War Stories

Rice and Dice

John Kerry nails Condoleezza Rice on Iraq.

Tough talk and weak answers
Tough talk and weak answers

Twenty minutes into Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation hearings this morning, John Kerry entered the chamber and took his seat as the fourth-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, no doubt poignantly aware that, had 60,000 citizens switched their votes in Ohio, he wouldn’t have to wait in line to speak anywhere, much less put up with back-bench Republicans smirking and joking about how happy they are to see his return to the committee.

Not since 1972 has the loser of a presidential election held on to a post of power afterward, so there was some anticipation over how Kerry would handle these hearings—his first official, public confrontation with such a tangible token of his defeat. Would he be aggressive in his questioning, or lean over backward to be conciliatory and polite? If his performance is a signal of how he views this new phase of his career, he’ll probably be abandoning the back-seat deference that he’s often displayed the past two decades as the junior senator from Massachusetts.

Kerry didn’t play the Democrats’ bulldog—that role had been assigned to Sen. Barbara Boxer, who assumed it later in the morning with venom—but he did strike the demeanor of a stern, dismayed taskmaster. He recited the common wisdom that Rice’s confirmation was assured, but added that she might not get his vote. “I have reservations,” he said, as if in a tone of regret.

A few minutes earlier, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Joseph Biden—whose presence had its own poignancy, since, if Kerry’d won, he might have been sitting in Rice’s chair just then—had asked Rice if, in retrospect, she thought President Bush should have sent more troops to Iraq. Rice replied that she didn’t, noting that the rise of the insurgency was an “unforeseen” development. The insurgents, she said, were Saddam loyalists who “melted into the countryside” during the U.S.-led invasion and were now resurfacing to fight.

Kerry, who had recently returned from a trip to Iraq, found Rice’s reply “disturbing,” and not just because it marked another instance of the Bush administration’s refusal to admit mistakes. There was nothing “unforeseen” about the insurgents’ re-emergence, he said. The U.S. military “encouraged” them to vanish from the battlefield, promising to pay them if they did so. “But we didn’t pay them,” Kerry said. So “they got angry and organized.”

This is an oversimplified view of the insurgency, but it has some validity. Certainly it rebuts Rice’s explanation of the insurgency as the result of an all-too-speedy victory by U.S.-led forces (or, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has described it, a “catastrophic success”). Kerry’s argument also speaks to a broader failure of Bush’s policy in Iraq—a failure to come to grips with the internal, sectarian tensions unleashed by the removal of Saddam’s oppressive regime.

Rice replied that the insurgents are angry not because we didn’t pay them, but because “they’ve lost power and they want it back.” Kerry agreed, but noted that’s precisely the point. In the Iraqi election, still scheduled for Jan. 30, the Shiite parties are going to win, and win big, partly because Shiites comprise a strong majority of Iraq’s population, partly because—owing mainly to poor security and insurgents’ threats—few Sunnis are likely to vote. Kerry asked: What is the administration going to do, right after the election, to help reconcile the sectarian factions and thus stave off a potential civil war?

It’s a question that many have asked lately, not least Rice’s former boss, Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser during the presidency of Bush’s father. (Rice, at the time, was Scowcroft’s deputy for Soviet and Eastern European affairs.) Rice didn’t answer that question today—just as, for the past year, the Bush administration hasn’t devised a coherent strategy toward the Sunnis (and, at times, hasn’t seemed to understand that such a strategy is needed).

One remark in particular raised the possibility that Kerry might emerge, in Bush’s second term, as an insistent critic of the president’s war policy. “Our troops are stunning, superb,” Kerry said, but “they’re going on missions that are questionable in terms of what they’re going to achieve.” Was it by chance or intention that this statement—more than anything Kerry has uttered publicly in the last 30 years—stirred memories of the famous line during his testimony before this same committee in 1971, as a protesting Vietnam veteran: “How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Throughout the long day, Rice said little that so much as suggested a pending departure from any of the Bush administration’s present policies, toward Iraq or any other issue. In her opening statement, she uttered a few remarks that were obviously meant to imply a new course—”The time for diplomacy is now” and “I will work to strengthen our alliances.” However, since she maintained under questioning that the administration has all along been engaged in diplomacy and paid attention to allies, it’s unclear, really, that much will change after all.

The most substantive—perhaps the only substantive—exchange came late in the afternoon, during the second round of Q and A, when Biden asked Rice the question that he said everyone, including U.S. military officers, had asked him during his most recent trip to Iraq: Are we really staying? Or does the planned scenario go like this: The election is held Jan. 30; the new leaders tell us to get out; we declare victory (Saddam’s gone, the WMD have vanished) and leave? Biden, who opposes leaving under these circumstances, asked more specifically, “Is there any reasonable possibility that the U.S. will withdraw the bulk of its forces before the end of 2005,” when the second round of elections is scheduled to take place?

Rice replied, “I can’t judge that, but I will say we will help the Iraqis get that done”—that is, get the second round of elections accomplished—with “whatever force levels” are required. This wasn’t even a “non-denial denial.” It wasn’t a denial. She declined to assure the Iraqis or anyone else that the United States is firmly committed. Biden threw her a softball pitch, but she didn’t swing. The question that Biden said everyone is asking in Iraq—are we staying, or are we plotting to cut and run?—remains, remarkably, unanswered.

In a similar exchange, Biden raised Seymour Hersh’s claim, in the latest New Yorker, that Pentagon civilians are pushing for an airstrike against Iran, as a means of toppling its fundamentalist regime. Biden emphasized he wasn’t asking Rice to confirm the report. He just wanted to know if she believes it’s possible to topple the Iranian regime through military action—and whether regime change in Iran is the administration’s goal.

Rice replied that the administration’s goal is to have a regime in Iran that’s responsive to U.S. concerns. She then noted that the current regime stands “180 degrees” in opposition to those concerns—on nuclear weapons, relations with al-Qaida, and support of Hezbollah. She added, “The Iranian people, who are among some of the most worldly that we know—in a good sense—do suffer under a regime that has been completely unwilling to deal with their aspirations.”

Once again, Biden gave Rice a chance to dismiss the hottest rumor of the moment. And, again, she demurred.

It’s 7 Tuesday night on the East Coast as I write this, and the hearings drone on. A few Democrats have tried to lay into the secretary-to-be. Sen. Boxer has yelled at her and called attention to various misstatements and contradictions that Rice has uttered the past two years about Iraq and other matters (leading Rice to say, with a slight quiver in her voice, “We can have this discussion in any way you want, but I hope that you would not impugn my integrity”). Paul Sarbanes has bemoaned our growing trade deficit and its impact on our diminishing power in the world (Rice suggested that he address such questions to the treasury secretary). Christopher Dodd interrogated her about the semantics of torture (she doesn’t condone it but declined to define it). Russ Feingold decried the war in Iraq as a distraction from the war on terrorist networks (she disagreed).

But at no point in these hearings, which will certainly result in her confirmation, did Rice give the slightest indication of how foreign policy in Bush’s second term will be any different from the first term.