Senate Democrats delivered one of the sharpest critiques yet of the Bush administration's credibility and its handling of the Iraq war yesterday, as the Senate prepared to confirm Condoleezza Rice's nomination to be secretary of state today.
Seizing on a nine-hour debate that Republicans had hoped to avoid, several Democrats excoriated the administration's prewar claims about Iraqi weapons and its handling of the ongoing war and transition. Both parties agreed that Rice, 50, will be confirmed, but that did not stop a cross section of Democrats from questioning her truthfulness in terms that until yesterday were used only by liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Some of the most critical Democrats were centrists from states that President Bush won or nearly won in November. Their comments came as recent polls have shown growing public disenchantment with the situation in Iraq.
Too many Republican senators allow Bush's top aides "to get away with lying," said Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democrat who opposed the war and will face reelection next year in the swing state of Minnesota. "Lying to Congress, lying to our committees and lying to the American people. It's wrong, it's immoral." The only way to stop it, Dayton said, is to keep the administration from promoting officials "who have been instrumental in deceiving Congress and the American people, and regrettably that includes Dr. Rice."
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a possible presidential candidate in 2008 who voted to authorize the war, said Rice "has been a principal architect of policy errors that have tragically undermined our prospects for success" in Iraq. "The list of errors is lengthy and profound, and unfortunately many could have been avoided if Dr. Rice and others had only listened to the counsel" of lawmakers from both parties, Bayh said. "This is no ordinary incompetence. Men and women are dying as a result of these mistakes."
Republicans defended the administration and Rice, saying she has the experience, drive and philosophy to be an outstanding secretary of state. "I really don't see any value in attacking Dr. Rice personally," Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) told his colleagues.
A few Democrats spoke in favor of Rice, including Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and freshman Ken Salazar (Colo.). Salazar used his first Senate floor speech to praise the nominee but also to voice concern "about what can only be called a lack of candor" that contributed to "the massive intelligence failures that preceded" the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nonetheless, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Rice "should get a fairly big vote" for confirmation.
Rice, Bush's national security adviser, will replace the retiring Colin L. Powell as secretary of state after the Senate confirms her in a vote that may seem anticlimactic following yesterday's speeches. The criticism dealt mainly with her role in 2002 and 2003 in arguing that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction despite uncertainties in the intelligence community. Several Democrats recalled Rice's 2002 warning that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Senate's most vocal opponent of the war, said: "We now know that Saddam had no nuclear weapons program, and no weapons of mass destruction of any kind." Instead of making the United States safer, he said, "the war has made Iraq a breeding ground for terrorism that previously did not exist."
Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and a critic of the war, said Rice "clearly overstated and exaggerated the intelligence concerning Iraq before the war in order to support the president's decision to initiate military action against Iraq. Since the Iraq effort has run into great difficulty, she has also attempted to revise history as to why we went into Iraq."
Allen said Rice has acknowledged that the administration made some mistakes in preparing for and executing the war. "It's unfortunate that some of this has devolved into an overly partisan attack," he said.
Republicans also noted that Boxer -- whom Rice accused of unfairly challenging her credibility at the Foreign Relations Committee's two-day hearing last week -- recently issued a fundraising letter for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that said Republicans "didn't count on me to ask the tough questions" of Rice. Rice spokesman Jim Wilkinson said the letter "puts to rest any doubts some may have had that this is all about politics." Confirming a secretary of state, he said, "was designed to be a constitutional duty, not a political fundraising opportunity."
Lieberman, speaking on the Senate floor, said one of Rice's main strengths is that "the world knows that she has the president's trust and confidence." He urged the Senate to "resoundingly endorse this nomination and send the message to friend and foe alike that while we have our disagreements, ultimately what unites us around this very qualified nominee in this hour of war is much greater than what divides us."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said Rice "will be a great secretary of state."
"She has the capability, she has the trusted ear of the president, she has the knowledge of foreign policy from 25 years of experience," Hutchison said.