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Forget about Benghazi. The whole imbroglio was little more than an election gambit gone sour. Republican leaders, frustrated that their charges failed to wound Obama in November, have vented their fury on his choice for Secretary of State.
But Susan Rice's record as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. raises other more serious concerns. The New York Times published two articles today, a news story and an op-ed, which question Rice's judgment concerning several African dictators.
Effective foreign policy requires a certain amount of flexibility. Overweening idealism may imperil American security and even the lives of the people we hope to protect. It is worth letting a brutal dictator escape prosecution, for example, to avoid a bloody civil war. Moreover, endless American moralizing tends to diminish our global influence. The Bush Administration repeatedly bolstered the popularity of anti-American despots, like Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by ham-handedly denouncing them at the slightest provocation.
But the business of realpolitik can be dangerously seductive. When a diplomat begins to see the silver lining in every dictatorship, when she calculates every move according to its strategic value, when she goes out of her way defend autocrats who deserve prosecution, then we need to worry.
There are troubling signs that Rice has these tendencies.
The late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia was not the worst dictator in Africa. He left his country in much better shape than when he came to power in 1991. But his 21-year reign was also marred by political repression, police massacres, press crackdowns, election violations, and international aggression. At his funeral, Rice called him "brilliant," "a son of Ethiopia and a father to its rebirth," and "a true friend to me."
Rice has also been kind to Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, one of her former clients when she worked for a strategic analysis firm in Washington. According to a former New York Times correspondent, she tacitly approved their invasions of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s, arguing that the two leaders would be able to protect the region from genocide.
"They know how to deal with that," the journalist reported her as having said, "The only thing we have to do is look the other way."
Rice has denied supporting the invasion, yet she continues to shield Kagame from criticism. When her French and British counterparts at the U.N. sought to condemn Rwanda for supporting the M23 rebels who have brutalized eastern Congo, she reportedly objected to "naming and shaming" Kagame.
"Listen Gerard," she said, according to the French diplomat, "This is the D.R.C. If it weren't the M23 doing this, it would be some other group."
A few weeks later, she successfully pushed the U.N. to remove direct references to Kagame and Rwanda from a resolution condemning M23.
Eastern Africa is a hard place, one of the hardest in the world. We should not harbor any illusion that moral proclamations--what Rice called "naming and shaming"--will do much to resolve its enduring crises or free its people from seemingly endless repression.
But it is one thing to recognize the limits of American grandstanding. It is quite another to refuse to acknowledge the presence of evil--or worse to defend and rationalize it.
President Obama should take a hard look at his chosen nominee for Secretary of State. We all should.