Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was written in Prendergast’s personal capacity, not on behalf of the Enough Project, and originally appeared on Politico.com.
One of the usual victims in the politics of personal assassination is the truth. This phenomenon holds in the current extrajudicial “trial” of Susan Rice. Her record is being examined with a microscope and a telescope, at times refracting the light so completely that original facts become completely obscured. Such is the case with much of the examination of Ambassador Rice’s record on Africa, particularly when she was the Clinton administration’s lead diplomat toward that continent.
I worked in the Clinton White House and Albright State Department during President Clinton’s second term. I spent a great deal of my time working on peace processes in Africa’s hottest war zones. With that history, I can say from personal experience that the idea that Susan Rice was more of an administration loyalist than a consummate diplomat is preposterous.
When I first set foot in the White House at the end of 1996, with Rice as Senior Director for Africa at the National Security Council, I found her leading a dynamic policy process that sought to redefine America’s relationship with Africa in a way that a lifelong Africanist like me didn’t think was possible. Rice worked tirelessly to build new opportunities for two-way trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa that led to more growth and jobs on both sides of the ocean. She helped expand a truly bipartisan collection of influential senators and House members who prioritized partnering with Africa over patronizing it.
I watched her from afar build that investment and trade strategy, expand debt relief opportunities, fight for more security resources for our embassies throughout Africa, create more efficient foreign aid efforts, and conceive numerous additional U.S. initiatives that provided mutual benefit to African nations and to the United States. But I had the opportunity to work very closely with Susan in the arena of crisis diplomacy and conflict resolution. These situations are where true diplomatic skills are essential. One either sinks or swims very quickly in such turbulent waters.
I had the good fortune of working under President Clinton’s Special Envoy for the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict, Anthony Lake. I saw first hand as Lake, Rice (by then Assistant Secretary of State for Africa), and Gayle Smith (who succeeded Susan at the NSC) led a two and a half year peace process that helped end what was at the time the deadliest war in the world. Rice spent countless hours on shuttle missions between Addis Ababa and Asmara, working with European and other allies in building leverage in support of the process, and coming up with creative alternatives that might help stop a war that most analysts said would have no end. Eventually, the perseverance paid off, and the parties signed a deal. A dozen years later, the peace has held.
I also worked closely with Clinton’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, former Congressman Howard Wolpe. I traveled throughout Central Africa with Susan and watched her persistence and bridge-building efforts contribute mightily to a cease-fire deal that led to the withdrawal of numerous African countries that had been drawn into the Congolese war in the late 1990s. It was through her personal diplomacy with the heads of state from Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, and Congo that progress was made. She remains deeply engaged in working to bring an end to the Congo’s ongoing conflict in the east of the country. Though honorable people may disagree on strategy, what is indisputable is her commitment to a solution.
Sudan, however, is where Rice’s efforts have had the most impact, arguably. When my traveling partner George Clooney and I were in South Sudan during the referendum for South Sudan’s independence in January 2011, we heard from numerous South Sudanese people that the person that was most responsible over the years for the peaceful birth of the world’s newest country was Susan Rice. Going all the way back to the mid-1990s, Rice worked assiduously to create consequences for the Khartoum regime’s support for international terrorism and its gross human rights abuses against civilian populations in the South. She helped build the international network of states that eventually supported a peace deal in part brokered by Bush administration officials. And then she closed the circle by working closely with President Obama to create a unified UN Security Council in support of a peaceful referendum, thus averting what many analysts predicted would be a bloodbath.
The truth has become unrecognizable in the fog of yet another Washington war. Hopefully the facts will surface and the record will become clear. During my time in government, I found Susan Rice to be a consummate diplomat who fought fiercely for American interests and who promoted a global vision of U.S. partnership with Africa that benefited real people on both sides of the ocean.
Photo: Susan Rice (AP)