A few days after Barack Obama's inauguration, I called a Rwandan diplomat who had helped me with my story on that country’s remarkable economic-development strategy. "Did you go to the balls?" I asked. The response was tepid. "I stayed home," the diplomat said with a sigh. "I watched it on TV."
What I found, in talking to this diplomat and other officials, was broad ambivalence, not about President Obama himself, who is widely adored in Africa, but about his team. It goes back to 1994 and the Clinton Administration's inaction during the genocide. "We are seeing a lot of old faces coming back in the Obama Administration. These are the same people who shied away from the opportunity to stop it," the diplomat told me on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the issue. "I am thinking about [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.] Susan Rice. She says she has learned from her experience. But we’ve learned too."
Rice is singled out because she's the most prominent Clinton-era returnee who was involved with Africa policy in the 1990s, when, according to one ex-State Department hand, "it was the humanitarian approach to Africa--disaster, disease, and destruction--which often leads to paternalistic policy." Back then, Rice was relatively junior in the policymaking hierarchy (she directed the National Security Council's work on peacekeeping), and it was her boss, Richard Clarke, who was the fiercest proponent of doing nothing in Rwanda. "If you're a person working at the NSC and your boss is the one leading the effort to disengage and feeling quite righteous about it, what are you going to do?" says another ex-diplomat. "National interest trumped moral imperative."
Rice is especially remembered for one startling comment (reported by Samantha Power--now a fellow Obama adviser--in her seminal 2001 account in the Atlantic of the U.S. failure to act): "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?" Rice has said she doesn't remember making the comment, but that it was inappropriate. Through a spokesman, she declined comment for this story and referred me to various statements she has made expressing contrition. (She told Power: "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.")
"I do not think that anybody who was close to Rwanda in 1994 got out of the experience without having been seared. It was a soul-searing experience," says Prudence Bushnell, then the deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "As fellow travelers, as human beings, we know we did not do the right thing. The question now is, What lessons do you bring?"
Here's one possible lesson, from the Rwandan perspective: in attitude as well as policy, it may be smarter for the Obama Administration to emulate George W. Bush's presidency than Bill Clinton's. Because of Bush's initiatives on trade and on AIDS, Africa policy was one of the few relatively bright spots on his report card. One Kigali-based Rwandan official cites a bilateral relationship that--perhaps surprisingly for an administration not seen as fond of dialogue--involved lots of listening. "The Bush administration treated us like partners, more than any other in the past," she says. "They tended to listen more. It was refreshing."
With Obama's plate overloaded, he hasn't spent much time on Africa-related issues. He has only just named an assistant secretary of state for African affairs. (His choice is retired foreign-service officer Johnnie Carson, who has vast experience in Africa) and a special envoy for Sudan. One Clinton-era official says the slow start and lack of definition on Africa policy has fed fears that the continent will, ironically, be a lower priority for a Kenyan's son than for a white guy from Texas: "They're skeptical, and I certainly don't blame them. I would be too."
The official Rwandan line: "We had good relations with previous administrations and have no reason to believe this will change--we in fact look forward to consolidating ties," says Yolande Makolo, press secretary for President Paul Kagame. "We greatly appreciate U.S. support in our development especially in the areas health and rural development."
But privately, officials feel less confident: “Nervous would not be the term, but cautious," says one. "We are cautious." And as is too usual with Africa, they've reverted to "wait and see."
Related: Rwanda Rising: A New Model of Economic Development [From Issue 134 | April 2009]