In defense of Susan Rice

December 10, 2012

The accusations against Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations and potential nominee for secretary of state, continue. They took a new turn on Monday as an Eritrean-American, Salem Solomon, wrote for the New York Times op-ed page about Rice’s supposed affections for a new generation of strongmen of Africa.

This article comes at an inopportune time, since Rice is now being hammered for all sorts of reasons — many of them specious. It feels more like piling on than fair-minded criticism. It is particularly unfortunate because partisanship is complicating efforts to determine whether Rice would be a strong choice as secretary of state.

I have written before about Rice, who is a friend and former colleague. I’m an admirer of her work, though this is not to suggest that she would necessarily be a better choice for secretary of state than Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) or someone else. But she is a capable public servant and a serious candidate for the job. The recent criticisms — including the New York Times commentary — are often unfair.

Solomon asserts that Rice has been too close to autocratic rulers in six countries:  Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana and South Africa. He uses this contention to conclude that she should not be secretary of state.

But leave aside the nuance in Rice’s various positions toward these countries over the years, as well as her tough stances toward the leadership of Sudan. Leave aside as well the fact that in many African countries, with their weak political systems, there are no great choices to support. Solomon’s argument, however, fails even before getting into such complexities.

Of the countries he mentions, for example, five have done well in recent years. They are five of the 17 African states now making major headway, as Steve Radelet of the Center for Global Development explains in his important 2010 book, “Emerging Africa.” Their economies are doing better, they are generally at peace internally and their governments, while flawed, are generally much improved compared with their own pasts or those of their neighbors.

It is true that other methods of assessing the performance of African states could lead to somewhat different conclusions. But Solomon makes no mention of these or any other methods. The slightest whiff of authoritarian behavior by one of these leaders is, for him, enough to condemn not only the governments in question but, by association, Rice. This is not serious.

Ironically, Solomon finishes his piece by arguing that if anything, Rice and the United States government in general have been too tough on his own government of Eritrea. Yet of the six he considered, that is the only country not listed as an emerging success by Radelet or other authors.

There is no doubt that we need some new approaches to specific African problems and challenges. Congo is a case in point, and it is true that Rwanda’s recent role there has been problematic.

So let the debate continue — on policy specifics. I know Rice well enough to be confident she will be listening for good ideas. If Solomon has any, he should offer them up.

But we have had enough of the ad hominem attacks.

PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice at a press conference after a global town hall at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco February 10, 2011. REUTERS/Stephen Lam  



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