Secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice signaled yesterday that the Bush administration will seek to rebuild alliances and work with multilateral institutions as it tries to move beyond the military campaigns of President Bush's first term, declaring twice that "the time for diplomacy is now."
Rice struck the distinctly internationalist tone in her opening statement at her Senate confirmation hearing and then, in nearly 10 hours of cordial but occasionally pointed questioning, stuck largely to well-known White House positions on Iraq, Middle East democracy, North Korea and a range of other issues. Rice will return for more questions this morning, after which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to quickly approve her nomination. Legislative leaders plan to bring the nomination to the full Senate tomorrow.
Rice pledged that, as secretary, she will become heavily involved in resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, and she called on oil-rich Arab governments to assist in the peace effort. She said she is "deeply concerned" about the concentration of power at the Kremlin under Russian President Vladimir Putin, and she knocked Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as "a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way."
Senate Democrats tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to pin down Rice on the specifics of the administration's exit strategy for Iraq and on whether the administration now concedes fault with the way it handled the Iraq war or interrogations of terrorism suspects.
In one especially heated exchange, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) quoted from Rice's statements before the war about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction -- which were never found -- and all but accused Rice of lying about the rationale for war in a zeal to promote the conflict.
"Senator, I have to say that I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It is not my nature. It is not my character," Rice shot back, her voice and demeanor tense. "And I would hope that we can have this conversation and discuss what happened before . . . and what I said without impugning my credibility or my integrity."
The hearing gave Rice an opportunity to take the spotlight as the nation's top diplomat after four years of operating behind the scenes as Bush's national security adviser and one of his closest confidants. The 50-year-old former Stanford University provost will replace Colin L. Powell, a former four-star general who never quite meshed with the White House despite huge popularity in the nation and worldwide.
Powell will leave the State Department at 11 a.m. today after brief remarks to employees. His plans are unclear.
Rice sketched a broad vision for her tenure, saying the nation faces a period of turmoil and uncertainty similar to the challenge it faced at the end of World War II. She said she wants to work with other democracies to build an international system based on shared values and rule of law, to fight common threats, and to "spread freedom and democracy throughout the globe."
While the Bush administration in the first term was frequently criticized abroad for scrapping international treaties, Rice said the administration "will also continue to work to support and uphold the system of international rules and treaties that allow us to take advantage of our freedom, to build our economies, to keep us safe and secure."
Rice told the committee: "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom. The time for diplomacy is now."
The panel's senior Democrat, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), retorted: "Relations with many of our oldest friends are, quite frankly, scraping the bottom right now. The time for diplomacy is long overdue."
Democrats expressed frustration at Rice's refusal to concede any specific errors in the handling of the Iraq war. She said the nation's exit strategy would depend on Iraq's ability to build a military to fight insurgents -- "I am really reluctant to try to put a timetable on that" -- and barely conceded complaints by Democrats that the training of Iraqi troops was going too slowly.
She acknowledged problems of absenteeism and desertion among Iraqi forces but stuck to a figure of 120,000 trained Iraqi troops -- even after Biden said he had recently visited Iraq and believed the number was closer to 4,000.