Gates Has Just Two Years to Make a Difference in Iraq
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And if confirmed as defense secretary later this year, Robert Gates will inherit America's most complex foreign policy crisis in decades. Former Pentagon advisors and retired generals say Gates will have to come up with a creative solution fast, if he hopes to salvage the situation in Iraq during President Bush's final two years in office. They also say his options are limited.
NPR's Guy Raz reports.
GUY RAZ: It was 1987, and Robert Gates told the Senate committee investigating Iran-Contra that he should have known better.
Mr. ROBERT GATES (Former CIA Director): I don't think that people contemplated just how serious the consequences would be.
RAZ: Consequences of selling arms to Iran in exchange for cash that was then funneled to Nicaraguan rebels. Gates was CIA's number two, and the Iran-Contra deal and the ensuing scandal could have been a career-ender. But the special prosecutor believed him, and so did the Senate. And well, he did something unusual in Washington - he said sorry - something Donald Rumsfeld couldn't quite do, even till the end. The public, he insists, just doesn't understand the policy in Iraq.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): It is not well known, it was not well understood. It is complex for people to comprehend.
RAZ: Gates and Rumsfeld couldn't be more different.
General JACK KEANE (U.S. Army, Retired): I think there's probably a sense of relief in the Pentagon, if you were looking for one word to describe it.
RAZ: Which is what retired General Jack Keane's colleagues inside the Defense Department are telling him, now that Rumsfeld's on his way out. But what does change at the top mean for policy?
Mr. RICHARD PERLE (Former Pentagon Official): I don't think there is going to be a dramatic shift. I don't think there's scope for a dramatic shift.
RAZ: This is former Pentagon advisor Richard Perle. So essentially it doesn't really matter whether it's Don Rumsfeld at the top or if it's Bob Gates at the top?
Mr. PERLE: I don't think it matters much in terms of what happens on the ground in Iraq.
RAZ: Why? Well, Danielle Pletka, from the center-right American Enterprise Institute, says the policy is still about victory.
Ms. DANIELLE PLETKA (American Enterprise Institute): The president is still the president, and the likelihood of him saying to any new secretary of defense - you know what, I'm bored with all this stuff, you go in a different direction, let me know how it works out for you - is not very great.
RAZ: In fact, Robert Gates is about to enter the Pentagon with one hand tied behind his back.
General JOSEPH HOAR (Former Commander, CENTCOM; Retired): There is no victory here. There is a choice of marginal to poor solutions, in my judgment.
RAZ: This is former CENTCOM chief General Joseph Hoar. He served under the first President Bush, and he's been a vocal critic of the war. But at this point, he says, Gates has few directions in which to turn, and basically, he's got to come up with a creative strategy.
Gen. HOER: Getting out is not the answer. The answer is to find some optimum solution that will not plunge the whole region into chaos.
RAZ: And finding that solution is quickly becoming the Holy Grail of defense strategy. In short, says retired General Jack Keane, Gates will have to plunge into Iraqi politics.
Gen. KEANE: We want this government to succeed in Iraq, and we have some responsibility there because we did change out the regime after all. We're going to have to get very involved in it, for sure. Now there's lots of things we can do to help the situation, and they're not all military. In fact, most things they'd have to do to change the dynamics there are more political than they are military.
RAZ: But how much change Gates can bring about depends in no small part on luck, says Richard Perle. The incoming defense secretary can speed up training of Iraqi security forces, for example.
Mr. PERLE: And how effective that is will depend on political leadership on the Iraqi side, which unfortunately, the secretary of defense is almost powerless to affect. So I'm afraid the outcome in Iraq is no longer principally in our hands. We have very few options.
RAZ: And Robert Gates is essentially taking on an impossible job. The public's clamoring for a reduction in U.S. troop commitments, so are many incoming congressional Democrats; even as the White House vows to win. But victory, and an elegant withdrawal, may eventually come to mean the same thing.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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