Washington, 20 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Three senators -- including two members of President Bush's Republican Party -- pressed Rice about possible military strikes against Syria and Iran, and whether Bush would seek authorization from Congress before taking such action.
Rice avoided answering the questions directly.
"I believe that what I said is that the president doesn't take any of his options off the table and that I will not say anything that constrains his authority as commander in chief," Rice said. "But the course on which we are currently launched is a diplomatic course to try and bring international pressure on both Syria and Iran to do the right thing."
Rice said Syria and Iran require different approaches. On the one hand, she said, the United States is exploring whether to authorize discussions between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq. But she said that process is likely to be protracted. The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Iran.
Dealing with Syria may yield quicker results, Rice said. Foreign fighters are entering Iraq over its border with Syria, she said. Coalition troops in Iraq sometimes intercept them before they can join the insurgents.
Meanwhile, Rice said, the United States and some other countries have responded by successfully isolating Damascus diplomatically.
"We have really been more focused in the near term on our concerns about the Syrian border because we think that there are things there that could be done forthwith that would have an almost immediate impact," Rice said. "And again, the conditions now and the conditions six months ago concerning Syria are simply very different because of Syria's own diplomatic isolation."
Rice last testified before the committee in February. Several senators remarked that they would prefer more frequent appearances, especially since an increasing number of the people they represent have, according to polls, begun to
"The terrorists want us to get discouraged and quit. They believe we do not have the will to see this through. They talk openly about this in their writings on their websites. And they attack the Iraqi government, targeting the most dedicated public servants of the new Iraq." -- Rice
oppose the Iraq war.
The vice chairman of the committee -- Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) -- said Bush has too often said he will push forward with his war strategy until Iraq can defend itself. Biden said it is time for Bush to tell the American people what that strategy is.
Biden said that 2 1/2 years after the United States led the invasion of Iraq the war is still going badly and the country's civil infrastructure is in shambles. He said it appears the Bush administration doesn't have a plan to win the war so that U.S. forces can eventually be withdrawn.
Rice disagreed. She said the administration's plan is clear.
"I've spoken many times about why we are there [in Iraq], but I would like to talk about how we assure victory," Rice said. "In short, with the Iraqi government, our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold, and build. To clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable national Iraqi institutions."
Rice said the insurgents in Iraq have a plan of their own.
"Let us say it plainly. The terrorists want us to get discouraged and quit," Rice said. "They believe we do not have the will to see this through. They talk openly about this in their writings on their websites. And they attack the Iraqi government, targeting the most dedicated public servants of the new Iraq."
Rice also refused to rule out the possibility that U.S. troops will be in Iraq for many years to come. She said such decisions are the province of the president and his military advisers, not of the secretary of state.
But according to Rice, transforming Iraq, and perhaps the entire Middle East, will be what she called a "generational struggle." So she cautioned against anticipating quick results.
Rice's testimony came the same day that Iraq's deposed president, Saddam Hussein, went on trial in Baghdad, charged with the murder and torture of his countrymen. It also came four days after Iraqis voted on a draft constitution.
Early returns indicate that the constitution was approved, although many minority Sunni Muslims reportedly voted against it. Rice told the committee that no matter how the Iraqi vote is split, one thing is certain: By voting at all, they're supporting a new Iraq.