Rice, Eager to Depart, Heartily Defends Record

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't blink.

Told that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora recently said the United States simply can't deliver on its promises because of deference to Israel, Rice explained away the diplomatic dispute that distressed Siniora and then pointedly claimed credit for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war that devastated Lebanon.

"There would have been no 1701 without me," she declared in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.

In a conversation that stretched to 75 minutes -- and which Rice seemed reluctant to end -- the secretary of state said she was counting the hours until Jan. 20. But she yielded little ground in defense of her record or the administration's performance over the past eight years. After being peppered with questions about regrets, she joked, "Aren't you going to say, 'Aren't you thrilled that . . .?' "

What is more important than current controversies, she argued, slapping the table for emphasis, is how the decisions will look 25 or 30 years from now. "If you get very focused on whether someone thinks your policies are popular, you won't do the right thing," she said.

Arguing that Iraq shows signs of becoming an inclusive state -- it even "declared Christmas a national holiday" -- Rice said that if the country eventually emerges as a democratic, multiethnic state that has friendly ties with the United States, "that will be more important than what anybody thought in 2002 or 2003."

Rice added: "That's not to say that it didn't come at great cost. I myself will be haunted by the lives that were lost. I will always think about the people I visited at Walter Reed or at Bethesda and wonder what their lives are like. I also know that nothing of value is won without sacrifice."

On North Korea, Rice made the case that the Bush administration has made unappreciated strides in eliminating that country's nuclear weapon programs. When President Bush took office, North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear facility was already frozen, with 8,000 spent fuel rods under international supervision. After a dispute with the Bush administration, North Korea restarted its facility and processed the fuel rods into nuclear weapons material, even testing a nuclear device in 2006.

But Rice argued that events turned out for the best. "Yes, it's unfortunate that they reprocessed in that period of time, creating some stockpile of plutonium, but, frankly, given the attention now on their program . . . I think it is a very good development" because, she said, nations in the region now have joined together in a diplomatic process to persuade Pyongyang to give up the weapons it built.

Even in her final days as secretary, Rice has had to deal with war in the Gaza Strip and the controversy surrounding last week's decision to abstain from a U.N. Security Council vote on a cease-fire resolution. The abstention surprised many observers because Rice had spent three days in New York working on a resolution.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took credit yesterday for the U.S. abstention. "I said, 'Get me President Bush on the phone,' " he said in a speech, saying he had interrupted Bush during an address and demanded that the United States not vote in favor of the resolution. Olmert said Bush then called Rice. "She was left pretty embarrassed," Olmert said.

Rice, who said the vote was "not an easy decision but a right one," declined to discuss her conversation with Bush. "I am not going to talk about anything more than that except to say I think you know my relationship with the president," she said. "I have a relationship in which we can discuss these things and come to the best decision."

Rice, who will return to Stanford University and write books, including one on her parents, offered praise for President-elect Barack Obama. She noted that she was impressed by his performance on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "From the very beginning, he was someone who asked probing questions, good questions, but no polemics, no fireworks . . . really soliciting information, not speaking for the camera. . . . Those are characteristics that bode well."

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