Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to become Defense secretary, testified Tuesday that the United States was not winning the war in Iraq and said he would consider new courses of action, including a gradual withdrawal of American troops.
Appearing before a Senate committee weighing his confirmation, Gates proved a sharp contrast to outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who repeatedly and briskly defended the Bush administration's conduct of the war and its ultimate merit before his resignation last month.
Just hours after the hearing, the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved Gates' nomination. He could take office this month once he receives the backing of the full Senate, expected to come this afternoon.
Gates labeled several administration decisions on Iraq as clear mistakes that compounded the problems in the country.
"I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration probably would not make the same decisions that they made," Gates said. "There clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country."
Gates diverged from administration positions on several occasions during five hours of questioning. He also said the U.S. erred in disbanding the Iraqi military after its defeat and went too far in removing Baathist Party officials from government -- key administration moves blamed for allowing violence and disorder to spread.
Gates' more conciliatory approach at the hearing seemed to mark a new phase in which recriminations over the war's origins give way to debates over how to extricate American forces without leaving chaos behind.
"Thank you for your candor," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a potential presidential contender, told Gates. "That's something that has been sorely lacking from the current occupant in the position you seek to hold."
The tone Tuesday was unlike any of scores of hearings in recent years on Iraq, as the military's predicament and congressional impatience and anxiety have grown more acute. Gates responded simply and directly to questions that might have provoked a furor with Rumsfeld.
"Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?" asked Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"No, sir," Gates replied without elaboration.
Gates' assessment, markedly more dismal than any advanced by the administration, conflicted with Bush's claim as recently as six weeks ago at a major White House news conference that, "Absolutely we're winning."
Gates, a supporter of the war in 2003, declined to answer a question from Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) about whether he now believed the invasion was a good idea.
"Frankly, Senator, I think that's a judgment that the historians are going to have to make," Gates said. "Was the decision to go in right? I think it's too soon to tell."
Swift Senate approval?
Gates' testimony put the White House on the defensive, forcing the administration to insist that Gates shared Bush's views on the importance of building an Iraqi government that could sustain and defend itself.
"I know that you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the president," White House spokesman Tony Snow said during a news briefing. "It doesn't exist."
Quick approval by the Senate would differ from Gates' months-long confirmation process in 1991, when he was nominated to become CIA director. Then, Gates was grilled on accusations that he bullied analysts into shaping intelligence to fit the Reagan administration's worldview.
Some of the questions were raised again Tuesday. Democrats as well as Republicans pressed Gates about whether he would be honest with Bush in his views of Iraq, even if they were pessimistic, and insisted he allow military leaders to be equally blunt in their assessments. Rumsfeld has been accused of stifling dissent within the Pentagon.
Gates promised to welcome differing views and insisted he would pull no punches.
"I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M;, the job that I've probably enjoyed more than any that I have ever had ... to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log," Gates said. "I can assure you that I don't owe anybody anything."
Gates was praised for his answers by Republicans and Democrats as his responses indicated that all options were on the table, even though some were contradictory.
Although Gates was intentionally vague about which strategic route he preferred -- refusing to answer some questions on troop levels until he consulted with military commanders -- he drew several lines. He was cool toward a firm timetable for withdrawal, saying it would telegraph to U.S. adversaries how long they needed to wait before relaunching an attack on the Iraqi government.
But he acknowledged that the number of U.S. troops did not constitute an "overwhelming force" and signaled he was open to enlarging the size of the Army and Marine Corps in order to find more troops for Iraq.
However, when asked by Levin whether he would consider beginning to withdraw troops "so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country," Gates replied, "Yes, sir. I think that all options are on the table."
Gates added that he did not believe there were any new ideas on Iraq, but that the key was to find the right mix of such policies.
"My greatest worry, if we mishandle the next year or two and if we leave Iraq in chaos, is that a variety of regional powers will become involved in Iraq, and we will have a regional conflict on our hands," Gates said.
Although Gates was known as a hawk during the Cold War, aligning himself with hard-line Soviet critics in the Carter and Reagan administrations, he appeared to distance himself from some of his old anti-Communist allies who have more recently been advocating military action against Iran and Syria.
