19 January 2005
The US Secretary of State designate must have known long before she arrived at the Senate for her confirmation hearing that her every word would be weighed - not only by the committee, but around the world - for clues about the direction of US foreign policy in George Bush's second term. Senator Joe Biden surely spoke for many when he noted that, despite its great military might, America was more alone in the world than at any time in recent memory. The speed with which the US squandered the international goodwill that accrued to it after the attacks of 11 September 2001 must be accounted one of the greatest diplomatic failures of the past half-century.
What Condoleezza Rice had to say was both consoling and deeply troubling. It was consoling because, along with many in the US diplomatic, financial and military communities, Ms Rice clearly appreciates the extent of the damage done over the past three years and the importance of using the right language. In her opening statement she eschewed the tough-guy phrases she has often employed in the past, insisting that "the time for diplomacy is now". At home, she pledged to work to build a strong consensus behind America's foreign policy. Abroad, she promised to work with "old and new allies" and make US "interaction" with the rest of the world "a conversation, not a monologue". This is a sentiment, and a priority, that we wholeheartedly endorse.
The details she gave about how the US would use its diplomacy from now on, however, served only to revive all the old doubts about American intentions. The US would, she said, aspire to help to create "a balance of power in the world that favours freedom". The words themselves sound noble, but they encapsulate the very same world-view that produced the débâcle in Iraq - the immodest assumption that US power can, and should, reshape the world in its own image.
Ms Rice's answers to questions on Iraq were notably unsatisfactory. There was her highly political insistence that everything had been anticipated as well as it could have been - the line of the Bush team during the election campaign. There was also her seemingly unshakeable confidence that the best advice had been taken, that sufficient troops had been deployed, that the number of trained and reliable Iraqi soldiers was above 100,000 - a figure some senators found fanciful in the extreme. With the election won convincingly and her confirmation beyond doubt, Ms Rice could have afforded a good deal more realism on this score.
The combination of ideological purpose and blind optimism that shone through much of her testimony was not reassuring. In particular, it did nothing - either in tone or specifics - to dispel fears in Europe and elsewhere about Mr Bush's possible appetite for further, and still riskier, military ventures beyond Iraq. The revelations in this week's New Yorker magazine by Seymour Hersh - the journalist who exposed the abuse at Abu Ghraib - about US special forces already scouting possible strike targets in Iran may, as the Pentagon insisted, be "riddled with inaccuracies". It is not impossible that the information was speeded into the public domain via a respected investigative journalist with a purpose - that of scaring Iran into complying with international regulations early in Mr Bush's second term.
Against that, it must be said that the Pentagon's intricate denials left the substance of the New Yorker article essentially unchallenged. Mr Bush, what is more, expressly declined to rule out military action against Iran when asked the following day. Of course, no canny political leader ever says anything that would restrict his freedom of manoeuvre. But the result, on the eve of George Bush's inauguration, is a newly suspicious Europe reiterating its call for patient diplomacy, a newly petulant Iran insisting on the soundness of its defences, and fresh trepidation throughout the region about the next administration's priorities. Dare we hope that tomorrow's inauguration address offers more hopes for peace than warnings of war?