Would Susan Rice have been a good choice for US Secretary of State?

Remember Susan Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State who wasn’t? It might seem old news now, as Senator John Kerry sits in front of his colleagues seeking their constitutionally-mandated “consent” to his appointment to become the next U.S. Secretary of State, replacing Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the wake of President Barack Obama’s re-election in November, knowing that Clinton would not serve during his second term, the media and the blogosphere were abuzz with the idea that Obama would pick U.N. Ambassador Rice to succeed her boss. In the face of relentless critiques from both right and left, that nomination went down in flames before Obama had even officially made it. Let’s remember how noxious a moment that was, while asking whether it matters for U.S. policy in Africa.

Although she was at one point arguably its most influential member, Rice is not loved by the U.S. Africanist community (for what it’s worth). Apparently, she’s not loved by her colleagues and subordinates at State, either, and there are real critiques of the positions she’s taken on African issues over the years. But Republican senators and their allies did not spike her potential nomination because she wasn’t progressive enough, because she had not taken the high road in U.S. African policy, or because she is too close to unsavory characters like Rwandan President Paul Kagame. And they didn’t spike it because they thought she had misled the nation on the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens; that was a pretext, demonstrably false, not a reason. They spiked it because they knew that forcing Obama to fall back on his likely second choice, Kerry, would open up a senate seat in his home state of Massachusetts, in which they had just lost a hard-fought senatorial campaign (along with the presidential one). They also spiked it out of spite, and simply because they could. It’s no surprise that Republican senators represent a contemptible politics, or that their tactics are cynical and obstructionist. In this case, they had a lot of help, even mean-spirited and tendentious covering fire, from other quarters.

The ambush was also a cross fire. Whatever it was Susan Rice did to the New York Times, I hope it was worth it. On December 12th, the paper of record ran a piece arguing that Secretary of State had become too obvious an appointment for a “woman or minority member.” Of the last four secretaries, three are women (Albright, Susan Rice, Clinton), and two are African-American (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice). There had not been a White guy since Bill Clinton’s first term ended in 1997. The implication was that appointing a White male senator—a virtually redundant phrase, since the Senate is overwhelmingly White and male—would be a step towards diversity in the Cabinet. Go figure. This piece followed a series of others, some of them aggressive, running the fine line between reporting a story and generating a meme—in this case that Rice’s nomination was ill-advised and her confirmation impossible. I hope for his sake that they like John Kerry.

You can hardly read a story on Rice without encountering Samantha Power. I’m not the first to say that Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2003) is an excellent book; it won the Pulitzer Prize. Stronger testimony to its force, Bosnian friends told me its account of American passivity in the face of that country’s genocide made them weep and vomit, literally. On Rwanda, too, the book is stomach-turning. In recounting debates within the Clinton White House over what to do in the face of that horror—and more precisely, whether or not to identify it as a genocide, thereby triggering a treaty obligation to act to protect civilians—Power attributes Rice with a damning line that she’s never lived down: “If we use the word genocide and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” (2003: 359). Rice was thirty years old at the time, “a rising star,” in Power’s words. Now, you can spin this in different ways. In my reading, it’s hardly more than hearsay. Some people say she said it, but there’s no citation or other evidence (Power’s source on it is the same military advisor who discounted the warnings of Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the U.N. contingent on the ground). Rice doesn’t remember having said it, only commenting that “if she did, it was completely inappropriate.” This is Bob Woodward style reporting—aka, unattributed insider gossip—but the nearly twenty-year old comment is one that hovers constantly over Rice’s reputation. One indirect effect of it—and the remorseful recognition that Bill Clinton was too timid in Rwanda—is that Rice spoke forcefully in favor of NATO intervention to protect Benghazi in Spring 2011. Irony of ironies, she and Power agreed on that. Along with liberal interventionist John Prendergast, Power was one of Rice’s strongest recent supporters, telling The New Republic that “on the issues that are documented in [Problem from Hell], I can’t imagine someone that is better at these issues than the person that I now work with.”

All that said, a well-grounded and persuasive critique of Rice’s suitability as a Secretary of State has been made, notably by Howard French and Jason Stearns, who have laid it out very well in relation to Central Africa. In short, Rice built her career around African affairs during a crucial post-Cold War moment in which an old guard was on its way out and the United States was investing in a new crop of tough guys. Rice was in the midst of that transition, and over the years she developed strong relationships with the new U.S.-backed strongmen. So has Rice been in the corner of more than one repressive, not to say cold blooded, African leader—from Paul Kagame to the late Meles Zenawi? Yes. She’s been an ambitious political appointee at the U.S. State Department; we’re not talking about the next Secretary of Peace, Love, and Understanding. As a wise man along the train line at Kidira once told me, “you can’t walk through shit without getting some of it on your shoes,” and Rice is accused of turning a blind eye to some particularly nasty episodes of political violence, even mass killing.

