For a much-anticipated performance by a fiercely disciplined, utterly loyal Bush appointee, who also happens to be a never-married woman, you didn’t need to wait for the Harriet Miers testimony.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified for more than three hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in defense of President Bush’s Iraq policy.
Rice, one of the designers of the administration’s nation-building project in Iraq, repeatedly told a panel of mostly skeptical senators that the United States must transform Iraq so that its democratic example would change the entire Middle East.
“What is very clear, post-Sept. 11, is that we are in a broad war against terrorism not a narrow one,” she declared. “This is not an issue of simply al Qaida and Afghanistan; this is a question of going to the root cause of the extremist ideology that led people to fly airplanes into buildings on Sept. 11 or led people to bomb in London and Bali.”
It was striking that a conservative icon like Rice would use -- at least half a dozen times -- the phrase the "root causes" of terrorism, just as liberal criminologists used to talk about the "root causes" of crime.
Going after 'root causes'
The "root causes" of Islamic fanaticism, she insisted, could be found in a Middle East that has what she called “deep malignancies” and “a sense of hopelessness,” a region that “has not advanced very far, where there is a freedom deficit... Unfortunately, for 60 years we chose to ignore (the lack of democracy) to try to bring about stability.”
She painted an ambitious vision of a Middle East that is “modernizing, progressive, where women’s rights are assured, where Islam finds its place alongside democracy.”
She said it would be “a generational struggle” to reach these goals.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., angrily told Rice that the American people “don’t want the job of rebuilding the Middle East on the backs of our brave men and women and the taxpayers of the United States.” (Boxer voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution.)
And committee chairman Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who voted for funding the Iraq operation, said to Rice, “Let’s say that the Iraqis, after all is said and done, really don’t want to have a united country…. Some Americans would say, ‘why are we there, if these folks not only don’t appreciate us, but they’re hashing the whole thing up, they literally don’t want to have the sort of Iraq that was envisioned by the British and French years ago?’”
Both Lugar and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., suggested to Rice that what she and Bush are trying to achieve — a unitary, multi-ethnic, democratic Iraq — may simply not be feasible.
If the Iraqis don't want unity
“Are we committed to holding Iraq together in perpetuity, even if the parties involved, the Iraqi people, determine they don’t want to form the sort of visionary Iraqi nation that you and the president envision?” Obama asked Rice.
She insisted that the senators were overplaying the importance of sectarian divides among Sunni, Shia, and Kurds in Iraq.
She warned that “if we tire, and decide we’re going to withdraw and leave the people of the Middle East to despair, I can assure you that the people of the United States are going to live in insecurity and fear for many decades to come.”
Grace under pressure
Rice was a portrait of sustained intensity and grace under pressure, never losing her poise despite brusque interruptions and scornful questions from Boxer, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and others. At one point, Rice jabbed the finger nail of her right index finger into the sheaf of papers in front of her at the witness table to punctuate the point she was making to Boxer.
As Rice often does, she referred to the city where she grew up, Birmingham, Ala. and alluded to the ending of racial segregation there, as a way of illustrating how reform, sometimes seemingly impossible, can be achieved.
“We’ve had a long political evolution in the United States,” she told Kerry.
Rice also weathered a mocking rebuke from a liberal republican senator, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
Referring to the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Chafee said, “It was all a joke and the laugh was on us.”
When Rice told Chafee that Iraq “seems to be much further along” the road to women rights than almost any other state in the region, Chafee gruffly replied, “We’ll see.”
It was a remarkably derisive performance by the usually mild-mannered Chafee, a GOP senator whose re-election campaign is being backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee – which after all is supposed to be in general accord with Bush’s policies.
In interviews outside the hearing room, committee members Obama, Chafee, and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., all said Rice is not doing a good job in persuading the American people to support Iraqi nation building. (Both Chafee and Feingold voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002.)
“Secretary Rice is a very articulate spokesperson for the administration’s point of view, but after three hours of hearings I don’t think any of us can say what the benchmarks of success are that would allow us to bring our troops home,” Obama told MSNBC.com.
“It’s just not working,” said Feingold. “They keep using the same old mantras…. People don’t believe this idea that somehow this is the logical step in the fight against terrorism. They’ve lost all those arguments.”
Feingold assailed “this continued attempt to defraud the American people by suggesting this was good move in the fight against terrorism is simply failing.”
But Rice did get support from Republican senators George Voinovich of Ohio, George Allen of Virginia, and Mel Martinez of Florida, all of whom saw hope in the large turnout for the vote on the Iraqi constitution last weekend.
Political buzz for 2008
Rice generates far more buzz than Dean Rusk or Warren Christopher did when they were secretaries of state and trekked up to Capitol Hill to testify. A large part of that buzz is her being a black woman who some Republicans see as a credible presidential contender in 2008.
Starting with Thomas Jefferson, six secretaries of state have become presidents. And then there’s the case of Alexander Haig, who served one year as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and, in 1987, made a foray to Iowa in a bid for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination. Haig lost to a guy named Bush.
Will Rice be a Jefferson or a Haig? If you take her at her word, neither. Despite the speculation, she insisted to Tim Russet on Meet the press last Sunday, “I’m not somebody who wants to run for office.”