MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Back in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Robert Gates faced some contentious confirmation battles when he was nominated to be director of central intelligence. There were questions about his handling of intelligence and his candor about illegal arms shipments to Nicaraguan rebels.
Well, today he was approved unanimously in committee after just one day of testimony. And at this confirmation hearing to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, Robert Gates's candor was cited many times, but this time it was cited with unfailing gratitude by senators frustrated with the Iraq war policy and with it architects in the Bush administration.
In this part of our program, what two retired U.S. Army generals have to say about Mr. Gates and the war in Iraq.
First, some excerpts from his appearance today before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The ranking Democrat on that committee, soon to become its chairman, is Carl Levin of Michigan, who put this question to Robert Gates.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraqi?
Dr. ROBERTS GATES: No, sir.
SIEGEL: Later on, in response to another senator's question, Mr. Gates said that he agrees with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Peter Pace, we are not winning the war and we are not losing it. Again, Senator Levin:
Senator LEVIN: Prime Minister Maliki said on November 27, quote, “the crisis is political and the ones who can stop the cycle of aggravation and bloodletting of innocents are the Iraqi politicians.”
Do you believe that the end to violence in Iraq requires a political settlement and that we need to communicate a sense of urgency to the Iraqis to pressure them to reach a settlement that only their politicians can reach?
Dr. GATES: Yes, sir, I do.
SIEGEL: Carl Levin also asked the nominee about recent statements by President Bush that the U.S. will stay in Iraq for as long as the Iraqi government wants us to.
Senator LEVIN: Doesn't such an open ended commitment send a message to the Iraqis that somehow or other it is our responsibility as to whether or not they achieve a nation rather than it is their responsibility to reach a political settlement?
Dr. GATES: Senator, I haven't spoken with the president about those remarks, so I'm going to have to interpret them myself. It seems to me that the United States is going to have to have some presence in Iraq for a long time. The Iraqi forces clearly have no logistical capability of their own. They have no air power of their own.
So the United States clearly, even if our, if whatever changed approach or strategy we come up with, the president implements, works, we are still going to have to have some level of American support there for the Iraqi military. And that could take quite some time, but it could be with a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces than are there today.
SIEGEL: Senator Levin, the senior Democrat on the committee, has been an advocate of starting to withdraw U.S. forces in four to six months. On the other side of the aisle, Republican John McCain has been an advocate of sending in more troops, at least for the short term. Here's part of his questioning of the nominee for defense secretary.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Would you agree that at the time of the invasion we didn't have sufficient troops to control the country in hindsight?
Dr. GATES: Well, I've had to deal with hindsight in some of the decisions that I've made, Senator McCain, and sometimes it's not very comfortable. I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration probably would not make the same decisions that they made, and I think one of those is that there clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country.
Senator McCAIN: And yet, at this particular point in time, when a suggestion is made as the situation deteriorates and the status quo is not acceptable that we reduce troops or, as General Abizaid said that he had sufficient number of troops. In your study, when did we reach the point where we went from not having enough troops to having sufficient number of troops, boots on the ground, as the situation deteriorated? That's a non sequitur that I have yet -I am unable to intellectually embrace.
Dr. GATES: Senator, I was a part of the Iraq Study Group during their education phase, I would say, and I resigned before they began their deliberations. I would tell you that when we were in Iraq that we inquired of the commanders whether they had enough troops and whether a significant increase might be necessary. And I would say that the answer we received is that they thought they had adequate troops.
SIEGEL: Another advocate of boosting U.S. troop levels in Iraq is John McCain's frequent ally in the Senate, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He asked if Gates believes in the Powell Doctrine, the conditions for going to war that Colin Powell developed as chairman of the joint chiefs.
Dr. GATES: I am very familiar with it and I would say -
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Do you believe in it or not?
Dr. GATES: Well, sir, there are different - there are eight elements to the Powell Doctrine.
Senator GRAHAM: Well, let me sum them up to one. You go to war with overwhelming force.
Dr. GATES: Yes, sir.
SIEGEL: So Senator Graham asked considering that U.S. forces in Iraq U.S. forces in Iraq are faced with disarming militias, rebuilding the Iraqi army, also helping rebuild the police and rebuilding the Iraqi economy -
Senator GRAHAM: Is there any doubt in your mind that the current level of troops are overwhelming when it comes to fulfilling all those missions, including defeating the insurgents? Could you honestly tell this committee and this country that the number of troops we have to do all the jobs I've described, including defeating the insurgents is overwhelming?
Dr. GATES: No, sir, I do not believe it is overwhelming.
SIEGEL: Throughout the public questioning, which was followed by a closed door session, Gates said that all options for Iraq are on the table and he frequently said that he'll consult with U.S. commanders in Iraq to get their sense of what's needed.
Senators praised Robert Gates for his pledges of independence, but a couple of Democrats asked whether Gates will actually have a receptive audience at the White House. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana put it this way.
Senator EVAN BAYH (Democrat, Indiana): You seem to be a very reasonable man. What leads you to believe that the president of the United States will accept your counsel?
Dr. GATES: Senator, because he asked me to take the job.
Senator BAYH: He asked the others to take the jobs as well.
Dr. GATES: I think that when they assumed their positions, the circumstances that the country and the president faced were different.
SIEGEL: That's Robert Gates responding to the questions of the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing earlier today.