Condoleezza Rice went on the defensive and turned evasive Tuesday before senators lambasting U.S. policies in Iraq on the first day of her confirmation hearing to be secretary of state.
President Bush’s national security adviser showed flashes of anger against charges she put loyalty above truthfulness in making her boss’s case for going to war against Iraq and clashed with senators over an exit strategy.
She repeatedly declined to say when U.S. forces would return home but asserted there had been progress in training Iraqis to eventually replace the 150,000 American troops.
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held the hearing, dismissed as “malarkey” a figure of 120,000 trained Iraqis cited by Rice. He said the number was 4,000.
In the most heated exchange, California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer all but accused Rice of lying to argue the case for war.
“I personally believe … that your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth,” Boxer told Rice, citing statements about how fast former dictator Saddam Hussein might acquire a nuclear weapon.
Rice responded: “I have never, ever, lost respect for the truth in the service of anything.
Her voice appearing to quaver with emotion as she looked directly at Boxer, she repeatedly asked the senator not to question her integrity.
Rice insisted it was right to invade Iraq and steadfastly defended as sufficient the U.S. troop levels after President Saddam Hussein was toppled, even though a tenacious insurgency quickly took root.
After more than nine hours of testimony, Democrats insisted the “cross-examination” resume on Wednesday, when — despite the criticism — her nomination is expected to be easily approved.
The Republican-led Senate will then confirm her as the first black woman secretary of state, probably on Thursday, the day of Bush’s inauguration for a second four-year term.
Bush has chosen the 50-year-old former Stanford university provost to replace Colin Powell, widely admired abroad and often seen as the Cabinet’s lone dove stressing diplomacy to solve crises.
Unlike Powell, who often seemed out of step with the White House, Rice is one of the president’s closest confidantes.
Stepping out from her behind-the-scenes adviser’s role, Rice broke no new ground on Tuesday on policies for the top foreign policy challenges, including Iran, North Korea an the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
She stuck to familiar U.S. positions, criticizing Russia for backsliding on democracy and lambasting Venezuela as a negative force in Latin America.
But she also pledged diplomacy to repair foreign ties strained by the invasion of Iraq — a vow that drew skepticism from critics who regard the Bush administration’s foreign policy as marked by go-it-alone, America-first tendencies.
“Despite our great military might we are in my view more alone in the world than we’ve been in any time in recent memory. The time for diplomacy, in my view, is long overdue,” Biden said.