How Susan Rice Bungled Sudan

The new national-security adviser has a long history of poor judgment in east Africa.

President Obama’s decision to nominate UN ambassador Susan Rice to head the National Security Council is drawing howls of protest from Republicans over her role as an administration mouthpiece in the controversial days after Benghazi. Yet emails released by the administration suggest she was not involved in the development of the controversial talking points she’d deliver. She seems to have simply drawn the short straw. Thus it’s unfortunate that scrutiny of Rice will focus primarily on Benghazi, as her new position will give her immense influence in setting the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the next three-and-a-half years. She has a long track record, having spent many years at the highest levels of foreign-policy decision making, and served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. This record deserves examination.

There’s one country where Rice’s influence has been most constant: Sudan. U.S. relations with Khartoum have been complex, to put it lightly. Sudan harbored bin Laden during the Clinton years and launched a genocide in Darfur; it also signed a U.S.-brokered peace in the south during the Bush years and under Obama allowed the south to secede. Such mixed results would seem to demand mixed policy. Yet Rice has fought consistently against engagement with Khartoum, regardless of circumstances. This repeatedly put U.S. interests and initiatives at risk.

The Clinton Era

In the Clinton Administration, while Rice was in the National Security Council and then assistant secretary of state for African affairs, she allegedly repeatedly pushed for the rejection of Sudanese offers to cooperate against terrorism. The potential prizes for cooperation were significant. Former Sudanese and Egyptian intelligence officials told Vanity Fair’s David Rose that Sudan had closely monitored the activities of Osama bin Laden and his family, who were in the country at the time. The Sudanese claim they found two Al Qaeda operatives camped out in a building across from the U.S. embassy in Khartoum and that they tracked several plotters around the region before the 1998 embassy attacks. There was some reason to take them seriously—they’d apparently aided the French in plucking the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal from a Khartoum hideout in 1994.

So why didn’t Rice and other opponents of cooperation budge? At the time, Washington was awash with intelligence reports suggesting that Sudanese agents were planning a wide range of terrorist activities around the world, including a brazen attack on national-security adviser Tony Lake. (The reports would turn out to be unreliable.) Distrust of Sudan was deep enough to lead to military action in the wake of the embassy bombings. The Sudanese government had risen to power in an Islamist coup, and was waging a brutal internal war against rebels in the south.

Sudan was hardly a trusted actor, and indeed later was involved in a range of regional conflicts, with its president indicted for war crimes. Moreover, bin Laden was one threat among many, and while some in the intelligence community were increasingly concerned, actions against him did not have the urgency they would take on in 1998. It would not have been madness to think that the Sudanese were sacrificing a pawn to reduce international pressure, rather than genuinely pursuing positive relations with the United States.

Yet Rice’s critics charge that the root of her opposition to the Sudanese initiative came from a different place—that, in the words of David Rose, Rice and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “apparently preferred to trust their instincts that Sudan was America’s enemy, and so refused to countenance its assistance.” The origins of these instincts might not have been worries about Sudanese terror. An in-depth Reuters report notes that Rice associated with “The Council,” a clique of human-rights activists that pressed for the United States to change its Sudan policy: instead of dealing exclusively with officials in Khartoum, they advocated it talk to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the southern rebels.