On Thursday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice asked the president to remove her name from consideration as a possible successor to Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
We deeply regret this, not because she is the only person qualified to serve in that position, but because of the false picture that has been painted of her character and service. As rumors spread that President Obama was considering her for the job, Rice became a lightning rod for criticism from Republican politicians and a small herd of pundits and columnists. The caricature that emerged from those criticisms bears little resemblance to the truth. We write to set the record straight.
From 1993 until 2001, Rice served in the Bill Clinton administration, first on the staff of the National Security Council, and later as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. We worked closely with her throughout this period, during which her performance was marked by high intelligence, unwavering energy, unassailable integrity, and a deep commitment to the interests and ideals of our nation.
These were years of enormous turbulence in Africa. The end of the Cold War unleashed hopes that new democracies would thrive and prosperity would spread; such hopes were counter-balanced by the eruption of international and civil conflicts, leading in Rwanda to genocide and in half a dozen other countries to debilitating tragedy and strife.
As we know from experience, diplomats cannot transform war into peace by wishes alone. One has to convince the leaders of governments and militias to stop fighting. This often requires sitting down with unsavory people and earning their trust. At times, it involves endorsing a fragile ceasefire that seems a better bet to save lives than a continuation of war.
At the White House and as assistant secretary of state, Rice endeavored (at our instruction) to build peace on several fronts. In the Horn of Africa, she joined the Organization of African Unity in persuading Ethiopia and Eritrea to end their cross-border conflict. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she worked with regional leaders to broker an agreement that led to the withdrawal of all the foreign forces that had entered what was called Africa’s first world war. In 1999 in Sierra Leone, the Economic Community of West African States forged a pact between the government and rebels that briefly halted a murderous civil war. Ultimately, a U.N. peacekeeping force heavily assisted by the British brought about a second ceasefire, paving the way to disarmament and relative peace. Meanwhile, the brutal civil war in Sudan resisted all diplomatic efforts.
More generally, Rice was a principal architect of programs to improve Africa’s own peacekeeping capabilities, supported the growth of democratic institutions, and tied ambitious economic initiatives to domestic political reform. The landmark Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (which became law in May 2000) lowered U.S. trade barriers to sub-Saharan Africa, while our backing for large-scale debt relief was designed to free up funds for investment in education, health care and other social needs. At Rice’s urging, we also marshaled international support for a ban on trade in so-called blood diamonds.
Not all of our objectives in Africa were achieved before we left office, but the principles and programs she espoused helped build the foundation for future progress. Rice deserves immense credit for the passion and creativity that she brought to the job. She was driven by an urgent desire to save lives and to help countries in conflict rebuild and go forward in peace.
Rice has continued to operate at a high level as our country’s permanent representative to the United Nations. Since 2009, she has held the moral high ground for the United States in the most diverse and contentious diplomatic arena on the globe. Her efforts contributed mightily to tough economic sanctions that have weakened Syria’s brutal regime and made life far more difficult for the leaders of Iran. She has steadfastly defended our ally Israel from unbalanced attacks, and argued effectively for a Security Council resolution that paved the way for the removal of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Much of the recent criticism of Rice focused on her televised statements in the aftermath of September’s terrorist assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But even a high-level official depends on officially cleared talking points when publicly discussing a situation about which he or she lacks first-hand knowledge. This is especially the case when the talking points reflect the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community. Given the serious nature of what happened in Benghazi, senators were surely justified in asking questions, but there simply is no basis to believe that Rice sought to mislead the American people.
President Obama deserves — and our nation requires — a first-rate public servant in the position of secretary of state. Susan Rice is not the only such person, but she was certainly one of them. She will continue to represent our country at the United Nations and as a member of the president’s cabinet. In the future, let us all strive to create an environment in which our leaders are held accountable to the truth, but not made subject to innuendo and false accusations.