Uneasy Senate panel backs Rice for State

Posted in United States | 20-Jan-05 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice (L-seated) testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Both sides see need for clearer Iraq map

WASHINGTON In her debut performance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Condoleezza Rice laid out broad principles guiding the administration's strategy on Iraq, but in nearly 10 hours of testimony over two days, she left so many questions unanswered that the feeling of uneasiness among Republicans and Democrats alike was palpable.

The fireworks at the hearings were supplied by Democrats, but the silence of the Republicans was even louder.

Though some Republicans defended Rice against Democratic attacks, not a single Republican senator disputed the main Democratic point: that she needed to adopt a clearer map for success at a time when American support for the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq may be diminishing.

"Condi Rice didn't need to be more specific on Iraq in order to impress the Foreign Relations Committee," said a Republican aide. "But she's going to need more specificity on Iraq in order to succeed as secretary of state. She didn't appear to have the details at hand, aside from general principles. Either she was being deliberately vague to give herself leeway, or she didn't know."

The mood of concern, if not anxiety, among the senators portended possible difficulties for Rice as she prepares to succeed Secretary of State Colin Powell. Her nomination was approved by the foreign relations panel Wednesday by a 16-2 vote, with Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer dissenting.

In many ways, Rice's words were intended to reassure the committee, which, because of the leadership of Senator Richard Lugar as chairman, is one of Washington's remaining bipartisan redoubts supporting the idea of diplomacy and working with allies.

In her testimony, Rice emphasized again and again the need to work with allies on Iran, Iraq, the Middle East and other areas, so much so that her words on that score could have been delivered by a secretary of state appearing this week on behalf of someone like Kerry, who was sitting uncomfortably on the panel instead of preparing for his own inauguration this week.

As the panel concluded its work, Rice was asked by a Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, what efforts she would make as secretary of state to seek common ground with Iran. The New Yorker magazine has reported that the administration is planning possible attacks to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities; the Pentagon has assailed the report as deeply flawed.

"It's really hard," Rice said, "to find common ground with a government that thinks Israel should be extinguished. It's difficult to find common ground with a government that is supporting Hezbollah and terrorist organizations that are determined to undermine the Middle East peace that we seek."

But on Iraq, whether one calls Rice's plan an "exit strategy" to get American forces home, the term used by many senators, or a "success strategy," in the words of Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, it rests on three principles. Those are: training more Iraqis to replace American troops, speeding construction money for the country and getting Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to bring about a reconciliation among themselves after the election scheduled Jan. 30.

What was notable in Rice's testimony is that she could not make a convincing case that the first two were succeeding.

As for the third, she acknowledged that it would be up to Iraqis, not Americans, to succeed in the face of concern among some experts that the election will deepen Iraqi divisions rather than heal them.

On reconstruction, the administration has managed to disburse only $2.5 billion of the $18.4 billion appropriated for reconstruction of Iraq in late 2003, with almost no progress in the past six months. One of the few errors acknowledged by Rice on Wednesday was the failure to appreciate the difficulties in carrying out Iraqi rebuilding.

On training troops, Senator Joseph Biden repeatedly used the figure of 4,000 Iraqi troops available to take on the kind of role played by the American and other foreign troops, deriding Rice's assertion that 120,000 had been trained.

Finally, on political reconciliation, the administration has begun bracing for more violence and possibly more political strife after the Iraqi election, especially because hopes for a strong Sunni turnout are growing dim.

Brian Knowlton contributed reporting from Washington.