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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.

"Would you call it a decrease?" Hagel pressed.

"I would call it, Senator, an augmentation."

Rice rejected lawmakers' pleas to consider talks with Iran and Syria ("That's not diplomacy; that's extortion") and refused to promise that Bush would seek permission from Congress before attacking either country.

The senators reacted with a palpable fury. "I send letters out to the families and tell them about how brave their sons were and that the work they're doing there and the deaths were as important as what we had in the Second World War," Voinovich told Rice. "But I have to rewrite the letter today."

Rice had little with which to answer him. "I think that we don't have an option to fail in Iraq," she replied.

Voinovich glared from the dais.

The Foreign Relations panel is a murderers' row of political egos, with seven members who have contemplated 2008 presidential runs. But the frustration with Rice's answers had the salutary effect of breaking down party divisions. Democrat Chris Dodd (Conn.), who had just announced his presidential candidacy on "Imus in the Morning," gave a hug to Republican Hagel. Democrat Nelson praised Republican Norm Coleman (Minn.). Republican Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) concurred with Democrat Boxer. And Democrat Russ Feingold (Wis.) had only the warmest words for Hagel.

Some lawmakers wanted withdrawal from Iraq, others favored a bigger U.S. commitment, but most everybody saw Bush's plan as inadequate. "I hope you'll convey to the president," Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) urged Rice, "that you heard 21 members, with one or two notable exceptions, expressing outright hostility, disagreement and/or overwhelming concern with the president's proposal."

Indeed, the lone lawmaker showing some sympathy was Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who muddied his defense with an extended metaphor about gambling. He said Bush's speech Wednesday night made clear "this one is for all the marbles," and he advised Iraqis to heed "Kenny Rogers' old song, 'You got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em.' It's time for them to deliver on the hand that they've dealt."

But Barack Obama, for one, wasn't playing at Isakson's table. "This administration took a gamble," the Illinois Democrat said. "It appears that it has failed, and essentially the administration repeatedly has said we're doubling down."

There were demonstrators in the room: a woman from a left-wing group who applauded when Dodd labeled the Iraq policy "a fool's paradise," and a man who was led off by police shouting, "Lies! It's all lies!" But such heckling was redundant at a hearing in which more than a dozen senators vied for time to berate the witness. "Quite possibly the greatest foreign policy mistake in the history of our nation," Feingold proclaimed.

Less shrill but more powerful were the words of Bush's loyal supporters, who wore queasy looks as they challenged the new Iraq policy. Coleman rested his forehead on his hand, then asked Rice: "Why wouldn't it be wiser to hold the Iraqis to certain benchmarks?" John Sununu (R-N.H.) complained of a "refusal to share information." David Vitter (R-La.) judged: "Too little, maybe too late."

Even Murkowski, a junior senator who rarely breaks with the administration, joined in the denunciations. "You've clearly heard the skepticism that has been expressed this morning -- so many of my colleagues, and for good reason, skepticism about a lot of things," she said. The Alaskan spoke of her "great concern" that the United States is now in "a situation that I had hoped we would not be in."

Murkowski pleaded with Rice for assurances "that this is going to yield us a better result, a different result than what we have seen in the past."

Rice could offer none. "Senator," she said, "there aren't any guarantees."

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