Los Angeles Times
May 10, 2007
If there's progress in Iraq by then, he says, a reduction is possible. He rejects prolonging the buildup into 2008.
By Julian E. Barnes, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that if the current U.S. military strategy showed signs of success by autumn, the Pentagon may be able to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Iraq.
In Senate testimony, Gates acknowledged that his position apparently contradicted comments by the No. 2 military commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who has recommended that the troop buildup continue into 2008.
"I think if we see some very positive progress and it looks like things are headed in the right direction, then that's the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of these forces," Gates said.
Gates said he opposed a new Democratic proposal to fund the war through July, and a White House spokesman said President Bush would veto such a measure.
But Gates held firm against suggestions that the troop buildup be extended into 2008, saying a review in September would help determine future steps. Throughout his testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, Gates sounded a bipartisan tone and sought to accommodate Republicans and Democrats.
Under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Gates said he believed there would be a long-term U.S. presence in the Middle East. But he emphasized that the size of the American force in Iraq needed to be acceptable to both parties.
"My view would be that it's very likely the United States will be required to have some level of troop presence in Iraq for some period of time," Gates said. "But it has to be at a level, in my view, that can attract bipartisan support."
At a news conference later in the day, he indicated that the eventual U.S. troop level could be as low as 25,000 and said he would like to see a bipartisan accord similar to that on Soviet containment during the Cold War. The current troop level is 146,000.
Gates said he believed there could be broad agreement on two points: the necessity of defending the United States overseas and the need to keep a small number of troops in Iraq to preserve stability.
"Whether that's 25,000 troops or what that number is — I have no idea," Gates said. "My personal view is this would … have a stabilizing effect, and I think it's something that we need to talk about."
In his testimony, Gates repeatedly emphasized that the planned evaluation of the Bush administration's new strategy in September was not "preordained." The assessment, he suggested, would provide a determination of whether to change strategies, continue the buildup or reduce forces.
The U.S. military can reduce violence to a level that will enable the Iraqi political process to work, Gates said. The Iraqis, Gates said, had lived up to their commitments to provide a share of the forces, but the security picture remained mixed.
"We're not going to get the level of violence down to zero," Gates said. "The question is whether the level of violence is such that the political process can go forward in Iraq, and that then sets the stage for us to begin drawing down our troops."
The issue of the Pentagon strategy review became charged after Odierno, who heads up day-to-day military operations in Iraq, was quoted in a Washington Post report as saying the "surge needs to go through the beginning of next year, for sure."
At a news conference, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Odierno had misspoken. He said Odierno intended to say only that the U.S. military had the ability to continue the buildup through next spring, and did not intend to argue that the troop increase should continue.
But Odierno has indicated in the past that he is open to extending the current troop buildup into next year. Last month, he said he could recommend that the temporary "surge" be replaced by a more permanent "plus-up."
Outside of the hearing room, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol began work on compromises on the war funding bill.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Maine Republican, picked up a Democratic co-sponsor for her proposal to require the U.S. commander to begin planning a withdrawal if the Iraqi government fails to meet benchmarks later this year. The proposal by Snowe and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) marks the first bipartisan withdrawal plan to emerge from either chamber of Congress.
In the House, Democrats pushed their proposal to fund the war through July. The proposal could face a vote today, and a second vote would be required in July to continue war funding. Before the second vote, the president would have to submit a report to Congress on progress by the Iraqi government on a series of political benchmarks.
The White House veto threat drew criticism from the measure's sponsors.
"If the White House would get off their pedestal … they'd find out that only 25% of the people are with them," said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.).
In his Senate testimony, Gates compared the Defense budget to "10,000 faucets" running at different rates and said short-term funding would make it difficult to operate the military.
"In essence, the bill asks me to run the Department of Defense like a skiff, and I'm trying to drive the biggest supertanker in the world," Gates said. Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.