Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced testy criticism yesterday from both Republican and Democratic senators for what they called a vague and troubled strategy in Iraq and for the administration's refusal to offer a concrete timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Rice avoided answering questions about whether American troops would still be in Iraq in five or 10 years, noting only that insurgents would continue to kill innocents for "a long time." In a new effort to stabilize Iraq, she said, the United States will deploy civilian-military teams throughout Iraq next month to foster nation-building, from courts and social services to sewage treatment.
The give-and-take underscored shifting opinion about the war on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appealed for greater candor and more concrete information. "We have to level with the American people," said George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio).
Voinovich read the letter from a father whose son died in Iraq. "In the spirit of helping you gauge public opinion, it's important to tell you that we do not consider the American mission in Iraq noble at all," the father wrote. The father asked Congress to end funding for the "misguided effort that does not speak well for America."
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Rice that the American public is "sick at heart at the spin and false expectations. They want the truth, and they deserve it." Putting up a chart, Boxer cited Vice President Cheney's comment in May that the Iraqi insurgency is in its "last throes," then showed the spike in violent attacks since then.
Although Democrats have long challenged U.S. Iraq policy, Republican senators were also expressing concern. Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said the administration can no longer assume that creating democratic institutions in Iraq in the short term will diminish the insurgency, which could have long-term implications.
"Permanent instability or civil war in Iraq could set back American interests in the Middle East for a generation -- increasing anti-Americanism, multiplying the threats from tyrants and terrorists and reducing our credibility," he said.
Of the 14 senators in attendance, only two -- Republicans George Allen (Va.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.) -- offered broad support of Iraq policy.
As Rice testified, former U.S. diplomat Mary Ann Wright stood up and shouted from the audience, "Stop the killing in Iraq. You and Congress have to be responsible." Wright, a senior envoy in the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Mongolia, resigned in protest in 2003.
Except for budget testimony, it was Rice's first appearance before the panel since her confirmation hearings in January. A congressional source said the committee had been trying to organize the hearing since Labor Day, but the State Department could not find time until now, four days after Iraqis voted on a new constitution.
Rice told the panel that U.S. strategy was to "clear, hold and build," whereas insurgents' goals are to "infect, terrorize and pull down."
She compared the prognosis in Iraq to Colombia, another country where an insurgency threatened to undermine a fragile government.
"The short-term goal is to make Iraqi forces capable enough of holding their own territory against insurgents so that there is not, as I suggested in the case of Colombia, a threat to the political stability of the Iraqi regime," Rice said. "In other words, there will be some level of insurgency, I'm quite sure, for quite some time to come."
America's top diplomat insisted Washington cannot identify a general timeline to leave Iraq. "The terrorists want us to get discouraged and quit," she told lawmakers. "They believe we do not have the will to see this through."
On dealing with Syrian and Iranian involvement in Iraq, Rice said Washington is taking new diplomatic steps to convey U.S. alarm, but she did not provide specifics despite repeated questioning.
After the morning hearing, both Republicans and Democrats expressed disappointment about her testimony. Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) said the committee had hoped for "more of a grip on reality. . . . The administration is just determined to cast this as an exercise that is going according to plan, and it isn't."
Illinois Democrat Barack Obama said Rice's answers were "entirely unsatisfactory" due to the lack of information about an exit strategy. "What we seem to continue to get is an open-ended, vague commitment without any clear guideposts to whether we're succeeding or failing," said Obama, who said there is a discrepancy in what Congress is told by Washington officials and by U.S. generals in Iraq.