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December 5th, 2006 - Gates Says U.S. Not Winning War in Iraq
Nominee Pledges Consultation With Congress, Military Leaders
By William Branigin and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 3:14 PM
Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to be the next secretary of defense, told a Senate confirmation hearing today that "all options are on the table" in dealing with the situation in Iraq, and he said he does not believe that U.S. forces currently are winning the war there.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said in his opening remarks that he is "open to a wide range of ideas and proposals" in Iraq, and he pledged to consult urgently with military leaders, combatant commanders in the field and members of Congress, among others, if confirmed.
He warned that the war in Iraq risks provoking a "regional conflagration" unless a new strategy can arrest the nation's slide toward chaos. He called the status quo there unacceptable and said Iraq would be his "highest priority."
Asked by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, whether "you believe we're currently winning in Iraq," Gates answered, "No, sir." He repeated the assessment when asked the same question by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
In response to a later question from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Gates said he came to that conclusion during his service with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Until his nomination to lead the Pentagon, Gates was a member of the group, which is scheduled to formally release its long-anticipated recommendations on Iraq tomorrow.
Gates's view contradicted the appraisal publicly stated by Bush in an Oct. 25 news conference, when he said in response to a question, "Absolutely, we're winning" in Iraq. Bush added then, "As a matter of fact, my view is the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done."
Gates, 63, a former CIA director and national security adviser who spent 26 years in the intelligence community, was nominated by Bush to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld a day after the Nov. 7 midterm elections, which handed control of the House and Senate to the Democrats.
"What we are now doing is not satisfactory," Gates told the outgoing committee chairman, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).
Noting that Bush wants someone with "fresh eyes" to assess the situation in Iraq, the nominee said, "In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq, in terms of how we can be more successful and how we can, at some point, begin to draw down our forces."
He later said the options he regards as on the table include one recently listed in a memo by Rumsfeld: beginning modest U.S. withdrawals so that Iraqi leaders know they have to "pull up their socks" and take more responsibility for their country.
Gates also said his open-minded approach extends to the prospect that the United States might need to hold direct bilateral talks with Iran and Syria, a step that Bush so far has refused to consider. Iran, which is led by a Shiite Muslim theocracy, has been accused of meddling in neighboring Iraq by supplying and training Shiite militias. The Bush administration has charged that Syria has allowed radical Islamic foreign fighters to use its territory to infiltrate into Iraq and wage war against the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
Answering a question from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on whether Iraq is "the central battlefront in the war on terror," as Bush has repeatedly asserted, Gates voiced a more nuanced view.
"I think that it is one of the central fronts in the war on terror," he said. He cited "a metastasized terror threat" from radical Muslim "jihadists," or holy warriors, since the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, saying that "indigenous radicals" in countries such as Britain, Spain and the United States "are in fact planning terrorist operations and activities."
While Iraq "certainly is an important front in the war on terror," Gates said, "I think we face a more dispersed threat that's really a very amorphous kind of second front."
Gates said historians would decide whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do, although he acknowledged he supported the war when it was launched in March 2003.
"Was the decision to go in right? I think it's too soon to tell," Gates told the committee. His comment stood in sharp contrast to Bush's unwavering public certitude that he made the correct choice in ordering U.S. forces into Iraq to depose the regime of Saddam Hussein.
While he is open to new ideas, Gates said in his opening statement, he feels strongly that developments in Iraq will shape the future of the entire Middle East, possibly with dire consequences.
"Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly and steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk of a regional conflagration," he said.
Gates said his "greatest worry" about Iraq is that if U.S. forces leave the country "in chaos," a variety of regional powers will become involved, "and we will have a regional conflict on our hands."
More broadly, Gates said, when it comes to waging the war on terrorism, the United States must achieve the same kind of bipartisan agreement that prevailed over the generations during the Cold War. He said such consistency is "imperative" to carry on "this long war" in a way that America's enemies "don't think we're going to cut and run." He pledged to work with members of Congress from both parties "to see if we can forge that kind of bipartisan approach going forward" so that those who want to harm the United States "know we're in it for the long haul."
