Washington, 19 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Condoleezza Rice told the committee that a major foreign policy priority of the Bush administration is to spread democracy in the Middle East.
The comments by Bush's secretary of state-designate came during the first day of a wide-ranging confirmation hearing in which she also addressed a continuing rift between the United States and its traditional allies, and defended U.S. military and political strategy in Iraq.
Rice has served for the past four years as Bush's national security adviser, and as his most trusted aid on foreign policy. If confirmed as secretary of state, she would succeed Colin Powell, who is reported to have been at odds with the administration on a number of policy issues, especially Iraq.
Following a second round of questioning, the committee is expected to vote today on whether to recommend her nomination. The full Senate is to vote later in the week.
On the subject of democracy in the Middle East, Rice told the panel that the death of Yasser Arafat was an "opportunity" for new elections for Palestinians. And she cited last autumn's elections in Afghanistan and the election set for 30 January in Iraq as positive examples for the rest of the Muslim world.
"The success of freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq will give strength and hope to reformers throughout the region, and accelerate the pace of reforms already under way," Rice said. "From Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain, we are seeing elections and new protections for women and minorities, and the beginnings of political pluralism."
Rice's concern about democracy was not confined to the Muslim world. She pointed to problems with democratic institutions in Russia, despite what Bush calls his close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But she expressed hope the friendship between the two countries eventually will bear fruit.
"In Russia, we see that the path to democracy is uneven and that its success is not yet assured. Yet recent history shows that we can work closely with Russia on common problems," Rice said. "And as we do so, you can be assured that we will continue to press the case for democracy, and we will continue to make clear that the protection of democracy in Russia is vital to the future of U.S.-Russian relations."
Rice also called for further democratic stabilization in Serbia and resolving remaining issues in Kosovo, particularly the problem of its minority Serbs. She said she believes the reconstruction of Europe after World War II cannot be complete until the Balkan issues are settled.
Rice cited last autumn's elections in Afghanistan and the upcoming election in Iraq as positive examples for the rest of the Muslim world.
For the most part, the senators did not challenge Rice too strongly. But one member of the committee, Senator Joseph Biden (Delaware), a member of the opposition Democratic Party, pointedly took issue with one of her comments.
Rice spoke of how the State Department, under her leadership, would work hard to repair the damage caused by the Iraq war. She said, "The time for diplomacy is now." Biden later said "now" may already be too late.
"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," Biden said. "And the time for diplomacy, in my view, is long overdue. As a result, we're in, in my view, in a less secure position than we should be in the world."
Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) -- who unsuccessfully challenged Bush for the presidency last year -- also criticized Rice and the Bush administration on the planning for the war, particularly with regards to troop levels, which critics say are too low to be effective in fighting the ongoing insurgency there.
"The current policy is growing the insurgency, not diminishing it," Kerry said.
Kerry also said the elections in Iraq, scheduled for 30 January, may not yield the results that the Bush administration has been forecasting. Kerry warned of a continuing and perhaps more violent insurgency. He also cited the possibility of sectarian violence between the country's Shi'a majority and its Sunni minority.
Rice replied that the administration is aware that the vote is not likely to bring immediate political stability, but said it would be a positive first step toward normalization in Iraq.
"I think we need to give them [Iraqis] a chance here. You know, the political process, as you well know and you all [senators] know better than I, is one of coming to terms with divisions, coming to terms with institutions that mitigate against people's sense of alienation," Rice said. "It takes time, it takes effort, sometimes the compromises are a bit imperfect at first. But over time, it gets better."
Another Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer (California), accused Rice and Bush of misleading the public in justifying the war in Iraq. At first, Boxer said, they justified the invasion by saying Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After no weapons were found, she said, the administration shifted its rationale to Saddam's threats to his neighbors and mistreatment of his people.
Speaking to Rice, Boxer stated her belief that "your loyalty to the mission you were given -- to sell this war -- overwhelmed your respect for the truth."
Rice replied that weapons were not the only justification for invading Iraq. She added, " I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity."
Rice would be the first black woman to serve as the secretary of state. She was born 50 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, a southern city that was at the center of the struggle for American blacks to gain civil rights.
Rice holds degrees in political science and international studies, and has served as a professor and administrator of Stanford University in California, one of the country's most prestigious schools.
In Washington, Rice has served as the director of Soviet and Eastern European affairs in the National Security Council of President George H.W. Bush, the father of the current president.