Gates Says U.S. Is Not Winning Iraq War
Robert Gates, the White House choice to be the next defense secretary, conceded Tuesday that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq and warned that if that country is not stabilized in the next year or two it could lead to a "regional conflagration."
At the outset of his Senate confirmation hearing, Gates said he is open to new ideas about correcting the U.S. course in Iraq, which he said would be his highest priority if confirmed as expected.
Gates, 63, said he believes President Bush
wants to see Iraq improve to the point where it can govern and defend itself, while seeking a new approach. "What we are now doing is not satisfactory," Gates said.
"In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," he added.
Asked point-blank by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., whether the U.S. is winning in Iraq, Gates replied, "No, sir."
Much of the hearing's questioning focused on whether Gates would provide independent advice to Bush, and the former CIA director assured the committee that he would not shirk from that duty.
He said he did not give up his position as president of Texas A&M University and return to Washington to "be a bump on a log." He said he would speak his mind to both the president and the Congress.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a likely 2008 presidential candidate and an advocate of increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq, asked whether Gates believes the U.S. had too few troops at the outset of the war in 2003.
"I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration would not make the same decisions they made," including the number of troops in Iraq to establish control after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, Gates said.
He also told Levin he believes a political solution in Iraq is required to end the violence.
The confirmation hearing comes amid intensifying pressure on Bush to take a new approach in Iraq, reflecting the outcome of the Nov. 7 elections that put Democrats back in control of both houses of Congress. Democrats and some Republicans have pressed Bush to begin withdrawing some of the 140,000 U.S. troops.
U.S. deaths in Iraq are approaching 2,900 and a relentless insurgency and escalating sectarian violence are raising questions about whether Iraq will devolve into all-out civil war, and whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government can ever be effective.
"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 but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee
Bush has repeatedly refused the idea of a quick U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and said he wants to keep U.S. forces there until Iraq is able to govern and defend itself without being a haven for terrorists.
"It seems to me that the United States is going to have to have some kind of presence in Iraq for a long time ... but it could be with a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces than are there today," Gates said.
Meanwhile, Bush was getting an in-person preview Tuesday of a prestigious blue-ribbon panel's recommendations for a new way forward in Iraq. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Republican co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, was going to the White House for a luncheon meeting to give the president a heads up about "the direction of the report," White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
Snow said that Baker, however, was not leaving behind the full report or getting into too many specifics. The entire commission is to meet with Bush at 7 a.m. EDT Wednesday to do that, he said.
The White House sought to dampen expectations about the commission's long-awaited recommendations, expected to include calls for the U.S. to increase cooperation with rivals Iran and Syria and to begin withdrawing combat brigades from Iraq. The president has resisted both ideas.
"Everybody seems to look at the Baker-Hamilton commission as a rebuff to the White House, and we don't look at it that way. " Snow said. "If you're looking for a heavyweight battle, you're picking the wrong issue."
Gates, a former CIA director who has no experience in the Pentagon, was introduced at his confirmation hearing by former Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Gates' home state of Kansas, and former Sen. David Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee while Gates headed the CIA.
There has been little sign that Democrats, poised to take control of Congress in January, will block his nomination. In fact, key Democrats are eager to switch Pentagon chiefs as quickly as possible.
As defense secretary, Gates would have to work with a Democratic-led Congress. Reflecting that reality, Sen. John Warner
, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee for now, said Bush should solicit privately the opinions of Democrats before forging a new strategy on Iraq.
Gates, 63, was announced by Bush as his choice to replace Rumsfeld on Nov. 8, the day after congressional elections that were widely interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the administration's Iraq policy.
Levin was among 31 senators who voted against Gates to become CIA chief in 1991. During that year's hearings, Gates faced accusations by CIA officials that he manipulated intelligence as a senior analyst in the 1980s in order to support White House policy.
Also, some doubted he had told all he knew about the Iran-Contra scandal
, which erupted in 1986 after the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran
in hopes of freeing hostages in Lebanon, then used profits from the sales to help the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. If confirmed, as expected, Gates is likely to be sworn in as the nation's 22nd secretary of defense in mid-December.