In Iraq, Gates said, the U.S. military presence is likely to continue for "a long time," although it could be "dramatically smaller" than the current level of 140,000 troops.
In examining the options in Iraq, Gates said he would "give most serious consideration to the opinions" of U.S. military commanders -- consideration that some of those commanders have privately complained Rumsfeld did not give them.
The nominee acknowledged that, in retrospect, the United States should have sent more forces into Iraq to control the country after the 2003 invasion. But he told a skeptical McCain that U.S. commanders in Iraq did not indicate they needed more troops during his consultations with them in Baghdad as a member of the Iraq Study Group.
Gates also said the U.S. "de-Baathification" policy after the invasion was a mistake and that members of Hussein's ruling Baath Party should have been offered a role in the new Iraq.
Warner opened the hearing by telling Gates, "You simply have to be fearless - I repeat, fearless" - in advising the president on Iraq and other critical defense matters. Gates responded later by saying that, especially because his decisions would have life or death consequences for U.S. troops, he had no intention of being "a bump on a log" and would express his views candidly.
Gates, who is president of Texas A&M University, said he has known some of the 12 university students who have been killed in Iraq. "This all comes down to being very personal for all of us," he said, noting specifically that 2,889 troops have died in Iraq as of yesterday.
Recently, he said, a woman approached him who has two sons serving in Iraq and pleaded with him, "For God's sake, bring them home safe."
"Now, that's real pressure," Gates told the committee.
After the morning session, Levin told reporters that he and his fellow Democrats thought Gates delivered "a very positive presentation" that "bodes well for a speedy confirmation" and for a "change in direction" in Iraq.
Today's hearing offered a glimpse into how aggressive Democratic lawmakers - many of whom are seeking a phased pullout of troops from Iraq - may be once they assume the Senate and House majorities in January.
If confirmed, Gates would take the helm at a time when the United States is pressing the fledgling Iraqi government and nascent military to crack down on Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni Muslim insurgents. The Bush administration also is planning to shift troops from elsewhere in Iraq into Baghdad in an effort to clamp down on violence; and, more broadly, is considering new options and strategies in Iraq in search of a way to resolve the entrenched, 3 1/2 -year-old military conflict.
In his opening remarks, Levin, who will assume the chairmanship of the committee in January, listed a string of what he called U.S. failures in Iraq. The administration failed to send in sufficient forces at the start, then "thoughtlessly disbanded the Iraqi army" and banned low-level Baathists from employment, Levin said. In the more than three years since, the United States has failed to secure Iraq, defeat the insurgency, disarm militias, create a viable police force, rebuild the economy or provide employment, he said.
"The next secretary of defense will have to deal with the consequences of those failures," Levin said.
Warner praised Gates's "long and distinguished record of service to the nation" and hailed the nomination of a new defense secretary at a time when, Warner said, change in Iraq policy is sorely needed. He urged Bush to review the Iraq Study Group's report and other policy recommendations, and then seek bipartisan consensus before formulating new Iraq strategies.
"To me, this fulfills a moral obligation that our government, executive and legislative, has to the brave men and women of the armed forces of the United States and their families, who have sacrificed very, very heavily," Warner said.
Gates is widely expected to be confirmed as defense secretary by the full Senate, likely before the end of the week, when Congress may adjourn for the year. But some Democrats indicated before today's hearing that they wanted to revisit old questions Gates faced in 1991, during a bruising battle to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the presidential term of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.
Levin opposed Gates's confirmation 15 years ago, in part because Gates had been accused of skewing intelligence reports while at the CIA. The senator has said he wants assurances that Gates will be more independent-minded in his new job.
Referring to Iraq, Levin told reporters before the hearing, "We've had enough [of] manipulating intelligence ... in order to give the policymakers what they wanted to hear."
Early this morning, Bush and Gates ate breakfast together at the White House, then appeared briefly before reporters so the president could endorse his nominee. "Bob Gates will be a fine secretary of defense," Bush said. "I hope for speedy confirmation so he can get sworn in and get to work.
"Those who wear the uniform know they'll have a friend in Bob Gates."
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.