Susan Rice’s Genocide Problem

by Rafael Medoff

The year was 1942.

The evidence that the Nazis were annihilating the Jews of Europe was overwhelming. The British government suggested to the United States that they issue a joint statement acknowledging and condemning the mass murder. The Roosevelt administration hesitated. One senior State Department official objected on the grounds that if they issued such a statement, the Allies “would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.”

The year was 1994.

Evidence that mass murder was underway in Rwanda was overwhelming, but the United States was resisting calling it “genocide.” An internal memo from the Defense Department reported: “Legal [division] at State [Department] was worried about this yesterday–Genocide finding could commit [the U.S.] to actually ‘do something’.”

The journalist who uncovered that damning Defense Department memo was Dr. Samantha Power, who today is a senior official of the Obama administration. Dr. Power revealed the memo in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 book, ” ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide.”

Dr. Power also wrote that in one discussion among government officials about how the U.S. should respond to Rwanda, “Susan Rice, a rising star on the National Security Council who worked under Richard Clarke, stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, ‘If we use the word “genocide” and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?’ “

Dr. Power added that when she later asked Ms. Rice about that statement, Rice said “she does not recall the incident” (while adding, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”).

Now that Ambassador Rice’s possible nomination as secretary of state is in the public spotlight, her positions with regard to genocide are attracting comment. Prof. Edward Luck, a former United Nations staffer, told the Washington Post on November 30 that while he initially had doubts about Ms. Rice when she was named American ambassador to the U.N., he was “moved” when she gave “stirring remarks” about the Rwanda genocide. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite such a personal and emotional account given by a diplomat at the U.N.,” Luck said.

Evidently he was referring to Ambassador Rice’s remarks in Kigali, Rwanda, last November. She described how, six months after the genocide ended, she walked through “a church and an adjacent schoolyard where one of the massacres had occurred [and] the decomposing bodies of those who had been so cruelly murdered still lay strewn around what should have been a place of peace…[W]e saw first-hand the spectacular consequences of the poor decisions taken by those countries, including my own…”

Yet the Rwanda slaughter illustrates how the possibility of confronting genocide sometimes clashes with political interests. During the Holocaust and during the Rwanda killings, acknowledging genocide would have created pressure to “do something.” Likewise, the Bush administration was slow to acknowledge the Darfur genocide, and, even after recognizing it in 2004, did far less than it could have done to intervene.

But is the Obama administration’s own Darfur policy –in which Ambassador Rice has played a role– any better?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported from Sudan in July that the Sudanese government has been carrying out “mass atrocities that echo Darfur” against non-Arab tribes in the Nuba Mountains. How have Ambassador Rice and other administration officials responded? No demands for a no-fly zone. No pressure on the Arab League or African Union to take action against Sudan, which is a member of both. Not even a word of criticism against Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, or Iraq for hosting visits by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for organizing the Darfur genocide.

Last year, President Obama’s envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, shocked Darfur advocates when he remarked, “Frankly we do not want to see the ouster of the [Bashir] regime, nor regime change.” Ambassador Rice said nothing to the contrary. Her silence is worrisome because a wikileak cable in 2010 quoted the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court as telling Ambassador Rice that President Bashir had amassed a secret $9-billion bank account. The ICC prosecutor wanted to publicize that information in the hope of turning the Sudanese public against Bashir. But when asked by a reporter, Ms. Rice said she “didn’t recall” being told about the $9-billion.

No government official can be expected to remember every conversation she ever had. But when it comes to conversations that have to do with the perpetrators of genocide, the public has a right to expect its leaders to be fully focused. When confronted about her reported reluctant to recognize the Rwanda genocide, Ms. Rice “didn’t recall” saying that. When asked about her knowledge of Omar al-Bashir’s $9-billion stash, she “didn’t recall” being told about it. Whether the problem is ordinary forgetfulness, or forgetfulness complicated by political considerations, it’s cause for concern.

November 2012