Updated December 3, 2012, 7:23 p.m. ET

Stephens: Failing Up With Susan Rice

Benghazi was not her first African fiasco.

  • By BRET STEPHENS in the Wall Street Journal

Long before Susan Rice became a household name thanks to her part in the Benghazi fiasco, she was building a career from the ruins of other African fiascoes.

To some of these she merely contributed. Others were of her own making.

Ms. Rice’s misadventures in Africa began nearly two decades ago when, as a 28 year-old McKinsey consultant with an Oxford Ph.D. (her dissertation was on Zimbabwe), she joined Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. The president, who had been badly burned by the Black Hawk Down episode in October 1993, was eager to avoid further African entanglements.

So when a genocide began in Rwanda the following April, the administration went to great lengths to avoid any involvement-beginning with the refusal to use the word “genocide” at all. Giving voice to that sentiment was none other than Ms. Rice:

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The next U.S. Secretary of State?

“At an interagency teleconference in late April [1994],” writes Samantha Power in her book “A Problem From Hell,” Ms. Rice “stunned a few officials present when she asked, ‘If we use the word “genocide” and are seen as doing nothing, what will the effect be on the November [congressional] election?’ Lieutenant Colonel [Tony] Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. ‘We could believe that people would wonder that,’ he says, ‘but not that they would actually voice it.’ ”

Ms. Rice has said she can’t remember making the remark, but regrets doing so “if I said it.” Some accounts say she was so burned by the Rwanda debacle that she became determined to make amends upon becoming assistant secretary for Africa policy in 1997. To judge by the record, she didn’t quite succeed.

The best account of Ms. Rice’s time in that office comes from a 2002 article in Current History by Peter Rosenblum of Columbia University. Ms. Rice was the architect of a policy that invested heavily in a new crop of African leaders-Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia; Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea; Yoweri Museveni in Uganda; Paul Kagame in Rwanda-presumed to be more progressive-minded than their predecessors.

In May 1998, Ms. Rice had an opportunity to prove her diplomatic mettle when she was sent to mediate a peace plan between warring Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“What is publicly known,” notes Mr. Rosenblum, “is that Rice announced the terms of a plan agreed to by Ethiopia, suggesting that Eritrea would have to accept it, before Isaias had given his approval. He responded angrily, rejecting the plan and heaping abuse on Rice. Soon afterward, Ethiopia bombed the capital of Eritrea, and Eritrea dropped cluster bombs on Ethiopia. . . .

“Susan Rice was summoned back to Washington in early June after the negotiations collapsed. Insiders agree that the secretary of state [Madeleine Albright] was furious. According to one, Rice was essentially ‘put on probation,’ kept in Washington where the secretary could keep an eye on her. ‘Susan had misread the situation completely,’ according to one State Department insider who observed the conflict with Albright. ‘She came in like a scoutmaster, lecturing them on how to behave and having a public tantrum when they didn’t act the way she wanted.”

An estimated 100,000 people would perish in the war that Ms. Rice so ineptly failed to end. And the leaders in whom she invested her faith would all become typical African strongmen, with human-rights records to match. Yet that didn’t keep Ms. Rice from delivering a heartfelt eulogy for Meles at his funeral three months ago, in which she praised him as “uncommonly wise,” “a rare visionary,” and a “true friend to me.”

A 2011 State Department report offers a different perspective on Meles. It cites his “government’s arrest of more than 100 opposition political figures, activists, journalists and bloggers,” along with “torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces.”

Then there is the Congo. Human-rights groups have long accused the Clinton administration of acquiescing in the efforts by Rwanda and Uganda to topple the Congolese government of Laurent Kabila in 1998, which by some estimates wound up taking more than five million lives. In congressional testimony, Ms. Rice angrily denied any U.S. role in condoning or supporting the intervention.

But Ms. Rice may not have been completely forthcoming. “Museveni and Kagame agree that the basic problem in the Great Lakes is the danger of a resurgence of genocide and they know how to deal with that,” Ms. Rice is said to have remarked confidentially after a visit to the region, according to reporter Howard French of the New York Times. “The only thing we [the United States] have to do is look the other way.”

Which is what the U.S. did.

There is more to be said about Ms. Rice’s skills as a diplomat, particularly during her tenure at the U.N. For now, let’s give Prof. Rosenblum the last word on the person who might yet be the next secretary of state:

“Rice proved herself brilliant, over time, in working the machinery of government. But along the way she burned bridges liberally, alienating and often antagonizing many potential allies. . . . Susan Rice seems not to have convinced colleagues that her real interest was Africa, or even foreign policy.”

Write to bstephens@wsj.com