Rice hears skeptical questions at hearing

Posted in United States | 19-Jan-05 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice is sworn in at her Senate confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 18, 2005.
But facing senators, she says war decision 'was the right one'

WASHINGTON Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that Iraqi leaders to be elected this month would have to engage in political reconciliation with each other to stabilize their country, but she faced tough and skeptical questions from Democrats at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the war and her role in advocating it.

In her first extensive public comments since President George W. Bush appointed her in November to succeed Colin Powell as secretary of state, Rice acknowledged that there might have been bad decisions on Iraq but argued that success depended, not only on political reconciliation, but on training Iraqi security forces and creating jobs for Iraqis.

She said it would be a mistake to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and rejected suggestions that not enough troops had been sent in the first place.

"This was never going to be easy," Rice said, responding to questions by Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat.

"It was always going to have ups and downs," she said. "I'm sure that we have multiple, many decisions, some of which were good, some of which might not have been good."

But she said that "the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right one" and that, after the election scheduled for Jan. 30 in Iraq, the "most important set of steps" will be for Iraqis to try "to deal with the many divisions and historic and other divisions that the Iraqi people themselves have" and "to make political compromises to do it."

"They have a long and hard road ahead to effect national reconciliation," she said. "I think we need to give them a chance here."

Senators on both sides of the aisle said that Rice's confirmation as secretary of state was a foregone conclusion. The Senate probably will approve the nomination Thursday, just after Bush's inauguration.

But the day was nonetheless marked by lively questioning and at times tough criticism from Democrats, particularly Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

The sharp exchanges signaled that, on the eve of Bush's oath taking for a second term, the war in Iraq would continue to be divisive in the country.

It also suggested that Democrats would not shrink from making it an issue at a time when popular support for the war seemed to be waning and impatience with it seemed to be rising.

Some of the tone on Tuesday was strikingly personal. Rice bristled at Boxer's berating tone and the senator's challenge to the nominee to explain why several of Rice's past statements about the danger of nuclear weapons in Iraq had not been false.

"I personally believe - this is my personal view - that your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth," Boxer declared in an acerbic tone.

"Senator, I have to say that I never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything," Rice responded firmly, her voice sharpening. "It is not my nature. It is not my character."

Rice continued that she "would hope that we can have this conversation and discuss what happened before and what went on before and what I said without impugning my credibility or my integrity."

Rice spent much of the morning outlining a more positive agenda for the future that emphasized diplomacy in dealing with pressing world problems.

"The time for diplomacy is now," she said more than once.

She promised the senators that she would upgrade American efforts at "public diplomacy," the term for waging a public relations campaign to sell American policies in the face of a skeptical world, particularly in the Middle East.

She said that the administration would step up its efforts in the Middle East, hold Russia accountable for backsliding on democracy and work with allies on Iran and North Korea.

'We have to succeed'

Rice told the senators that a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq depended on that country's ability to defend itself against terrorists after elections, The Associated Press reported from Washington.

She also vowed to work to ease ties with allies frayed by U.S. policy there. "The world is coming together behind the idea that we have to succeed in Iraq," she said.

On the issue of a timetable for withdrawal, she said: "The goal is to get the mission accomplished."

"We're right now focused on security for the election."

Rice said that spreading democracy through the Middle East remained a top objective for the administration's foreign policy objective and said that the Palestinian election earlier this month after the death of Yasser Arafat offered "a moment of opportunity."

But Rice also said Palestinian leaders needed to do more to end acts of terrorism against Israel, saying peace hopes would be dashed if such violence continued.

She raised the possibility that Bush might name an envoy to the Palestinians, but said timing was an issue.

If confirmed, Rice, 50, will be the first black woman, and only the second woman after Madeleine Albright, to be America's top diplomat.

Rice said there remain "outposts of tyranny" in the world that require close attention, citing North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. "We must remain united in insisting that Iran and North Korea abandon their nuclear weapons ambitions and choose instead the path of peace," she said.

Rice pledged to engage in a major bout of "public diplomacy in all of its forms" if confirmed.

"The time for diplomacy is now," she said in a remark that appeared aimed at critics who accuse the administration of going it alone.

That brought a sharp retort from Joseph Biden of Delaware, the panel's senior Democrat: "The time for diplomacy is long overdue."

Biden told her the United States was "paying a heavy price" for the administration's policy in Iraq.

Rice insisted that the administration's actions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks - including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - were "difficult, and necessary and right."

Under questioning, Rice also made these points:

She said aid the administration was paying close attention "to the progress or lack of thereof of democracy" in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

She agreed with Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, that the United States needed to do more to fight drug trafficking and support democratic and economic reforms in Central and South America."

She that the Asian tsunami presented a "wonderful opportunity" for the United States to reach out to countries in the Muslim world and build goodwill, a remark that Boxer branded as insensitive to the widespread deaths and destruction caused.

The opening hours of Rice's confirmation hearing were dominated by Iraq. Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, called administration foreign policy "misguided and self defeating."

Biden said the administration must "level with the American people" over an exit strategy and whether U.S. troop levels there are adequate.

On that point, Bush himself stepped into the fray. "We've leveled with the American people the best we can," he said on Fox News Channel.