Condoleeza Rice in the cone of fire

Condoleeza Rice testifies tomorrow before a special commission investigating the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. She may find it rough going.

If timing is everything, her timing has turned out to be bad.

The mood in Washington has notably darkened in the past few days as horrific scenes of combat in Iraq dominate the news. When the president "allowed" Rice to testify, we were in the midst of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

No doubt Rice’s appearance before the Commission, under oath, would have been tense and contentious in any event.

But the somber mood and the overtones of Iraq spinning out of control will make Rice’s job even more difficult.

In retrospect, it is clear Rice was a poor choice for National Security Advisor. We are told, breathlessly, that she can read Russian novels in Russian. When has Russia been a problem during the current Bush administration? Putting a "Soviet expert" in charge of national security when the Middle East was exploding was a questionable decision. What skills or experience did Rice have to confront the crises of a National Security Advisor in 2001? During the summer of 2001, Al Qaeda was on trial in federal court in Manhattan. How could she not have known terrorism was our greatest threat?

Although Iraq is not on tomorrow’s agenda, Rice will appear before a Committee that is painfully cognizant that Rice’s supervision of Iraq policy has also been a disaster.

Rice is a very talented and very intelligent person. But being a successful college administrator, as she was, and riding herd on the jackals we confront in our foreign policy, are assignments that are worlds apart. To paraphrase the "Reagan question:" Is our foreign policy better off today than it was three years ago? The answer is obvious.

Thus, far from appearing before a warm audience as the successful manager of a successful foreign policy, which she is not, Rice appears before the special committee after trashing the Committee’s star witness, doing an endless fandango with media while she claimed she could not testify under oath, and appearing during a week with dark headlines and darker pictures on the front page.

While President Bush’s administration will not rise or fall on Rice’s testimony–they will just drop her if she does poorly–the stakes will be high. I am not aware that Rice really any training, or intestinal fortitude, for the kind of meat grinder she is likely to confront before the Commission.

Rice and the president could not have anticipated when they agreed to her testimony that Iraq would be on fire, and that the pressure to "do something" would be mounting. Commission hearings, like their congressional counterparts, do not take place in a vacuum. If you look bad going in, there is a fair chance you may look bad going out.

The leaked outline of Rice’s defense, a "modified limited hangout" that we had a different atmosphere prior to 9/11, is not going to fly. Rice will be asked specifics, and she will have to answer with specificity.

In addition, the current Commission’s hearing is likely to be very different from a congressional hearing in one critical respect. (I speak with 35 years of experience as a congressional witness, stretching back to 1969.)

Senators (and Representatives) are often poorly prepared for hearings. Staff assistants feed them questions. They may not be very competent examiners or cross-examiners to begin with.

But the quality of the membership of the Commission is very high. The members of the Commission are not political jokers. They know what they are doing. As the Commission has gained visibility it has also gained credibility (which is why Rice and President Bush ultimately could not ignore the panel).

So, unlike questioning at a poorly organized and orchestrated Congressional hearing, Thursday’s examination is likely to be incisive. Rice will no doubt be prepped and prepared. But there are "issues" where her performance in office has been weak, and her management skills are questionable in light of the shambles in Iraq.

No one is to "blame" for 9/11, but poor management is always an issue that cuts to the heart of competence, especially in an administration run by a Harvard MBA.

Will the "race factor" ride to Condoleeza’s rescue? I doubt it. We are in a post-racial environment. To steal an old National Enquirer line, "Inquiring minds want to know." The fact that Rice is an African-American and a woman is not likely to help her very much. Of course, many people think there is sexual bias, and prominent women are treated more deferentially. Others feel that high-profile women are treated more harshly (see Martha Stewart). Which will it be for Condi? The Shadow knows.

My guess: she will not have an easy time of it. She will face tough questions, try to give incomplete or self-serving answers, and escape with her skin intact, but just barely. I don’t think it will be love fest. How will it play in Peoria?

The bottom line: The pressure is on. The heat is on. We are using live ammunition in Iraq. And in Washington.