He told the panel that an attack on either country -- despite their aid to Iraqi insurgents and to Hezbollah militia in Lebanon -- probably would worsen the violence in Iraq and further destabilize the region.
"I think that we have seen, in Iraq, that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable, and I think that the consequences of a military conflict with Iran could be quite dramatic," Gates said.
Still, it was Gates' apparent willingness to distance himself from previous administration policies in Iraq that drew the most attention from committee members.
He went so far as to single out for criticism a Pentagon group set up by former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, which performed independent analysis of U.S. intelligence ahead of the Iraq war.
The group, formally called the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, was favored by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who insisted it provided valuable independent assessments of possible links between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda terrorists.
But Gates said that bypassing the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency in such instances was a mistake.
"I just have the impression that they were ... analyzing intelligence reports and providing an independent evaluation of that reporting, and an analysis based on that reporting, to Defense officials," Gates said of the Feith effort. "I have a problem with that."
In the past, Bush administration officials have reluctantly acknowledged mistakes in Iraq. Gates repeated some of those criticisms, naming the de-Baathification program and the disbanding of the Iraqi military as errors.
But he went further, appearing to dispute the administration's maxim that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism.
"I think that it is one of the central fronts," Gates said. "I think we face a more disperrsed threat that's really a very amorphous kind of second front."
Unlike Gates' previous two nominations -- including his 1987 selection to become director of central intelligence, which was eventually withdrawn -- the Iran-Contra affair was mentioned only briefly Tuesday, during a lightly attended afternoon session.
At issue was whether Gates knew of Reagan administration officials' moves to sell arms to Iranians and divert the proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras, anti-Communist insurgents who were supported by the White House but barred from receiving U.S. aid by Congress.
Levin, who voted against Gates' nomination in 1991, noted that the independent counsel who investigated the scandal, Lawrence Walsh, was critical of Gates' failure to recall details of key meetings where the plan may have been discussed.
Senators also asked about accusations by George P. Shultz, who was secretary of State when Gates was the No. 2 official at CIA, that Gates used intelligence to paint the Soviet Union in the worst possible light.
Gates responded by sharing some inside Washington lore, saying he believed Shultz's view was shaped largely by his strained relationship with Gates' boss, then-CIA director William J. Casey, who opposed Shultz's effort to reach out to the Soviets and once tried to get Shultz fired.
"It was an open secret in Washington that the two didn't get along," Gates said, adding that his relations with Shultz on a day-to-day basis were more cordial.
Along with finding answers to Iraq, Gates said he agreed to accept Bush's nomination to find a bipartisan consensus on the global war on terrorism that would mirror the post-World War II consensus in dealing with the Soviet Union.
He said a baseline agreement on underlying principles would allow for ongoing debate on tactics but would give potential adversaries certainty that the U.S. would continue to pursue a common goal.
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A look at statements from the president and his administration over the last several months, assessing the U.S. military's success in Iraq:
President Bush on July 7:
"We occasionally are able to pop in with great success [in Iraq], like Zarqawi or 12 million people voting.... We are winning."
Bush on Sept. 7:
"Five years after September the 11th, 2001, America is safer, and America is winning the war on terror."
Bush on Oct. 25:
"Absolutely, we are winning."
Bush on Nov. 8:
"I wish this had gone faster. So does Secretary Rumsfeld. But the reality is, is that it's a tough fight, and we're -- we're -- we're -- we're going to win the fight."
White House spokesman Tony Snow on Nov. 13:
"We are winning, but on the other hand, we have not won."
At Robert M. Gates' Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday:
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.): Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?
Gates: No, sir.
During a White House press briefing Dec. 5:
Q: Does the president today believe that we are winning in Iraq? It's a very straightforward question.
Snow: I know, but I did not ask him the question today. The most recently asked, he said yes.
Q: OK, so that might change from day to day. So it may have changed.
Snow: No, I don't -- I don't --
Q: He may no longer believe that we're winning the war in Iraq.
Snow: I have no reason to think it changed.
Source: Los Angeles Times