Rice, a Uniter of the Divided

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

Within minutes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's arrival on Capitol Hill yesterday, it became apparent that the Bush administration had, after four divisive years, finally succeeded in uniting Congress on the war in Iraq.

Unfortunately for Rice, the lawmakers were unified in opposition to President Bush's new policy.

"I have to say, Madam Secretary," a seething Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told Rice, "that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

"Madam Secretary," added Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a moderate Democrat, "I have supported you and the administration on the war, and I cannot continue to support the administration's position. . . . I have not been told the truth over and over again."

"You're going to have to do a much better job," lectured Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican. "I've gone along with the president on this, and I bought into his dream, and at this stage of the game, I don't think it's going to happen."

It was a bipartisan scolding of the sort rarely seen in the Bush presidency, and Rice endured it, for the most part, with quiet indignation. She stared expressionlessly at her tormentors or looked down at the table, occasionally noting their complaints on a memo pad with her No. 2 pencil: "Crisis in the region . . . Iraqis killing Iraqis . . . Withdrawal." The oversized yellow leather chair at the witness table made Rice look small, and for much of the hearing she sat hunched, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Only once did she betray her agitation by pounding her clasped hands to her thigh, out of the senators' view.

Rice tried not to be baited. A ferocious Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), noting that the childless Rice is not at risk of losing her own offspring in Iraq, displayed a 2005 quote from the secretary saying she had "no doubt" about a troop reduction in Iraq. "You had absolutely no doubt about how great it was going," Boxer said.

"Senator, let's not overstate the case," Rice soothed. "I don't think I said it was going great."

But ultimately, Rice could not avoid quarrels. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, angrily condemned the "escalation" of the war. "To ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives to be put in the middle of a civil war is . . . morally wrong. It's tactically, strategically, militarily wrong."

"I don't see it, and the president doesn't see it, as an escalation," Rice replied.

Hagel looked stunned. "Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation?"

"Escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in," Rice ventured.

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