Rice was the first administration official to face a deeply skeptical Congress, and the hearing proved that even some members of the president's own party aren't afraid to oppose him on his plan to send more troops to Iraq.
Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) set the tone for what was to come in his opening remarks, saying that Iraqi and U.S. troops are embroiled in a civil war "with no end in sight."
'The President's Strategy Is No Solution'
Biden said that like millions of Americans, he watched Bush's televised speech to the nation on January 10 in the hope of hearing a new strategy that would help Iraq achieve stability and bring U.S. troops home.
"We hoped and prayed we would hear of a plan that would have two features: begin to bring American forces home, and a reasonable prospect of leaving behind a stable Iraq," Biden said. "Instead, we heard a plan to escalate the war. Not only in Iraq, but possibly into Iran and Syria, as well. I believe the president's strategy is not a solution, Secretary Rice. I believe it is a tragic mistake."
Biden told Rice that Bush ignored sage advice from a wide range of experts -- including military, legislative, and civilian advisers -- that the way to secure Iraq was to bolster regional diplomatic efforts and draw down U.S. troops in an effort to shift more responsibility to the Iraqis.
"I don't think we've faced a more pivotal moment than the one we face today," Biden added. "Failure in Iraq will not be confined to Iraq. It will do terrible damage to our ability to protect our interests all over the world."
Rice said that Bush considered all options before settling on a strategy that factored in Americans' unease with open-ended involvement and the previous failures of strategy.
Rice Says This Time It Will Be Different
"The situation in Iraq is unacceptable," Rice said. "But Iraq is also, at this point in time, of very high stakes to this nation. This is a time for a national desire, and a national imperative, not to fail in Iraq."
But she characterized Bush's plan to send more troops in as simply support for an Iraqi-authored strategy that officials there believe will help them restore security to Baghdad. And she insisted, several times, that the Iraqis understand that this time, they cannot fail.
"Let me be very clear," she said. "We all understand that the responsibility for what kind of Iraq this will be rests with Iraqis. They are the only ones who can decide whether or not Iraq is in fact going to be an Iraq for all Iraqis, one that is unified, or whether they are going to allow sectarian passions to unravel that chance for a unified Iraq."
Almost every member of the committee expressed some level of opposition or skepticism that increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will change the course of the war.
Time To Cut Off Funding?
Some Democratic members of the panel spent their seven minutes of allotted time during the hearing delivering harsh condemnations of the administration's record of failed policies and urging fellow legislators to oppose Bush's new plan.
Senator Russell Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin) called the war "possibly the greatest foreign policy mistake in the history of this country" and then voiced what no one else on the committee had dared to say: that the Democratic Congress should exercise its power to cut off funding. He said because Bush has proposed a strategy that goes against the will of the public, U.S. interests abroad, and national security, Congress must step in:
"And now Congress must use its main power -- the power of the purse," Feingold said. "And I'm not talking here just about the surge, or escalation. It is time to use the power of the purse to bring our troops out of Iraq."
But it wasn't only Democratic members of the committee who told Rice they would not support the president.
Republican committee member Chuck Hagel (Nebraska) said he cannot agree with the escalation because Iraq is in a civil war and "to ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives is wrong."
What About Iran And Syria?
Like other senators, both Republican and Democrat, Hagel singled out Bush's January 10 statement that the United States would try to interrupt Syrian and Iranian networks that allow weapons and terrorists to flow across the Iraqi border. Hagel said that implied that U.S. troops might cross those countries' borders in pursuit of the enemy.
He said that prospect, in addition to the troop escalation, worried him deeply.
"This speech, given last night by this president, represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it is carried out," Hagel declared.
As Hagel began his opening remarks, proceedings were momentarily interrupted by a protester in the hearing room who shouted: "Stop the lying! Stop the war!" He was removed by security guards.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Richard Lugar (Indiana) reminded Rice that anything the United States does in Iraq is likely to influence Iran's position in the region. He said Iran is pressing a "broad agenda in the Middle East with uncertain consequences" that include weapons proliferation, terrorism, and Israeli security interests.
"We have an interest in preventing Iranian domination of the region," Lugar said. "The fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni government opened up opportunities for Iran to seek much more influence in Iraq. An Iran that is bolstered by an alliance with the Shi'ite government in Iraq or a separate Shi'ite state in southern Iraq would pose serious challenges for Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab governments."
Several senators asked Rice why the administration's new strategy didn't include a major diplomatic push, as strongly recommended by the Iraq Study Group.
Christopher Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut) urged Rice to engage Syria and Iran "not as a friend," but as regional partners who can play a role in stabilizing the region.
Rice responded by saying that the governments of both Iran and Syria know what to do to help the situation in Iraq -- stop the flow of weapons and fighters across their borders-- and the United States doesn't need to tell them how.
Rice Heads To Middle East
Today Rice will being a seven-day trip that will take her to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, London, and Berlin. According to the State Department, she will consult with regional leaders and explore ways to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the way forward in Iraq, and advance other issues of regional importance.
As today's hearing was taking place, a new poll reported that the U.S. public is overwhelmingly opposed to sending more U.S. forces to Iraq. The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 people was conducted earlier this week, as news of Bush's troop escalation plan was being reported.
It showed that 70 percent of respondents oppose sending more troops, and a similar number don't think such an increase would help stabilize the situation there.
The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.