About Senate Panel Approves Gates
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Senate Panel Approves Gates info
December 6, 2006
At Confirmation Hearing, Defense Pick Says U.S. Is Not Winning in Iraq
By Ann Scott Tyson and Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff Writers
Robert M. Gates was unanimously approved by a Senate committee yesterday to become President Bush's new defense secretary, after a day-long confirmation hearing in which he bluntly stated that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq.
Gates also told the panel that "it's too soon to tell" whether the Bush administration made the right decision in launching the invasion in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
In confirmation hearings that left both Democrats and Republicans praising his candor, Gates warned that the war risks provoking a "regional conflagration" in the Middle East unless a new strategy can arrest Iraq's slide toward chaos.
"My greatest worry, if we mishandle the next year or two and if we leave Iraq in chaos, is that . . . we will have a regional conflict on our hands," he said. "You could have Saudi Arabia, you could have Turkey, Syria, Iran -- all would be involved. We're already seeing Hezbollah involved in training fighters for Iraq. I think all of that could spread fairly dramatically."
Gates's cordial reception by the Senate Armed Services Committee signals he will almost certainly be confirmed as the nation's 22nd defense secretary. He would replace Donald H. Rumsfeld, who announced his resignation a day after the Nov. 7 elections, in which Democrats regained control of Congress. Gates's view that the United States is not winning the war stood in sharp contrast to Bush's own statement on Oct. 25, when he declared, "Absolutely, we're winning."
"What we heard this morning was a welcome breath of honest, candid realism about the situation in Iraq," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said during a midday break. Levin, who will become committee chairman next month, said this "bodes well . . . for a speedy confirmation."
At the end of the session, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said, "I think you're going to be a good secretary."
In return, Gates emphasized "the importance of the bipartisan approach" and laid out several ways in which he would operate differently than Rumsfeld. "I think the first step is the tone at the top," he said.
Gates promised to treat the top brass respectfully, a subject that became an issue earlier this year after several retired generals called for Rumsfeld to be fired, in part because they felt he ignored their professional advice.
Gates said a "great deference" should be shown to the judgment of generals once a policy is decided that they have to implement, and he emphasized that one of his first steps as secretary would be to "urgently" consult with U.S. ground commanders in Iraq. "When you treat the professionals in an organization who deliver the mission . . . with respect and you listen to them . . . I think that everybody is better served," he said.
Gates, who was CIA director from November 1991 to January 1993, was also critical of a Pentagon office that had independently examined intelligence on Iraq during the run-up to the war, second-guessing the CIA and other agencies. "I have a problem with that," he said.
Against fairly light probing by senators, Gates defended his record over past allegations that as CIA deputy in the 1980s he had skewed intelligence reports to fit his views. He said such charges grew largely out of personal animosity between then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz and then-CIA chief William J. Casey.
Several senators, listing the immense challenges Gates would face as defense secretary, urged him to be bold in expressing independent views. "You simply have to be fearless -- I repeat, fearless" in counseling the president on Iraq and other critical Pentagon matters, advised the committee chairman, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).
Gates responded later that he has no intention of coming to Washington "to be a bump on a log and not to say exactly what I think, and to speak candidly and, frankly, boldly to people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue." He also emphasized that he did not seek the job of defense secretary, saying, "I don't owe anybody anything."
Gates, 63, made it clear that if confirmed, Iraq will be his highest priority. "I am under no illusion why I am sitting before you today: the war in Iraq," the white-haired Wichita native told a packed committee hearing room. Gates said the president nominated him to bring "fresh eyes" to the problem, stating repeatedly that "all options are on the table" on Iraq strategy.
As a member of the Iraq Study Group, the commission led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), Gates studied those options for several months, until leaving the group when he was nominated for the Pentagon slot.
Currently president of Texas A&M University, Gates said he has known some of the 12 university students who have been killed in Iraq. "This all comes down to being very personal for all of us," he said, reciting the exact count of the 2,889 U.S. troops who had died in Iraq as of Monday.
Even so, U.S. forces will be in Iraq for "a long time," Gates predicted, although he said the number of troops could be "dramatically smaller" than the current 140,000. Pressed by Democrats, he said beginning modest troop withdrawals -- a suggestion included in a recently leaked Nov. 6 memo to the White House by Rumsfeld -- is one possibility.
Questioned by Republicans, however, Gates suggested a specific withdrawal timetable would be detrimental because it would tell U.S. enemies in Iraq "how long they have to wait until we're gone."
He also allowed for the possibility of a surge of U.S. ground forces into Iraq.
"That certainly is an option," he said, saying that such an increase could involve dispatching more military training teams to work with Iraqi security forces. "If our focus is on training and bringing up the Iraqi army, do we have enough trainers to do that job in Iraq?"
Gates declined to call the Iraq situation a civil war and agreed with senators that he did not want to see U.S. troops caught in a crossfire between Iraqi factions. Nor was he willing to predict whether beginning to withdraw troops would exacerbate sectarian violence, as the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, testified last month.
Several times during the hearing, senators mentioned an assessment offered Monday at a think tank by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the United States is neither winning nor losing in Iraq. (Pace had spoken on an off-the-record basis, but the senators quoted him by name.) Gates said he agrees with Pace's view.
While the hearing concentrated on Iraq, Gates appeared to depart from administration rhetoric by saying Iraq is just one central front in the anti-terrorism effort. Moreover, he said that over the past five years, Osama bin Laden has posed a greater threat to the United States than has Saddam Hussein.
Gates said the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 led to a "metastasized terror threat from the jihadists" around the world. "Indigenous radicals in countries like Britain, like Spain and like the United States are in fact planning terrorist operations," he said, adopting a tone reflective of his past as a career intelligence expert.
But he sighed audibly when Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) asked how he plans to catch bin Laden. "The way we'll catch bin Laden eventually," Gates said, is "one of his own people will turn him in."
On Iran, Gates said he thinks Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons but is lying about it, and he cited threats the country poses to the region, including the potential to shut down vital oil lanes and install a like-minded regime in Baghdad. Still, he said that U.S. "military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort" and that diplomacy is his preferred course.
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