President Bush's nominee to head the U.S. State Department, Condoleezza Rice, faced tough questions from Democrats about the Bush administration's Iraq policy during confirmation hearings before a Senate panel Tuesday.
Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee used the confirmation hearings for Ms. Rice to criticize the Bush administration's policy in Iraq.
Among them was Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who unsuccessfully challenged President Bush for the White House last year."The current policy is growing the insurgency, not diminishing it," he said.
But Ms. Rice defended the policy, and urged patience as the Iraqi people move toward democracy in small steps, as she put it. "As long as they are on a strategic road which is getting them to a government that can actually represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people as a whole, I think they have got a chance. The insurgency wants very much to halt that process and throw Iraq back. We have to provide the Iraqis with the tools, through training, through capacity-building to defeat that insurgency. That is what we are trying to do," she said.
Under questioning by Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, who himself has been skeptical of the administration's Iraq policy, Ms. Rice said a U.S. exit strategy from that country would depend on Iraq's ability to defend itself against terrorists after elections there later this month. "I see it as a diminution of our responsibility over time as the Iraqis become more capable. So we need to focus on building their capability," she said.
She said she does think it requires a change of policy.
Senator Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the committee, took issue with Ms. Rice's estimate that more than 120,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained, saying he was told by U.S. officials in Iraq that the figure is closer to 4,000.
Some Democrats questioned the administration's rationale for going to war with Iraq. President Bush had cited weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as the key justification for war, though none have ever been found.
Senator Barbara Boxer of California noted that Ms. Rice often made the administration's case for war in the run-up to the invasion. "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," she said.
Ms. Rice, saying the administration used intelligence that later was judged faulty, responded coolly to what she perceived to be a personal attack. "I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It is not my nature, it is not my character, and I would hope 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," she said.
Another Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, expressed concern that the decision to go to war deflected attention away from the war on terrorism. Just back from a fact-finding trip to Africa, Senator Feingold said the U.S. mission in Iraq is hampering anti-terror efforts in north and east Africa.
"I have done a fair amount of work in east Africa and northern Africa. We are not denying terrorist elements those territories. When it comes to Somalia, Algeria, or the activities that have occurred in Kenya, our focus on Iraq has been so single-minded. In fact, I was told by some of our own officials in the region this past week that a lot of things have been waiting, because of the demands of Iraq, in terms of dealing with this issue in northern Africa and East Africa," he said.
But Ms. Rice defended the administration's efforts. "I know there are differences on the question of what the ultimate antidote to terror is. It is our view, and the President's view, that the ultimate antidote is to deal with the source of that terror, and that really ultimately is the freedom deficit. In order to do that, you have to have a different kind of Middle East. That is why we do see Iraq as being a part of that war on terrorism," she said.
While the focus of the hearing was Iraq, Ms. Rice also said ending the Isaeli-Palestinian conflict is a priority, and she vowed to do more to reach out to U.S. allies and to work to improve the image of America overseas.
The Republican chairman of the committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, said Ms. Rice, who served as President Bush's National Security Adviser in his first term, is well qualified for the job of Secretary of State. "American credibility in the world, progress in the war on terrorism, our relationships with our allies will be greatly affected by the Secretar of State's actions and the effectiveness of the State Department in the coming years. Dr. Rice is highly qualified to meet those challenges," he said.
Despite tough questioning by Democrats, Ms. Rice is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate. A vote could come as early as Thursday. Ms. Rice would succeed Colin Powell as Secretary of State.