Monday, January 24, 2005

Boxing Rice

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State designate Condoleezza Rice said that the South Asia tsunami disaster was “a wonderful opportunity” to show how the U.S. government and its people could respond compassionately to a tragedy.

A surly Senator Boxer of California responded, “The tsunami was one of the worse tragedies of our lifetime, and its going to have ten year impact on rebuilding that area. I was very disappointed in your statement. I think you blew the opportunity.”

Inquiring minds want to know: What was it exactly that disappointed Boxer?

Certainly Rice did not say that the tsunami was wonderful. Far from it; she clearly said it was a tragedy, and tragedies are by definition unpleasant and less than wonderful.

If Rice had pruned the adjective “wonderful” and said the tsunami tragedy presented “an opportunity” for the U.S. to display its compassion, she would have been repeating a remark made by countless Democrats and political commentators, all critics of President George Bush, who thought the president’s response to the tragedy was tardy, not nearly impulsive enough and less than compassionate.

“In Washington,” The New York Times reported soon after the tragedy, “President Bush made his first public statement on the disaster, after criticism that he had failed to respond personally to the apparent deaths of dozens of Americans. Mr. Bush has instead spent much of his time biking and clearing brush from his ranch in Texas.”

Critical analysis from the International Committee of the Fourth International was equally withering. “President Bush,” the ICFI reported on its web site, “briefly interrupted his vacation on Wednesday to issue a public statement, after three days of silence as the greatest natural disaster of the last half-century unfolded on the television screens of the world. He made a perfunctory and semi-coherent statement to the press corps assembled at his Crawford, Texas ranch, shortly after the administration had announced a doubling of the US government’s contribution to disaster relief efforts in South Asia.”

Alas, Rice said it was a “wonderful” opportunity for the U.S. to show compassion in the face of a tragedy that everyone – but most especially the tenderhearted Boxer – agreed was not wonderful.

At one point in the interrogatory, Boxer’s intimation that Rice was a liar “whose loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell his war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth” became a bit too much to bear, and Rice responded sharply that she “never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It’s not my nature. It’s not my character. And I would hope that we can have this conversation without impugning my credibility or my integrity.”

After the dustup, Boxer claimed to be the victim in the exchange. “She turned and attacked me,” said Boxer on CNN’s “Late Edition.” Rice, Boxer insisted, had employed an old debater’s trick. “I gave Dr. Rice many opportunities to address specific issues. Instead, she said I was impugning her integrity.”

Well now, there are debater’s tricks, and there are debater’s tricks. In fact, Rice was inviting Boxer to be honest rather than slick. Why leave imputations hanging? If Boxer meant to say, “Look here Rice, you are a liar,” she could have said as much. Rice’s response, honestly answered, might have teased the admission from Boxer, after which both could have discussed amiably whether Rice knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when she supported the administration’s view that they were there.

To lie is to say the thing that is not – knowing it is untrue.

The likelihood is that both the Bush administration and United Nations sleuths, who were in Iraq for months looking for weapons of mass destruction -- presumably because they had good reason to believe they were there – were both mislead by faulty intelligence.

Boxer was one of two senators on the committee, the second being Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrat’s standard bearer for president in the recent elections, who voted against Rice’s confirmation.

Kerry intimated during his interrogatory with Rice that his recent talks with European statesmen led him to conclude that Europe was eager to help the United States in Iraq. Rice, perhaps from excessive politeness, did not ask Kerry to name the European leaders. But had she done so, Kerry likely would have employed, by way of answer, an old debater’s trick – silence.

Is it not naive to think that committed partisans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are interested primarily in exposing the truth? They are interested in exposing the frailties of cabinet appointees to embarrass their political opponents, and future Secretary of State designates should be forewarned: Watch those adjectives -- particularly when they are displayed before congressional committee members disposed to misunderstand plain English.

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