Frank assessment from Gates on Iraq

Defense chief nominee later qualifies statement

December 06, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Hours before a Senate panel unanimously approved his nomination as defense secretary yesterday, Robert M. Gates was asked whether the United States is winning the war in Iraq.

His answer seemed to sweep away years of muddled double-talk and calculated ambiguity that have characterized many such congressional hearings about the war.

"No, sir," Gates said flatly, contradicting a declaration President Bush made 41 days ago that "Absolutely, we are winning."

Gates later qualified his statement. But with that unmistakable departure from White House orthodoxy, with a lengthy plea for bipartisan cooperation and an acknowledgement that the administration has made serious policy mistakes in Iraq, the former CIA director sought to signal a new era of tone, if not necessarily substance, as policymakers struggle to forge a new approach in Iraq.

"It's my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq. The list of tactics, the list of strategies, the list of approaches is pretty much out there," Gates said. "And the question is: Is there a way to put pieces of these different proposals together?"

Selected by Bush to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld after voters broadly repudiated the Republican administration's Iraq policies in last month's election, Gates is widely expected to be confirmed by the full Senate before week's end. Even so, skeptics expressed doubt that the bipartisan spirit he espoused can overcome the deep disagreements over Iraq.

In a later "clarification" that raised questions about how far he can stray from administration policy, Gates interrupted the hearing after a lunch break to say that while he stood by his earlier remark that the U.S. is not winning the war, he did not mean to suggest that U.S. troops are losing battles to insurgents. That put him squarely in sync with other officials who have said the United States is "not winning, but not losing."

In the daylong confirmation session before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates offered few policy prescriptions for Iraq, though he endorsed the White House goal of finding "a way forward" so that Iraq can "govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself and be an ally in our war on terror."

He sidestepped specific questions, such as whether more U.S. troops are needed, and the state of training of Iraqi soldiers and police, by saying he will, if confirmed, travel to Iraq to talk with U.S. commanders.

In seeking to demonstrate his independence, Gates said he had not given up the presidency of Texas A&M University at "considerable personal financial sacrifice ... to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log."

He vowed to "say exactly what I think and to speak candidly and frankly, boldly, to people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about what I believe and what I think needs to be done."

"I don't owe anybody anything," he insisted.

Gates pleaded for a new bipartisan determination to wage the war on terrorism "so that everybody around the world who wishes us ill knows that we're in this for the long haul."

After six years of often fractious exchanges with Rumsfeld, many senators seemed impressed.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who will become chairman of the committee next month, called Gates' approach "a necessary, refreshing breath of reality that is so needed if we're going to look at ways of changing course in Iraq."

"It's an extraordinary change," agreed Sen. Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, a former paratrooper who has been a harsh critic of the administration and who often clashed heatedly with Rumsfeld. If Rumsfeld had been asked whether the U.S. was winning, "he would have started his answer by saying, `You don't understand,"' Reed said after the hearing. With Gates, "there's a tone of candor, which is something that has been lacking."

Outside the Senate chambers, however, there was more skepticism.

"It's the love-fest before the storm," said Thomas Donnelly, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

A former senior congressional staffer, Donnelly said it was unclear whether a bipartisan tone can heal fundamental differences over Iraq strategy, particularly about whether more, or fewer, troops are needed.

"It seems like the Democratic leaders and the president are on opposite ends of the planet, and I'm not sure even if Gates wants to position himself as a bridge between those two poles that anybody can stretch that far," Donnelly said.

A quick and painless Senate confirmation of Gates, said former Sen. David L. Boren, who introduced the nominee at the hearing, "is not sufficient."

"The president must also do his part," the Oklahoma Democrat said, "by making sure that he gives great weight to the bipartisan spirit and realistic advice which I believe he will receive" from Gates.

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