WASHINGTON – Just back from Baghdad and eager to discuss promising developments, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice found herself knocked off message Sunday, forced to defend prewar planning and troop levels against an unlikely critic — Colin Powell, her predecessor at the State Department.
For the Bush administration, it was a rare instance of in-house dissenter going public.
On Rice's mind was the political breakthrough that had brought her and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to Iraq last week and cleared the way for formation of a national unity government.
Yet Powell sideswiped her by revisiting the question of whether the U.S. had a large enough force to oust Saddam Hussein and then secure the peace.
He said he advised Bush before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 to send more troops to Iraq, but that the administration did not follow his recommendation.
Rice, Bush's national security adviser during the run-up to the war, neither confirmed nor denied Powell's assertion. But she spent a good part of her appearances on three Sunday talk shows reaching into the past to defend the White House, which is trying to highlight the positive to a public increasingly skeptical in this election year of the president's conduct of the war and concerned about the large U.S. military presence.
"I don't remember specifically what Secretary Powell may be referring to, but I'm quite certain that there were lots of discussions about how best to fulfill the mission that we went into Iraq," Rice said.
"And I have no doubt that all of this was taken into consideration. But that when it came down to it, the president listens to his military advisers who were to execute the plan," she told a cable news network.
Powell, in an interview broadcast Sunday in London, said he gave the advice to now retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who developed and executed the Iraq invasion plan, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld while the president was present.
"I made the case to General Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld before the president that I was not sure we had enough troops," Powell said in an interview on Britain's ITV television. "The case was made, it was listened to, it was considered. ... A judgment was made by those responsible that the troop strength was adequate."
Rice said Bush "listened to the advice of his advisers and ultimately, he listened to the advice of his commanders, the people who actually had to execute the war plan. And he listened to them several times," she told ABC's "This Week."
"When the war plan was put together, it was put together, also, with consideration of what would happen after Saddam Hussein was actually overthrown," Rice said.
In January, Pentagon officials acknowledged that Paul Bremer, the senior U.S. official in Iraq during the first year of the war, told Rumsfeld in May 2004 that a far larger number of U.S. troops were needed to effectively fight the insurgency, but his advice was rejected.
Bremer said his memo to Rumsfeld suggested half a million troops were needed — more than three times the number there at the time.
"There will be time to go back and look at those days of the war and, after the war, to examine what went right and what went wrong," Rice said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"But the goal and the purpose now is to make certain that we take advantage of what is now a very good movement forward on the political front to help this Iraqi government," she said.
Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Gulf War and is known for his belief in deploying decisive force with a clear exit strategy in any conflict.
"The president's military advisers felt that the size of the force was adequate; they may still feel that years later. Some of us don't. I don't," Powell said. "In my perspective, I would have preferred more troops, but you know, this conflict is not over."
"At the time, the president was listening to those who were supposed to be providing him with military advice," Powell said. "They were anticipating a different kind of immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad; it turned out to be not exactly as they had anticipated."
Rumsfeld has rejected criticism that he sent too few U.S. troops to Iraq, saying that Franks and generals who oversaw the campaign's planning had determined the overall number of troops, and that he and Bush agreed with them. The recommendation of senior military commanders at the time was about 145,000 troops.