I don’t hold out high hopes that Senator Kerry will inaugurate a new, more just policy towards Africa—he’s been a champion of South Sudan, but seems particularly enchanted by possibilities for U.S. oil companies there. And although his record is more nuanced than hers, he has taken positions every bit as unappealing as Rice’s on Israel and Iraq. One thing is for sure: Kerry’s not sitting at the confirmation table because of his right-minded policies towards African states. And it’s not clear that Rice’s ongoing influence over U.S. policy has come to an end simply because she withdrew her name from consideration for the nomination. Many think she’ll be made National Security Advisor, a position that needs no Senate confirmation.

Would Susan Rice have been a good choice for Secretary of State? Looks like we’ll never know. There’s no reason to imagine that her arrival would have heralded a progressive American policy in Africa, to the contrary. And by all accounts she’s hardly diplomatic. Yet neither is she single-handedly responsible for American policy in Rwanda in 1994, or the fact that the African renaissance did not arrive on time. There were very good reasons for smart, well-informed people to oppose Rice’s nomination; hats off to them. But the shit storm kicked up by the mere possibility of Rice’s nomination was a particularly nasty one, and it’s worth remembering that little of it was about what’s best for American policy in Africa.

5 thoughts on “Would Susan Rice have been a good choice for US Secretary of State?

  1. You write: “There’s no reason to imagine that her arrival would have heralded a progressive American policy in Africa, to the contrary.”
    Much of what I have read and seen about Susan Rice up to and since the secretary of state appointment speculations have run wild suggests that this is a very correct analysis.
    Another good article from a little while back:

  2. Good morning read Gregory. I would like to commend you that for a blog that is not about Obama or Bono, you managed to mention his name only four times (in only the first 2 paragraphs to boot) despite this being centered on his decisions; and only referred to Bono’s distant American cousin, Prendergast once. But getting back to unserious matters you discuss where one cannot help but notice there are no Africans referenced in such a drama that Africa was supposed to have played a role:

    To begin with, I should state very clearly that I believe Ambassador Rice would have made a good and very effective Secretary of State. She possessed the two most important qualities needed for the job, unwavering loyalty to Obama and a very close relationship with him. All other issues are fine print, especially for an administration where 87.3% of foreign policy is run directly from the White House.

    You patronize Africanists in the US if you assume they thought their concerns about America’s policy in Africa led in any way to the scuttling of Ambassador’s Rice potential nomination. They might be Africanists but they are realists … after all, they have learnt from the past that their concerns about her did nothing to affect her becoming UN ambassador nor for her to be even considered for the Secretary of State position. Tied as some of the Africanists (the black ones for the most part) might be to Republicans with regards to concerns about abortion and same sex marriage, it’s hard to visualize them (Africanists) being fooled into believing McCain and Ayotte were championing the future of Africa when they laid waste to Amb. Rice’s nomination. But in a “dog eat dog” world, why should it seem foolish that they strategically gave the Republicans more ammunition to bury this issue? Africanists understand perfectly that they and America policy in Africa are just minor collaterals to be used by all sides (democrats, republicans and mineralists) in the politics play-fare in DC. I think the only person that has really said anything noteworthy about Africa in the talk-sphere of US diplomacy is POTUS Obama himself who has said often that the destiny of Africa is in the hands of Africans (least reason of which is not be overly attacked as an African by the right-wingers); now if he would just instruct his larkies to follow suit and stop meddling in Africa’s affair, both for good and bad. Perhaps the ascent of John Kerry will likely lead more to this if he focuses only on South Sudan and leaves the rest of the continent alone (I am sure the SoSus can take one for the team).

