The Rice Stuff

Criticized unfairly on decades-old Africa policy, Susan Rice has shown she's got the right temperament to be secretary of state.


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.

Also during Rice’s time at the State Department, what became known as "Africa’s first world war" erupted on Congolese soil, involving at least 11 neighboring countries. Rice again helped drive a diplomatic process that led eventually to a ceasefire between the various governments, a phased withdrawal of their armies from the Congo, and the deployment of a major U.N. peacekeeping force to oversee that withdrawal. As Ambassador to the United Nations, Rice has remained engaged in supporting a peaceful settlement to the continuing conflict in eastern Congo.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, prior to her appointment as assistant secretary, Rice helped cobble together an international coalition in response to the massive human rights abuses perpetrated by Sudan during the north-south civil war and the country’s involvement in terrorist activities. She drove the effort to sanction Khartoum in the U.N. Security Council and helped to craft the comprehensive unilateral U.S. sanctions on Sudan that stand to this day. Once back in office as ambassador to the United Nations, she worked assiduously to support African-led negotiations that ended the north-south war and ensured that the referendum for South Sudan’s independence occurred peacefully and as scheduled. The newest state in the world owes its existence, in part, to Rice’s sustained effort over nearly two decades.

Rice’s tenure at the United Nations, especially her success in persuading the Security Council to impose the toughest-ever sanctions against Iran and rallying support for the resolution to intervene in Libya, which passed 10-0, with China and Russia abstaining, should be seen against the backdrop of her dedicated diplomacy as assistant secretary in some of the world’s most difficult conflicts. As secretary of state, Rice would remain focused on crisis diplomacy, but she would also continue to promote trade and investment, democracy, and economic progress as she did as assistant secretary of state.

One criticism of Rice that has been repeated often in recent weeks is that her candor and blunt style would be a liability as secretary of state. My experience working closely with her for nearly four years suggests the opposite.

As assistant secretary, Rice attracted highly respected and competent individuals to the Bureau of African affairs. The group she assembled, composed of professionals with divergent views and experiences, evolved into a loyal and dedicated team that worked effectively across agencies to create a dynamic policy to Africa. Rice also worked closely with the White House to ensure that nearly every U.S. government agency had an active and innovative Africa program.

In short, Rice was a consensus-builder and a problem-solver — hardly the divisive and obstreperous character that is portrayed on television by her critics.

Rice’s record as assistant secretary and ambassador to the United Nations suggest that she would be an effective and successful secretary of state. In my experience, she is unrivaled in her ability to advance U.S. interests under what are invariably challenging circumstances.

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