Rice Defends Iraq Mission but Says Military Can’t Do It Alone

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice told Congress on Tuesday that the Iraqi insurgency “cannot be overcome by military force alone,” but declined to predict how long U.S. troops must remain in the country while waiting for Iraqis to forge political solutions and assume responsibility for security.

Offering a close look at President Bush’s second-term foreign policy plans during her confirmation hearing, Rice strongly defended the administration’s course on Iraq, but acknowledged that the United States faced “big tactical challenges” and said that some past decisions on Iraq “might not have been good.”

Rice, Bush’s former national security advisor, said that as the nation’s top diplomat she would rebuild strained American alliances and work to win over Muslims and other disaffected groups around the world. She called for a “transformational diplomacy” to carry out Bush’s aim to spread American values abroad -- “the great mission for American diplomacy today.”


Rice, 50, a former Soviet specialist and Stanford University provost, is expected to be confirmed easily. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to vote on the appointment today, which could lead to a full Senate vote in time for her to be sworn in as early as Thursday, Bush’s Inauguration Day.

In a sometimes stormy 9 1/2-hour session, Rice signaled little overall change in the Bush administration’s approach to dealing with other countries. Rice said that as secretary she would strive to work through alliances, but only if the efforts were productive.

She said she would follow Bush’s stated view that “alliances and multilateral institutions can multiply the strength of freedom-loving nations.”

Rice is close to the president -- more so than outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- and is widely expected to have more influence in the job for that reason.

Rice during the hearing repeatedly parried questions about the administration’s exit strategy for Iraq, U.S. troop levels, the quality of Iraqi security forces and the administration’s earlier claims, since repudiated, about Saddam Hussein’s illicit weapons arsenal.

Her most rancorous exchange was with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who said Rice had falsely claimed before the war that Iraq would soon have a nuclear bomb and that she shifted arguments as the administration’s needs changed.


“Your loyalty to the mission ... overwhelmed your respect for the truth,” Boxer charged.

Retorted Rice: “I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything.... I’m happy to continue the discussion, but I’d like to do it in such a way that it does not impugn my integrity.”

Rice said it would be up to Iraq’s elected leaders to unite the country. Iraqis “are going to have to find their own way politically, and we will be there to support them,” she said.

While acknowledging that some U.S. decisions in Iraq were faulty, “the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right one,” Rice said. She didn’t specify which decisions might have been mistakes.

Democrats warned Rice that she faced a major challenge in repairing relations abroad.

“We inspire as much envy and resentment as we do admiration and gratitude,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel. “Relations with many of our oldest friends are, quite frankly, scraping the bottom right now.”

But Rice rejected accusations from former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and others that the administration had not done enough to enlist allies in the Iraq mission. She disputed Kerry’s suggestion that Russia and India had offered peacekeeping forces for Iraq.

Pressed by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska on a timetable for departure from Iraq, Rice said: “Our role is directly proportional ... to how capable the Iraqis are.”


She said she was “really reluctant to try to put a timetable on that, because I think the goal is to get the mission accomplished, and that means that the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our own responsibility,” she said.

While declining to be pinned down on timing, she outlined general benchmarks. She said the U.S. mission would be complete when the Iraqis were on the way to building democratic institutions and providing for their own security.

“It isn’t that we have to see an Iraq that is a fully democratized, mature economy, fully able to deal with all of its divisions,” she said. “That’s going to take a very, very, very long time. What we have to see is that they’ve been launched on a path to be able to achieve that.”

Although most of the tough questions and comments for Rice came from Democrats, there were some from Republicans on the committee. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the panel’s chairman, suggested to Rice that the administration should devise a way to measure the progress of Iraqi security forces that are being trained.

“I think we can probably do better with the question,” Lugar said. “There have to be some indicators that give a sense of progress and hope and what have you for this.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.,) who was Education secretary for President George H.W. Bush, asked whether American nation-building was the best way to spread democracy.


“My own view of that is that there is more than one way to spread freedom around the world,” Alexander said. “One way is to change a regime and try to make a country more like ours. Another way might be to celebrate our own values and strengthen ourselves and be a good example.”

Four years ago, in her early days as part of the Bush team, Rice had rejected the idea of American nation-building operations. But she said Tuesday that she now recognized that the U.S. government must undertake such missions on occasion.

“Our security depends on ... not having failed states in the midst,” she said.

She compared the current struggle against Islamic extremism to the Cold War and said the United States needed the same commitment it had in the era that began at the end of World War II.

Rice offered a list of countries that she described as “outposts of oppression,” including Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe and Belarus.

She pledged “engagement at all levels” in a quest for Middle East peace and predicted that she would personally spend “an enormous amount of time” in the effort.

During his first term, Bush kept a distance from the Palestinian-Israeli issue. But Rice said the election of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has presented “a moment of opportunity, and we must seize it.”


Rice said she had to “demur” about proposals to name a special envoy for the Palestinian-Israeli issue. While the administration doesn’t necessarily oppose appointing an envoy, she said she was not yet convinced it would be helpful.

She declared the administration would continue efforts to prevent North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear programs but offered few details beyond saying the administration had no plans to launch military action against either country.

Rice offered blunt criticism of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, saying the United States was “very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way, and some of the steps he’s taken against the media, against the opposition, I think are really very deeply troubling.”

The populist Chavez, whose country is a major U.S. oil supplier, believes that the United States supports his domestic opponents and has sparred with the administration for years.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) grilled Rice on the treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody, asking her whether she considered alleged abuse to be torture. Rice said she would leave it to the Justice Department to provide a legal definition of torture.

Dodd demanded to know how Rice would respond if she saw television images of captured Americans being subjected to coercive interrogation methods. “American personnel are not engaged in terrorism,” Rice responded.


But she said U.S. officials expected captured Americans to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Repeating a long-standing administration policy, she said individuals associated with Al Qaeda did not qualify as prisoners of war under the convention.

Dodd told Rice it was dangerous to be seen as “waffling” on the issue and said he was troubled by her reply.

In another heated exchange, Dodd stopped Rice as she described acts committed by terrorists. “Don’t become like them,” Dodd said.

Boxer and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) also criticized Rice for her responses to questions about detainee abuses. “It is simply not OK to equivocate on torture,” Feingold said.

Kerry, in one of his first Senate appearances since his failed presidential bid, pushed Rice to accelerate U.S. efforts to remove nuclear and chemical bomb-making material from former Soviet nations. Rice said that nonproliferation issues would be on the agenda when Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin met in the coming weeks.

Kerry also expressed concern about the lack of a fail-safe procedure to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. If there were a coup in Pakistan, “you could have nuclear weapons in the hands of Islamic extremists,” he said.


Rice said the administration was aware of the problem, but she declined to discuss it, apparently because of the classified nature of the information.

Kerry said in the private briefings he had received as the Democratic presidential nominee, “I found the answers very unsatisfactory.”

Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.