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In Defense of Susan Rice—Again

The accusations against UN ambassador and potential nominee for Secretary of State, Susan Rice, continue. Today they have taken a new turn as an Eritrean-American, Salem Solomon, wrote prominently in the New York Times about Rice’s supposed affections for a new generation of strongmen of Africa.

This article comes at a particularly inopportune time, as Rice is being hammered for all sorts of reasons, many of them specious in my eyes, and this article feels like piling on more than like fair-minded criticism. It is especially unfortunate since emotionalism and partisanship are complicating efforts at fair-minded assessment about whether Rice would be a strong choice as secretary of state.

I have written before about Ambassador Rice, a friend and former colleague. While an admirer of her work, I do not mean to suggest that she would necessarily be a better choice for secretary of state than Senator John Kerry or someone else. But she is a very capable government servant and a serious candidate for the secretary job. And the criticisms of her are often unfair. Today’s column belongs in that category.

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

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

Of the countries she mentions, five of the six have done well in recent years. For example, in an important 2010 book entitled Emerging Africa, Steve Radelet of the Center for Global Development writes that they are five of the 17 African states making major headway at present. Their economies are doing much better, they are generally at peace internally, and their governments while still flawed are generally much improved compared with their own pasts or the forms of government employed by many of their neighbors.

Other methods of assessing the performance of African states could lead to somewhat different conclusions, it is true. But Solomon makes no hint of these or any other methods. The slightest whiff of authoritarian behavior by one of these leaders is, for her, enough to condemn not only the governments in question but, by association, Rice’s candidacy. 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—even though, of the six he considered, that is the only one not listed as an emerging success by Radelet or other authors.

There is no doubt that we need some new policies and approaches towards specific African problems and challenges at present. 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 such policy specifics. I know Ambassador Rice well enough to be confident she will be listening for good ideas, and if Solomon has any, she should offer them up. But we have had enough already of the ad hominems.

Editor’s Note: This blog post has been republished on »

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