    You definitely insult the intelligence of republicans when you claim “they spiked [Amb. Rice’s nomination] because they knew that forcing Obama to fall back on his likely second choice, Kerry, would open up a senate seat in his home state of Massachusetts”. How shallow do you really think the republican party strategy is? I doubt this claim of yours because the Republicans, like the rest of the nation, knew that Obama was going to have to nominate Kerry for one post or the other anyways – It was time to pay the piper. There was always the Secretary of Defense position to fall back on for Kerry. So either way, the Kerry senate seat opening was a foregone conclusion. I am going with the “individual level analysis” on this one. You rightly quoted “you can’t walk through shit without getting some of it on your shoes,” and Ambassador Rice got lots of shit on her shoes in her support of Obama in the 2008 elections. Who did she not piss off in that process? Her biggest enemies made then might have had more to do with her potential nomination blunder than anything else – Hillary Clinton (who chose to “erga omnes” during the fiasco) and John McCain (added to that the fact that McCain just loves sticking it Obama in anyway possible since he claimed Obama betrayed him as a first term senator during his lobbying ethics reform efforts). In addition, Amb. Rice failed to convince even departing moderate republican senators like Olympia Snowe to support her after one-on-one meetings. Let’s put this in context: Sen. Olympia Snowe single handedly made Obamacare a reality by allowing it to come to the senate floor, with a democratic majority, for a vote. Heck, if you can’t convince Snowe, how can you chat with Netanyahu? Amb. Rice is famous for her forthrightness; a quality I think would have made her a great Secretary of State in this era where traditional diplomacy is going to lead us all to hell. Unfortunately, being forthright does not make senate confirmations a reality especially if starting from a negative slate with the senators who will be voting on your confirmation. Finally, most of the Senators, republican and democrats, are very good pals of Kerry, i.e. they like him better than Rice. And Kerry had desired that position for the longest period. What better goodbye present from the Senate good ole boys than making it easier for him to get his desired position? Finally, POTUS Obama made a calculation and decided he’d rather take a risk with an alleged anti-semite than fight against the whole senate for Amb. Rice. It happens … she is still powerful and will continue to be his close confidante. All of this explains the republicans’ position better than their care for Libya, Sudan or Congo.

    In all, can all this bickering about this closed nomination just end already? Africa was used as a side note in this DC drama as it always has been to pump up people’s careers (yes, I am talking to you – Samantha Power). For a first time, it was used as a tactic to editorialize, not halt, a DC career … and Africanists start getting talked down at? All of the drama does not change America policy in Africa, which is more harmful than beneficial (see current crops of coup plotters on the continent these days). Can we bicker about that instead and oh, about the thugs being propped up and legitimized as leaders in Africa by the west? Given real freedom, does one think Africans, even the poor uneducated fly-covered ones, would ever vote for these western puppets?

  3. <>

    The answer to that question is no! Some of the reasons being: (1) She was too close to African strongmen like Yoweri Museveni and the late Meles Zenawi (2) Some folks have implicated her in the untimely death of Nigerian Presidential aspirant, Moshood Abiola (3) Seeing herself as an “Africa Specialist” [her PhD dissertation at Oxford was on Zimbabwe] she would have stuck her nose too deep into Africa’s affairs; the sort of thing that we Africans don’t need right now. The long-and-short of it is that I’m relieved that John Kerry, and not Susan Rice,  is now set to become Hillary Clinton’s replacement.

    James Chikonamombe ============================================================


  4. I am reminded of the following, back in1999 when Mbeki and Gore chaired the SA/US Bi-National Commission:

    “”I was told this afternoon that I have been saying some nasty things about the Assistant Secretary (of State) for Africa, Susan Rice; that I said I don’t like her, she’s nasty, she harasses our government officials. I want to say I’ve never said it. Indeed, I admire her somewhat. But I wanted to say that, because I don’t know quite where the story came from, because somebody thinks it up, and then it grows and grows, and it ends up being a crisis (in) US and SA relations.”

    There has, it is true, been chatter that Mbeki was irritated enough by the hard-charging young assistant secretary to complain about her to Gore last year while she was still Africa director at the White House national security council, and that, as a result, she was given a talking-to by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, her unofficial godmother.

    This chatter is inside stuff, but here was Mbeki denying gossip that most of the audience, in which Rice herself was sitting, had never heard and would quite likely never have heard had not Mbeki raised it himself.

    Even if it was his sincere wish to put the rumours to rest, this was SA’s own Machiavelli speaking, so many found it difficult to take his words at face value or to choke back the
    thought that he was chastising the assistant-secretary, whom he admired “somewhat”.

    Did he really intend that his use of the modifying adverb “somewhat” should mean what it sounded like to American ears? Whatever Mbeki’s intention […] the incident serves to highlight the problems of communication between the US and SA.” -Business Day.

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