WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice, which began Tuesday, were the stage for a fascinating face-off between the nation's two most prominent African-American political figures: Rice, President Bush's nominee to be Secretary of State, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whom some Democrats see as the great hope of their party, perhaps on the national ticket in 2008.
Coming as they did on the day after the Martin Luther King holiday, Rice's testimony and Obama's questions — touching on nuclear proliferation, Pakistan, and the unknown end point for U.S. involvement in Iraq — showed how surely gone are the days when a black politician was judged solely by his or her handling of "black" problems such as racial exclusion or violent crime.
Obama noted the history when he told Rice that without King’s efforts he would not be sitting there in the Hart Senate Office Building asking her questions as a new member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Through the daylong hearing, Rice performed as she is often billed: the technocrat’s technocrat, speaking in a precise, unemotional voice, given to phrases such as “incent that kind of behavior” (referring to persuading Libya to come clean on its Weapons of Mass Destruction program) and “lots of data points” when referring to conflicting intelligence about Iraq’s weapons programs under Saddam Hussein.
In his first round of questioning, which came Tuesday afternoon after the hearing had been under way for several hours, Obama played mostly a supporting role, buttressing queries already made by the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware.
Biden, often prone to rambling questions that turn into marathon statements, mostly kept his interrogatories pointed Tuesday. Having just returned from a trip to Iraq, Biden said he had deep doubts about how many Iraqi soldiers and policemen were really being trained and were able to take over the law enforcement burden from U.S. troops.
“The American people don’t have a clear sense of what is expected of them in this defining struggle that we always talk about,” he contended. He chided Rice that she “needed to level with the American people.”
Biden reported that he had inspected the training facility for Iraqi police in neighboring Jordan and asked the American officer in charge there, “Is this training program worth a darn?”
“The answer was ‘no’ — from our own trainer,” said Biden.
Rice conceded that among the newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police officers, lackluster morale, weak leadership and desertion were problems. She said there were more than 120,000 trained personnel in the Iraqi security forces. But Biden said his U.S. military sources said the number in fact “no more than 4,000.”
Obama later underscored Biden’s question about when Iraqis will be ready to take over: “If our measure is bringing our troops home and success is measured by whether Iraqis are secure in their own circumstances and if our best troops in the world are having trouble controlling the situation with 150,000 or so, it sounds like we have a long way to go.”
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The American people, Obama said, “need some certainty, because right now it appears to be an entirely open-ended commitment.”
2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who also serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, entered the hearing room at 10:45, an hour and 45 minutes after it started and drew a minor flurry of interest from the still photographers.
Kerry used his round of questioning to report on his trip to Iraq and to charge that “the current policy is growing the insurgency, not diminishing it.”
He claimed that European countries, Egypt, and India were willing to do more in the way of training Iraqis as troops and police officers.
Rice rebutted Kerry, saying that the Bush administration asked foreign governments on every occasion for more help in Iraq.
And then, to make the case that things were not quite so bad in Iraq, she added an oddly personal and historic note, “So far I have not seen the Iraqis or for that matter the Afghans make compromises as bad as the one in 1789 that declared my ancestors to be three-fifths of a man.”
Video: Testy exchange California Democrat Barbara Boxer provided the morning’s emotional highpoint by essentially accusing Rice of lying to the American people in order to justify a war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. She spoke with an emotional catch in her voice of the Californians who had been killed in combat in Iraq.
Boxer cited what a series of what she called contradictory statements made by Rice in 2003 and last year about how close Saddam might have been to obtaining nuclear weapons.
“Your loyalty to the mission you were given overwhelmed your respect for the truth,” Boxer told Rice.
For once Rice showed a hint of emotion, saying angrily, “I have never, ever lost respect for the truth. ... We can have this discussion in any way that you would like, but I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity.”
Since Democrats conceded that they did not have the votes to block Rice’s confirmation, the nominee may have been under fire at some points, but she was never in much danger of seeing her nomination go up in flames.
Thus the hearing turned into what such events often turn into: a sequential recital of each senator’s pet cause, or area of the world that he or she felt the Bush administration had neglected.
- Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold told Rice he’d just returned from Africa and could report that Somalia, Algeria, and Kenya were all in a bad way, possible venues for Islamic terrorism. “We have no policy in Somalia,” he charged.
- Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd said Bush had neglected Latin America. “We’re in deep trouble in this hemisphere,” he said.
- Ohio Republican George Voinovich warned of a brewing crisis in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo with renewal of ethnic warfare.
- Florida Democrat Bill Nelson reported that “Haiti is a disaster” requiring more international aid and peace-keeping troops.
The furthest extreme — quite literally — in this special pleading came when Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski urged Rice to pay much more attention to the multinational Arctic Council, “the potential for circumpolar maritime activity” in the Arctic and America’s “underutilized” role as an Arctic power.
Bush noted when he announced Rice's nomination that he had chosen her, a woman who grew up in racially segregated Birmingham, Ala., in the early 1960s, "for the office first held by Thomas Jefferson."
Bush didn't need to add that Secretary of State Jefferson was a slave owner.
Two other Secretaries of State, John Quincy Adams and William Seward, were famous abolitionists: a reminder of how many ambitious politicians have held that office, which once was a required jumping-off spot for presidential candidates: Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Adams, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan.
Could it be so again in Rice's case? Could there in 2008 or 2012 be an Obama vs. Rice election?
The Illinois senator may well be on a national ticket someday, but Rice seems an unlikely candidate: as she showed in her testimony Tuesday, she’s a warrior, but not exactly a “happy warrior,” as Franklin Roosevelt was.
She is a veteran policy wonk who tries to make sure her “data points” are right. And most Democrats will never let her forget that in the run-up to the Iraq war, some of her crucial “data points” were later proven to be wrong.
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