A Diplomatic Hearing for Ms. Rice


New York Times

January 19, 2005

Anyone who watched the delicate rinse cycle applied to Condoleezza Rice by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, despite a jab here and there, could be forgiven for thinking that the future secretary of state was a newcomer to the Bush administration. With a few exceptions, the hearing was political theater. Ms. Rice acted as if things were going according to plan in Iraq and everywhere else, and the senators acted as if she were not part of the serial disasters of the administration's foreign policy.

President Bush is entitled to choose his cabinet, and there was never much chance of opposition to Ms. Rice, a trusted member of his inner circle. But confirmation hearings should critically examine the nominee. Another unfortunate choice for a top job, Alberto Gonzales, at least had to endure a few hours' grilling on the torture of prisoners on his way to becoming attorney general.

Yesterday, Democratic senators, and some Republicans, recited the flaws in Mr. Bush's foreign policies - most glaringly on Iraq - and then did little more than politely urge Ms. Rice to check into those things once she's confirmed.

Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, asked Ms. Rice how big an Iraqi security force had actually been trained. When Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, offered an absurdly inflated 120,000, Mr. Biden said the people doing the training put the total at 4,000. He then suggested that Ms. Rice "pick up the phone or go see these folks," as if that has not been her job all along, especially in the year since the administration said that all information on operations in Iraq would flow through her.

Ms. Rice has been an enthusiastic supporter of dismantling international treaties and organizations from the start of Mr. Bush's presidency. The bipartisan panel on the 9/11 attacks and other accounts chillingly exposed her early disregard for the threat of terrorism. And she was so much the public face of the drive to war with Iraq that her appearances on Sunday morning talk shows became a running joke.

That history was barely mentioned yesterday, except when Senator Barbara Boxer reminded Ms. Rice of her apocalyptic remarks about nonexistent Iraqi nuclear weapons and suggested that "your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth."

Ms. Rice said repeatedly that she intended to engage in "public diplomacy." We hope that doesn't mean trying to sell flawed American foreign policy to reluctant governments abroad. Colin Powell couldn't manage that, and he is a more adept pitchman than Ms. Rice. What the country needs is not better spin, but a secretary of state who can recognize what has gone wrong and use her access to the president to help steer a more rational course.

Some of Ms. Rice's early moves were good. She did not choose as her deputy John Bolton, the under secretary whose confrontational approach thwarted a negotiated end to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Instead, her deputy will be Robert Zoellick, who has a long record in the diplomacy of trade.

But yesterday's hearing did not provide more cause for optimism.