Senate Panel Backs Gates for Defense Chief

U.S. Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates testifies i i

U.S. Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2006. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates testifies

U.S. Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2006.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Gates sailed through his public hearing to be the next secretary of defense with nary a misstatement, a contradiction, or virtually any disagreement with the panel of senators who questioned him.

He sought to "clarify" just one statement — that the United States is "not winning" the war in Iraq. After the lunch break, Gates said he wanted to emphasize that despite this, "our military forces win the battles they fight."

Shortly after the hearing ended, the panel voted 21-0 to recommend Gates for confirmation.

President Bush named Gates, 63, to replace Donald Rumsfeld after widespread public frustration over the war in Iraq helped Democrats win control of Congress in last month's elections. Although Gates endured a contentious congressional hearing to be intelligence chief back in 1991, and questions linger about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, most Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday seemed thrilled simply that he was not Rumsfeld.

Several senators praised Gates for his candor, and lauded his statements that the current course in Iraq is "unsatisfactory" and "all options are on the table" in crafting a new course. Gates told the panel that any solution in Iraq is not purely military but also political, and warned that if the situation there does not improve soon, it could spiral into a "regional conflagration."

Regional Consequences of the War

The confirmation hearing came as President Bush faces increasing pressure to change tactics and consider withdrawing some of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The number of American military deaths is approaching 2,900. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group — of which Gates was a member until his nomination — is due to present its recommendations Wednesday.

Senators urged Gates to be "fearless" and give "unvarnished, direct advice" about Iraq. He told them he planned to speak candidly and not be "a bump on a log." At the same time, Gates conceded that President Bush would have the final say on Iraq strategy, and several senators questioned whether the president was actually open to new advice.

Much of the questioning focused on the consequences of the Iraq war across the Middle East region, and also on larger U.S. goals there. Gates said he believes Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is lying when he says Iran is not.

When Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) asked directly whether Gates supported an attack on Iran, Gates replied he considered that a "last resort." He said an attack on Iran would carry great risk, including the possibility that Iran would provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

For that reason, Gates said diplomacy would be his first choice in dealing with Iran. He told senators that the United States should not be afraid to talk directly to its adversaries, as it did during the Cold War.

No Longer Controversial

In 1987 President Reagan nominated Gates to head the CIA, but Gates withdrew amid questions over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Four years later, the first President Bush nominated him to the same post, and the contentious hearing dragged on for 10 days. A number of Gates' former friends and colleagues testified that he was a "yes man." They accused him of disdaining the views of others and manipulating intelligence to fit his bosses' views. The hearings dragged on for 10 days, and though he was confirmed in the end, 31 Democrats voted against Gates.

Twelve of those Democrats are still in Congress, but few of their concerns seem to have lingered. At Tuesday's hearing, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked about Iran-Contra, but did not press the point. He called Gates' statements about Iraq a "necessary, refreshing breath of reality."

Still, even though President Bush has said Gates will bring "fresh eyes" to the dilemma of Iraq, Gates did not seem to have any fresh options. He said he believed all options have been put forward already, and his task would be deciding which tactics to combine into an acceptable strategy. He said if confirmed, he would travel to Iraq to get advice from military commanders.

Iraq Strategy a Priority

Gates told the senators that Iraq will be his top priority, and one he would not take lightly. He noted that 12 graduates of Texas A&M University, where he is the president, have been killed in the conflict, making the war "very personal" for him. And just the other night, while Gates was dining at his hotel, he said a woman came up to congratulate him on his nomination and tell him she had two sons in Iraq.

"For God's sake," she said, "bring them home safe." Gates told the senators, "Now, that's real pressure."

Still, Gates would not say whether or when the United States should begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, and he warned of the consequences if a U.S. pullout left the country in chaos. He said that could prompt Iran and Syria to get even more deeply involved in Iraq, and pull in Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well, as they sought to protect Sunnis and Kurds, respectively.

President Bush has said repeatedly in recent weeks that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq as long as the Iraqi government wants them there. When asked what he thought the president means by that, Gates told senators that he does not think the United States will be "doing major combat for the indefinite future." Instead, he envisioned a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces would stay to continue training the Iraqi military, and said that presence could continue "for a long time."

Gates told the panel that one reason he accepted the nomination as defense secretary was to try to forge a new bipartisan consensus on both Iraq and the larger war on terror. It's imperative, he said, that U.S. strategy remain consistent no matter who wins the presidency in 2008.

If that's the case, Gates said, "everybody around the world who wishes us ill knows that we're in this for the long haul... They don't think it's going to be easy to start attacking us here at home because we're not willing to take them on abroad."

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