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Gates’ views not easy to discern

Times Staff Writers

President Bush’s nominee to be the next Defense secretary once urged missile strikes on North Korea to keep the communist country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But within weeks, Robert M. Gates recommended a radically different approach on Iran, urging talks instead of threats to get the Islamic regime to relinquish its nuclear program.

He has consistently defended the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But when Baghdad forced out weapons inspectors in the mid-1990s, Gates argued for a “powerful air and missile campaign” to destroy the Republican Guard divisions that kept Hussein in control.

He is regarded as a consensus-builder who will be more attuned to the advice of generals than outgoing Defense chief Donald H. Rumsfeld has been. Yet when asked in 1996 about the mind-set of military commanders, Gates said that “the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms” and tend to exaggerate the hazards of exercising America’s military might.

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Gates’ forceful pronouncements over the years routinely have been tempered by more moderate positions that make it difficult to discern exactly what sort of course the ex-CIA chief might chart for the military.

As a result, lawmakers and senior staffers on Capitol Hill said that although they expected relatively uneventful confirmation hearings for Gates, senators would strive to decipher his often complex views and gauge his ability to lead a military that -- largely because of the Iraq war -- was under extreme stress.

Most predicted Gates would sail through the confirmation process, since he is expected to be more flexible and receptive to input from military commanders than was Rumsfeld.

‘A pragmatist’

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“I consider him a pragmatist,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I think he is someone much closer to [former national security advisor] Brent Scowcroft than he is to Rumsfeld or [Vice President Dick] Cheney. I have found him to be open.”

Rumsfeld resigned Wednesday in the face of midterm election results that were devastating to Bush and the Republican Party. In a previously scheduled speech Thursday at Kansas State University, Rumsfeld acknowledged that the war in Iraq had “not been going well enough or fast enough.”

Because Gates’ confirmation hearings are expected to be relatively noncontroversial, Democrats will probably allow them to take place this year, while Republicans still control Congress. The timing depends on how soon Senate Armed Services Committee officials prepare a list of written questions and how quickly Gates completes it.

Lawmakers are almost certain to revisit Gates’ comments over the years on a range of threats confronting the U.S., and could press him to explain whether he supports the provocative positions he expressed before he was nominated to be the next Pentagon chief.

It is unclear, for example, whether Gates still thinks the United States should be ready to launch a missile strike to halt North Korea’s nuclear program.

In 1994, he wrote in a newspaper opinion piece that the “carrot-without-the-stick strategy” America had used on North Korea had failed. Unless Pyongyang heeded warnings not to reprocess nuclear material -- a possible step toward building a bomb -- Gates said, America should warn North Korea’s neighbors and proceed with “destroying the reprocessing plant.”

Senate confirmation hearings will probably also focus on Gates’ apparent disagreement with many of the changes made to the U.S. intelligence community after Sept. 11. Gates was offered the position of director of national intelligence by the Bush White House, but turned it down because he didn’t think the position should have been created. The post was later filled by John D. Negroponte.

Earlier this year, Gates wrote in a newspaper opinion piece: “More than a few CIA veterans -- including me -- are unhappy about the dominance of the Defense Department in the intelligence arena and the decline in the CIA’s central role.”

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Such shifts were set in motion by Rumsfeld and Negroponte. Lawmakers are probably curious whether Gates, if placed in charge of the Pentagon, would seek to undo any of those changes.

In some ways, Gates is a national security veteran with hard-line instincts whose positions have come to seem more moderate over time because his record is now viewed through a post-Sept. 11 prism.

He started out as a Soviet analyst at the CIA, and was deeply skeptical of the economic and societal reforms that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was accused more than a decade ago of politicizing intelligence, and leaning on analysts to reach harder conclusions on Soviet intentions.

But the harsher positions that Gates articulated during his 27 years at the CIA and on the White House National Security Council -- as well as opinions he has expressed publicly in the years since he left government -- often seem moderate when compared with the rhetoric of the neoconservatives who dominated the early years of the Bush administration.

Previous confirmation fights in 1987 and 1991 -- when Gates was nominated to head the CIA -- were bruising affairs that made him a controversial figure. But with the political center having moved to the right over the last 15 years, Gates now is widely perceived as a centrist.

And close associates say that despite his more provocative positions, it would be a mistake to see Gates as an ideologue. They point to the more nuanced positions he has taken on major national security threats, often warning about the limitations of unilateral power.

Three years before the Sept. 11 attacks, Gates said that U.S. counter-terrorism efforts were impeded more by politics and strategy than by legal restrictions that prevented the United States from carrying out lethal strikes or assassinations.

“An unacknowledged and unpleasant reality is that a more militant approach toward terrorism would, in virtually all cases, require us to act violently and alone,” Gates wrote in a piece published in the New York Times in 1998.

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“Retributive violence, no matter how massive, almost inevitably begets more violence against us in response,” Gates wrote.

Republicans weighing Gates’ nomination will probably explore whether he still holds this opinion five years after Sept. 11.

Inevitable focus

Even so, senior Senate aides said Thursday, hearings on Gates inevitably will focus on Iraq.

Because Gates has served on the Iraq Study Group -- a team led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) that is expected to issue a report on possible new directions for Iraq policy -- senators assume he is steeped in the complexities of the war and will be ready to discuss strategies.

Reed said he also wanted to hear Gates’ ideas on how to engage diplomatically with Iran and Syria, as well as how to get the Iraqi government to make tough decisions on sharing oil revenues and reconciling with the Sunni minority.

Reed said his questions would try to probe how much of a free hand Gates will be given to craft a new Iraq policy.

“I think the issue here is to what extent can he put in his own team,” Reed said. “If he is just a good guy with a good mind and a good heart surrounded by people wedded to the past, then he is not going to succeed.”

greg.miller@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com


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