Gates may not be following Bush’s playbook on Iraq

Times Staff Writers

President Bush has mobilized his administration, including his top general in Iraq, in a major push to win more time and money for his war strategy. But one crucial voice has been missing from the chorus: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’.

In fact, Gates’ recent comments seem to run counter to the message from the White House. During a recent trip to the Middle East, Gates told the Iraqi government that time was running out and praised Democratic efforts in the U.S. Congress to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying it would help prod the Iraqis. He reiterated that point during a meeting with reporters last week.

A spokesman for Gates insisted there was no distance between the Defense secretary’s thinking on the timetable for Iraq and views held by the White House or Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.


But his warnings to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are just the latest indications from Gates that he believes the window of opportunity for the administration to get Iraq right is closing sooner rather than later.

Any determination by Gates that time is running out on the current plan could severely complicate the administration’s strategy this summer, a prospect that has begun to worry some backers of the troop “surge.”

“I believe Gates is on a completely different page than President Bush and Gen. Petraeus,” said a former senior Defense official who has supported the buildup. “He wants to see some results by summer, and if he doesn’t see those results, he seems willing to throw the towel in.”

Gates was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended in its report last year that most combat troops withdraw by early 2008. Gates did not sign the report; he has said that formal deliberations did not start until after he left for the Pentagon. But several people who worked on the report said Gates was closely involved in early drafts and would have supported its eventual conclusions.

“Knowing how that group got along and how we shared our views, there remains no question in my mind that Bob Gates, had he not become secretary of Defense, would have supported those recommendations,” said Leon E. Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff and a member of the Iraq panel.

Gates came to the Pentagon last year vowing unvarnished assessments of progress in Iraq, and established a reputation on Capitol Hill for speaking frankly. As a result, he has become a trusted administration voice on Iraq policy, unencumbered by the baggage of the war’s initial planning and execution.


But ever since taking over from the divisive Donald H. Rumsfeld in December, Gates largely has kept his views on the president’s troop increase to himself. At Bush’s direction, Gates spent his first weeks at the Pentagon gathering information to recommend a new course.

But administration officials have since acknowledged that the new course already had been set, and Gates became its chief manager.

In that role, he has refrained from praising the strategy and is exploring backup plans in case it fails. He hopes to begin troop reductions this year and has ordered planners to keep funding for the buildup out of next year’s budget, an indication he wants the increase to end in 2007.

And while he sides with the administration against hard deadlines, he parts ways with the buildup’s top backers by recognizing value in the debate over timetables.

Gates’ sharpest public difference with supporters of Bush’s strategy has been over the question of how long the buildup should last before undergoing a thorough assessment.

Gates insisted for much of the year that the current Baghdad security plan be evaluated this summer -- just two months after all five of the “surge” brigades are in place. And Gates occasionally scolded senior officers who have suggested otherwise.

When Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, suggested in recent weeks that a progress report may have to wait until the fall, Gates responded harshly.

“I was a little disturbed, frankly, to hear that one of our military officers -- and I don’t know who it was -- saying it will be fall before we have some good idea,” Gates told a congressional hearing, unprompted by any question about timing.

Gates eventually gave way after Bush himself announced that he would give Petraeus until September.

Nonetheless, Gates’ views worry military officials who support the troop increase. One senior military officer argued that rather than talking about time running out, Gates and the Pentagon ought to be trying to buy more time for the strategy.

“If we cannot practice a little strategic patience right now,” said the officer, “we might as well pull out.”

Added a military analyst who has consulted for the Pentagon: Gates “seems to be off message, and I do not know why. I don’t know if Gates thinks the war can be won. He has said it can, but I am not 100% sold that he believes it, and that is a real problem.”

Experts, former officials and military officers interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing Gates’ views of the war.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Gates had been clear that he believes true reconciliation and progress in Iraq will take time.

“Gen. Petraeus and Secretary Gates are of like minds on this matter,” Whitman said. “To suggest that somehow he has a different view ... on the strategy is wrong, it’s uninformed, and it’s mischievous to suggest so.”

But many who discussed Iraq policy with Gates before he became Defense secretary said that though he had worked to implement the new security plan since arriving at the Pentagon, his views were closer to the Iraq Study Group than previously known.

Gates has publicly praised the study group, telling a recent congressional hearing: “My copy of the report’s pretty dog-eared.” But people who worked on the report said Gates’ involvement was much more direct.

“He wrote so much of the original draft,” said one person close to Gates, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to embarrass the Defense secretary. “He’s deliberately [distanced himself], because the president has elected not to adopt it. He’s trying to execute the challenge he’s given, I think is the best way to say it.”

Some who worked on the report said Gates voraciously read early papers written by the panel’s staff, something not all commission members did, and could frequently quote parts back to their authors. One agreed that Gates would have signed on to the final version, and said he believed Gates sees a much shorter window of opportunity in Iraq than Petraeus does.

Panetta added that though Iraq Study Group members were not opposed to a short, targeted increase in troops to secure Baghdad, they strongly believed any buildup should be limited in time and scope.

“All of us, Bob Gates in particular, agreed that we had to put pressure on the Iraqis to deliver, and it couldn’t just be an open-ended commitment here,” Panetta said. “It has to be very clear: They’ve got to move, and there are going to be consequences if they fail.”

Gates has agitated buildup supporters by praising the debate in Washington over timetables in Iraq, reiterating last week that it has had a “useful” role in convincing Iraqis that U.S. patience is wearing thin. Supporters of the surge believe that any discussion of timetables, explicitly by Democrats or implicitly by Gates, is harmful.

“You shortchange the president’s plan if you rush to judge its effects prematurely,” the former Defense official said. “De facto, you are undermining the strategy.”

Some current defense officials have privately questioned the pressure Gates has exerted on Iraqis. “The Iraqis know this is not an open-ended deal, but to shove it in their face is not helping,” said a military officer. “They can only move so fast.”

Gates’ comments have led some surge supporters to conclude that he is trying to devise a compromise between the Iraq Study Group recommendation, favored by Democrats, and Bush’s new strategy. And critics of such compromises predict failure.

“It almost looks like there is an effort by Gates to amalgamate the Iraq Study Group with the current strategy,” said the military analyst. “I am concerned about that.”


Times staff writer Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this report.