Our next Secretary of State is quite the amoral, inept diplomat
by Bret Stephens
The trouble with a newspaper column lies in the word limit. Last week, I wrote about some of Susan Rice‘s diplomatic misadventures in Africa during her years in the Clinton administration: Rwanda, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo. But there wasn’t enough space to get to them all.
And Sierra Leone deserves a column of its own.
On June 8, 1999, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ms. Rice, then the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, delivered testimony on a range of issues, and little Sierra Leone was high on the list. An elected civilian government led by a former British barrister named Ahmad Kabbah had been under siege for years by a rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front, led by a Libyan-trained guerrilla named Foday Sankoh. Events were coming to a head.
Even by the standards of Africa in the 1990s, the RUF set a high bar for brutality. Its soldiers were mostly children, abducted from their parents, fed on a diet of cocaine and speed. Its funding came from blood diamonds. It was internationally famous for chopping off the limbs of its victims. Its military campaigns bore such names as “Operation No Living Thing.”
In January 1999, six months before Ms. Rice’s Senate testimony, the RUF laid siege to the capital city of Freetown. “The RUF burned down houses with their occupants still inside, hacked off limbs, gouged out eyes with knives, raped children, and gunned down scores of people in the street,” wrote Ryan Lizza in the New Republic. “In three weeks, the RUF killed some 6,000 people, mostly civilians.”
What to do with a group like this? The Clinton administration had an idea. Initiate a peace process.
It didn’t seem to matter that Sankoh was demonstrably evil and probably psychotic. It didn’t seem to matter, either, that he had violated previous agreements to end the war. “If you treat Sankoh like a statesman, he’ll be one,” was the operative theory at the State Department, according to one congressional staffer cited by Mr. Lizza. Instead of treating Sankoh as part of the problem, if not the problem itself, State would treat him as part of the solution. An RUF representative was invited to Washington for talks. Jesse Jackson was appointed to the position of President Clinton’s special envoy.
It would be tempting to blame Rev. Jackson for the debacle that would soon follow. But as Ms. Rice was keen to insist in her Senate testimony that June, it was the Africa hands at the State Department who were doing most of the heavy lifting.
In September 1999, Ms. Rice praised the “hands-on efforts” of Rev. Jackson, U.S. Ambassador Joe Melrose “and many others” for helping bring about the Lomé agreement.
For months thereafter, Ms. Rice cheered the accords at every opportunity. Rev. Jackson, she said, had “played a particularly valuable role,” as had Howard Jeter, her deputy at State. In a Feb. 16, 2000, Q&A session with African journalists, she defended Sankoh’s participation in the government, noting that “there are many instances where peace agreements around the world have contemplated rebel movements converting themselves into political parties.”
What was more, the U.S. was even prepared to lend Sankoh a helping hand, provided he behaved himself. “Among the institutions of government that we are prepared to assist,” she said, “is of coursethe Commission on Resources which Mr. Sankoh heads.”
Three months later, the RUF took 500 U.N. peacekeepers as hostages and was again threatening Freetown. Lomé had become a dead letter. The State Department sought to send Rev. Jackson again to the region, but he was so detested that his trip had to be canceled. The U.N.’s Kofi Annan begged for Britain’s help. Tony Blair obliged him.
“Over a number of weeks,” Mr. Blair recalls in his memoirs, British troops “did indeed sort out the RUF. . . . The RUF leader Foday Sankoh was arrested, and during the following months there was a buildup of the international presence, a collapse of the rebels and over time a program of comprehensive disarmament. . . . The country’s democracy was saved.”
Today Mr. Blair is a national hero in Sierra Leone. As for Ms. Rice and the administration she represented, history will deliver its own verdict.
Read the rest – The Other Susan Rice File