Nearly 100,000 people died between 1998 and 2000.) Together with Anthony Lake, the White House special envoy and former national security advisor, Rice spearheaded a protracted diplomatic effort in close partnership with the Organization of African Unity that led to a ceasefire in 2000 and a broader peace deal later that year. Rice was tireless in her communications with all parties and adept in retaining the respect of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders, who had become implacable foes.