One of the top criticisms of Trump administration foreign policy leveled by Biden administration officials is that Donald Trump as president was a wild card. He personalized policy, and he was volatile and unpredictable. Within the White House and at senior levels of the State Department, officials would often be forced to retroactively ascribe some logic to a pronouncement made by Trump on Twitter.
Such criticism was valid, and it is one reason why, both in Washington and in the wider world, many diplomats welcomed the Biden administration’s claim that they would return stability and process to foreign policy. For the most part, Biden’s team has approached the foreign policy process with professionalism. Whether an observer considers the Biden team’s judgment good or bad, little leaks. Neither the White House nor the State Department release much without first winning the approval of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan or Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Foreign leaders may question Biden’s grasp, but they trust that the era of policy by tweet, at least, is over.
Lack of Evidence
Perhaps such an assessment was too optimistic, or perhaps the message never reached USAID Administrator Samantha Power. In the early morning hours of Jan. 20, Rwandan journalist John Williams Ntwali died in a car accident. While many Rwandan print journalists self-censor their criticisms of the Rwandan government (radio is a different story, and often much more rough-and-tumble), Ntwali did not. The 2018 State Department human rights report criticized Rwanda for having detained Ntwali for ten hours after his “outspoken” blog upset the Rwandan government.
Two days after Ntwali’s death, Power tweeted, “Deeply saddened and concerned by the death of John Williams Ntwali, a brave and respected independent journalist – one of the few remaining in Rwanda. The Rwandan Government must allow an independent, credible investigation into the circumstances of his death.”
Here’s the problem: There is absolutely no evidence that Ntwali’s death was anything other than a tragic car accident. Kigali is a city of hills, and Rwanda itself is mountainous — think Switzerland, often without the guardrails. Car accidents are unfortunately frequent. In 2016, the rate of car crash fatalities was 21.48 per 100,000 people, more than five times the rate in Switzerland. Other metrics suggest the rate of fatal accidents in Rwanda is twice that, and rank Rwanda the 15th most dangerous country for traffic fatalities. Rwanda is a safe country in terms of crime and political violence. It is not much different than Central Europe. Still, the reality of Rwandan roads leads the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda to discourage night driving — because of road safety rather than violence.
In Ntwali’s case, police arrested the driver of the car that struck Ntwali’s automobile. That makes Power’s assertion even more bizarre. It is not uncommon for some regimes to target dissidents with cars, usually in a hit-and-run. Iraqi Kurdistan’s security establishment does it. So too do Turkey and Cuba. In such cases, no one finds, let alone arrests the driver who causes the accident if they were acting on state orders.
Out of Focus
I asked around to see if the U.S. government has any reason to believe that Ntwali’s death was anything more than a tragic accident. No. Apparently Power freelanced in service of her own dislike of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. She fanned the flames of a conspiracy theory that even Rwandan critics of Kagame find dubious. There are certainly valid reasons to criticize Kagame, but to do so without evidence reinforces the criticism of activists who use the mantle of human rights to pursue political goals without any adherence to metrics or methodology. It also throws a wrench in the ability of Blinken to negotiate in good faith as tensions flare between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The entire episode is reminiscent of Susan Rice, who a decade ago, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, threw U.S.-Morocco relations into disarray by unilaterally changing the United States’ position on the role of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. In anger at Rice’s action, Morocco — perhaps America’s closest ally in Africa — canceled military exercises and delayed a visit by the king to Washington. Rice’s freelancing came absent any policy discussion or consultation with the State Department or the National Security Council. Ultimately, it took phone calls by then-President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to repair the damage and make clear to Morocco that Rice had acted out of turn.
Power’s tweet was unprofessional. It had nothing to do with her USAID portfolio. Its lack of coordination makes Biden’s team look uncomfortably like Trump’s, and perhaps Power does not care. Whatever her motivations, neither Africans nor U.S. foreign relations should suffer for the ego or ambition of a single figure. The only question now is whether Power will apologize. Either way, USAID is at its strongest when its leaders focus on international development, rather than chase conspiracy theories and Twitter followers.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).