WASHINGTON — Almost two decades after the Clinton administration failed to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda, the United States is coming under harsh criticism for not moving forcefully in another African crisis marked by atrocities and brutal killings, this time in Rwanda’s neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
While President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have taken some of the blame, critics of the Obama administration’s Africa policy have focused on the role of Susan E. Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations and a leading contender to succeed Mrs. Clinton, in the administration’s failure to take action against the country they see as a major cause of the Congolese crisis, Rwanda.
Specifically, these critics — who include officials of human rights organizations and United Nations diplomats — say the administration has not put enough pressure on Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, to end his support for the rebel movement whose recent capture of the strategic city of Goma in Congo set off a national crisis in a country that has already lost more than three million people in more than a decade of fighting. Rwanda’s support is seen as vital to the rebel group, known as M23.
Support for Mr. Kagame and the Rwandan government has been a matter of American foreign policy since he led the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front to victory over the incumbent government in July 1994, effectively ending the Rwandan genocide. But according to rights organizations and diplomats at the United Nations, Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door.
A senior administration official said Saturday that Ms. Rice was not freelancing, and that the American policy toward Rwanda and Congo was to work with all the countries in the area for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington. Ms. Rice, who served as the State Department’s top African affairs expert in the Clinton administration, worked at the firm with several other former Clinton administration officials, including David J. Rothkopf, who was an acting under secretary in the Commerce Department; Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser; and John M. Deutch, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Payton Knopf, a spokesman for Ms. Rice, initially declined to comment on whether her work with Rwanda at Intellibridge affected her dealings with the country in her present job as an ambassador. But on Monday, Mr. Knopf said: “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 United States at the U.N.”
Two months ago, at a meeting with her French and British counterparts at the French Mission to the United Nations, according to a Western diplomat with knowledge of the meeting, Ms. Rice objected strongly to a call by the French envoy, Gerard Araud, for explicitly “naming and shaming” Mr. Kagame and the Rwandan government for its support of M23, and to his proposal to consider sanctions to pressure Rwanda to abandon the rebel group.
“Listen Gerard,” she said, according to the diplomat. “This is the D.R.C. If it weren’t the M23 doing this, it would be some other group.” The exchange was reported in Foreign Policy magazine last week.
A few weeks later, Ms. Rice again stepped in to protect Mr. Kagame. After delaying for weeks the publication of a United Nations report denouncing Rwanda’s support for the M23 and opposing any direct references to Rwanda in United Nations statements and resolutions on the crisis, Ms. Rice intervened to water down a Security Council resolution that strongly condemned the M23 for widespread rape, summary executions and recruitment of child soldiers. The resolution expressed “deep concern” about external actors supporting the M23. But Ms. Rice prevailed in preventing the resolution from explicitly naming Rwanda when it was passed on Nov. 20.
Mr. Knopf, the spokesman for Ms. Rice, said the view of the United States was that delicate diplomatic negotiations under way among Rwanda, Congo and Uganda could have been adversely affected if the Security Council resolution explicitly named Rwanda. “Working with our colleagues in the Security Council, the United States helped craft a strong resolution to reinforce the delicate diplomatic effort then getting under way in Kampala,” Mr. Knopf said.
The negotiations subsequently fell apart, and the M23 continued to make gains in eastern Congo. Last week, the M23 withdrew from Goma but left behind agents and remain in range of the city.
Mr. Knopf declined to confirm or deny the account offered by the United Nations diplomat about the conversation between Ms. Rice and the French ambassador. But he said that “Ambassador Rice has frequently and publicly condemned the heinous abuses perpetrated by the M23 in eastern Congo,” adding that the United States was “leading efforts to end the rebellion, including by leveling U.S. and U.N. sanctions against M23 leaders and commanders.”
Ms. Rice’s critics say that is the crux of the problem with the American response to the crisis in Congo: it ignores, for the most part, the role played by Mr. Kagame in backing the M23, and, as it happens, risks repeating the mistakes of the genocide by not erring on the side of aggressive action. “I fear that our collective regret about not stopping the Rwandan genocide, felt by all of us who worked for the Clinton administration, led to policies that overlooked more waves of atrocities in the Congo, which we should equally regret,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who has worked closely with Ms. Rice both in the Clinton administration and after.
“For almost 20 years now, the premise of U.S. policy has been that quiet persuasion is the best way to restrain Rwanda from supporting war criminals in the Congo,” Mr. Malinowski said. “It might have made sense once, but after years of Rwanda doing what the U.S. has urged it not to do, contributing to massive civilian deaths, and ripping up U.N. resolutions that the U.S. sponsored, the time to speak plainly and impose penalties has come.”
When Mrs. Clinton appeared before reporters on Nov. 28 to talk about the M23’s seizure of Goma, she sprinkled her talking points with a demand that the rebel group withdraw, calling the humanitarian impact “devastating,” with 285,000 people forced to flee their homes, health workers abducted and killed, and civil workers under threat of death. But she made no mention of Rwanda’s role backing the rebel group, limiting her inclusion of Rwanda to a mention of negotiations with Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo to try to get a cease-fire.
“The M23 would probably no longer exist today without Rwandan support,” said Jason K. Stearns, author of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of Congo and the Great War of Africa.” “It stepped in to prevent the movement from collapsing and has been providing critical military support for every major offensive.”
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, noted that the United States cut a portion of its military financing for Rwanda — around $250,000. But the Rwandan military continues to receive substantial American training, equipment and financial help. In an interview, he said, “There is not an ounce of difference between myself and Ambassador Rice on this issue,” adding that quiet diplomacy was better than publicly calling out Mr. Kagame.
Ms. Rice, who has been at the eye of a political storm over her portrayal of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in recent days, she seems to have tried to publicly distance herself from the M23 — although still not from Mr. Kagame. On Dec. 3, she posted on her Facebook page: “The U.S. condemns in the strongest terms horrific M23 violence. Any and all external support has to stop,” in a reference to action in the Senate.
Her posting drew immediate responses. “Condemn the rape but don’t name the rapist?” one of them said. “What kind of Justice is that?”
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