Verbal duels mark 1st day of testimony; Rice poised to be secretary of state

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    Sen. Barbara Boxer engages in a heated exchange with Condoleezza Rice during the Senate hearing.

  • WASHINGTON - The Senate appears ready to confirm Condoleezza Rice as the nation's first black female secretary of state after a spirited day of testimony in which she pledged to work to mend frayed diplomatic ties with U.S. allies even while defending the war in Iraq.

    A close confidante of President Bush, Ms. Rice is in no danger of failing to be confirmed to succeed Colin Powell, but lengthy questioning of her by all 18 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday led to more than 9 1/2 hours of verbal sparring over the administration's foreign policies.

    Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.), chairman of the committee, said Ms. Rice is "highly qualified" but will need "all of her talents and experience" because of the foreign policy challenges in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, nuclear proliferation problems in Iran and North Korea, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, and reinvigorating economic and security relationships.

    Ms. Rice, 50, daughter of a Presbyterian minister, was born in segregated Birmingham, Ala., where one of her childhood friends was killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.

    She moved to Denver, graduated from high school at 15, earned a doctorate and became a specialist on the Soviet Union, worked in the White House for George H.W. Bush, and became provost at Stanford University. She was named George W. Bush's national security adviser in 2001. She is a concert pianist and figure skater and has a passionate interest in football.

    Sen. Barbara Boxer engages in a heated exchange with Condoleezza Rice during the Senate hearing.
    Sen. Barbara Boxer engages in a heated exchange with Condoleezza Rice during the Senate hearing.

    Former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) said he admires her personal story but has concerns about voting for her because of her positions that the Iraq war was well-conceived, that the Iraqis are being sufficiently trained in security, and that U.S. troop strength is adequate.

    Mr. Kerry, who recently returned from visiting troops in Iraq, spent more time than any other senator questioning Ms. Rice.

    He said he is concerned that overstretched troops are not able to properly guard ammunition dumps and that not enough is being done to ask other nations to help in Iraq.

    "I want this to work," he said, adding, "There is deep-rooted skepticism in the region. If we're not willing to share some of the decision-making, we'll have more problems."

    Ms. Rice said a free Iraq is "in everybody's interest," that 28 countries are helping, and that doubters should consider that democracy in Afghanistan is working. "This was never going to be easy. It was always going to have ups and downs," she said.

    Ms. Rice and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) disagreed vehemently over the administration's original statement that finding stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction was a major cause for going to war.

    Ms. Boxer said that she believed that Ms. Rice's "loyalty to the mission you were given to sell this war overwhelmed your respect for the truth."

    Ms. Rice grew testy, saying, "I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It is not my nature. It is not my character."

    After a few more sharp exchanges with Ms. Boxer, Ms. Rice said, "I really hope you will refrain from impugning my integrity. I really hope you will not imply that I take the truth lightly."

    Ms. Rice and Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) also engaged in a verbal duel when Ms. Rice refused to answer Mr. Dodd's question about whether she considers such practices toward prisoners as nudity and water boarding, which simulates drowning, to be forms of torture that violate the Geneva Convention. Both have been used against detainees in Iraq and the war on terror. Ms. Rice said the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib hurt the United States and insisted, "Nobody condones torture."

    "The problem with how to deal with unlawful combatants is a very difficult problem," she said, adding, "I will not speak to specific interrogation techniques."

    Mr. Dodd said her answer was "very troubling" and said she should talk to Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who spent five years being tortured in Vietnam as a prisoner of war.

    With the administration long criticized for not getting more support from other countries in Iraq, Ms. Rice said, "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom. And the time for diplomacy is now."

    Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the committee, responded, "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."

    Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio), a budget hawk, said he is worried about a 5 percent cut in the State Department's budget, suggesting that it, like the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, be exempted.

    "I believe State is as important as Defense," he said, adding that he is concerned the State Department won't have the personnel to do the job.

    A number of senators said they think the Bush administration is not taking the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea seriously enough.

    Ms. Rice said she is committed to doing a better job of spreading the message of freedom and democracy around the globe.

    Contact Ann McFeatters at:

    or 202-662-7071.