It was difficult to take seriously the attack on President Obama’s UN ambassador, Susan Rice, based on her faulty renditions of events surrounding the killing of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Certainly, her performance on the Sunday TV talk shows was unimpressive, whatever conclusions one may draw as to what accounted for her persistent inaccuracies in describing what happened. But there was no real evidence that she willfully dissembled on the matter, and it didn’t seem to be of a magnitude to disqualify her for the job of Secretary of State, to which Obama reportedly wants to nominate her.
The subsequent reports about her actions regarding various African conflicts and her coziness with certain brutal strongman figures are another matter. These call into question her judgment and generate puzzlement about just what drives her views and attitudes about the bloody conflagrations that erupt with such regularity on that continent. These matters clearly would justify voting against her if any confirmation resolution made its way to the Senate, although many supporters of Rice—and of Obama—would find ways to dismiss the issue.
But there’s one fact in the background of Susan Rice that ought to be considered disqualifying—her past work for Rwanda when she was a consultant with a strategic consulting firm called Intellibridge. The riff on Rice is that she has demonstrated a certain softness toward Rwanda and particularly its president, Paul Kagame, in various policy deliberations regarding Rwanda’s support for a brutal rebel group that is wreaking havoc in neighboring Congo. And some have wondered if her past business relationship with Rwanda may be influencing her thinking on the matter.
But let’s step back here. We can never know for sure just what drives Rice’s ongoing desire to shield the Rwandan leader from international censure and pressure, though her actions, as reported recently by Helene Cooper in the New York Times, aren’t particularly fragrant. But we do know that she took money from an African government after serving in the State Department as assistant secretary for African affairs.
There’s nothing wrong with contracting with foreign governments who want influence in the U.S. capital. And some Washington bigwigs have made lots of money catering to these governments and their leaders. That’s fine. I wouldn’t even argue that Obama should succeed in extracting more tax dollars from these people.
But our country’s Secretary of State represents the United States of America throughout the world—to countries large and small; in matters weighty and trivial. There should never be any doubt—abroad or at home—about what drives the sentiments and actions of such high governmental officials: the national interest, as determined by the nation’s president.
No president should ever appoint to the position of secretary of state anyone who has ever taken money from a foreign government. There should be a clear dichotomy between getting rich serving the interests of other countries in the U.S. capital and serving U.S. interests at the top of America’s foreign-policy establishment.
In fact, there ought to be a law. Congress should pass legislation debarring from such elevated positions of service in the foreign-policy realm people who have had business relationships with foreign countries. No debates about how long those relationships lasted . . . or how much money was involved . . . or whether it really and truly would color the person’s judgment or outlook on countries of past financial alignment. The law would cut through all that by saying simply that you can take money from foreign governments or you can represent your country abroad, but you can’t do both.
Paul R. Pillar of Georgetown, writing in these spaces, noted accurately the problems that arise when top Washington officials navigate the enticing revolving door between government service and rich contracts in the private sector. He said Rice’s attachment to Kagame and his government illustrates “the baggage that in-and-outers may acquire during periods that they are out of government.” He adds, “Relationships…of advocacy, trust and taking action on behalf of the client’s interests are not relationships that can be turned on and off like a light switch.”
True, but it gets difficult to sort it all out, and efforts to do so simply confuse the matter and foster endless debate.
In Helene Cooper’s Times piece, Rice’s acolytes rushed to her defense by saying that her past connection with Rwanda hasn’t affected her behavior as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—and hence presumably wouldn’t do so if she were secretary of state. Her spokesman, Payton Knopf, told the Times, “Ambassador Rice’s brief consultancy at Intellibridge has had no impact on her work at the United Nations. She implements the agreed policy of the Unites States at the U.N.” Perhaps. But that’s hardly the point. The question is what kind of advocacy does she put forth before the agreed policy of the United States is determined.
We don’t know the answer to that question and, if we did, we still wouldn’t know what motivations affected whatever advocacy Ms. Rice embraced. But, if Congress drew a line between foreign representation and U.S. foreign service, it wouldn’t matter. No debate. Her name wouldn’t come up.
No such line is going to be forthcoming from Congress. It is not in the interest of official Washington, and the American people don’t care. But, if Obama sends up Rice’s name for secretary of state, an ugly debate will ensue. And it will be a debate that should have been avoided.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.