Secretary Gates agrees to work on war message in meeting with GOP senators

President Obama has a problem with mixed messages about when American troops will leave Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates  told Senate Republicans.

At a meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Republicans complained about inconsistency among political, policy and military leaders in the administration, telling Gates this cast doubt on U.S. military resolve. Gates agreed and pledged to do what he could to fix the problem.

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One GOP senator said, “[Gates] said he was frustrated with the mixed messages coming from the administration and was doing everything he could to fix that. But he did not say what the official position is.”

The senator said he and his colleagues don’t know how many troops will be withdrawn or whether the goal to begin withdrawing troops next July is fixed or depends on conditions in the war theater.

Neither he nor other senators who were at the meeting with Gates would speak openly because it was private and caucus rules prohibit their doing so.

A second senator who was there said Gates did not raise the subject of the administration’s mixed messages but agreed that the complaint was valid and needed to be addressed.

“In answer to a question, he acknowledged mixed messages and said he was doing his best to make the messages consistent,” the second senator said.

Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, said Gates acknowledged that some in the administration have sent mixed messages about the withdrawal deadline but the secretary told Republicans that Obama has always been clear about his policy.

“There’s been no confusion within the administration over policy because the president has been very, very clear,” said Morrell.

The spokesman said July 2011 marks “a transition in our military posture — it doesn’t mean we’re running for the exits.

“How the drawdown proceeds and from where and how many forces will be determined by conditions on the ground,” he said. “It won’t be driven by politics or arbitrary determinations.”

Gates was appointed to his post atop the Pentagon by President George W. Bush in 2006. When Obama decided, immediately after winning the November 2008 presidential election, to retain Gates, the decision was widely welcomed as pragmatic and astute, although there were some who questioned whether it fulfilled the promise of “change.”

Gates’s Tuesday meeting covered a range of national security topics, but chief among them was the timing of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

One lawmaker said he was reassured by Gates, who indicated that troops would not be withdrawn arbitrarily. “He gave a more nuanced answer; he said it was not a hard-and-fast deadline,” said the senator.

The Obama administration has been criticized for a lack of consistency since the president last year announced his plan for withdrawing troops.

During a December speech at West Point, Obama said he planned to “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011.”

But Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later qualified that target.

A day after Obama’s speech, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that administration officials and military leaders would meet in December to evaluate “whether we believe we will meet that objective.”

At the same hearing, Clinton added to the ambiguity.

“I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving, but what we have done ... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan,” Clinton told the committee.

Vice President Joe Biden was quoted in The Promise, by Jonathan Alter, predicting a major withdrawal of troops.

“In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole of people moving out, bet on it,” Biden is quoted as saying.

But Gates later contradicted that prediction in a television interview.

Gen. David Petraeus signaled mixed feelings about the July date when he testified before the Armed Services panel last month.

When Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) asked him whether his statement of support for the withdrawal date represented his best “personal” and “professional judgment,” Petraeus took an unusually long time to answer.

“In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines,” Petraeus hedged. “There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply a race for the exits.”

He was testifying in his capacity as leader of the U.S. Central Command. He has since taken over the job of senior commander in Afghanistan, replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Obama fired McChrystal last month after he and his aides gave a series of interviews to Rolling Stone magazine in which they questioned the administration’s handling of the war.

“This administration can’t have one person speaking to a political element and others speaking to the military situation and others speaking to the geopolitical element; we’ve got to get the team working together and have one person talking about it, and it should be the president,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former Marine.

Roberts said there are different messages coming from officials within the administration who want to assure the liberal Democratic base that the war will end soon and military experts who argue the conflict requires patient commitment.

Levin said the administration has become more unified in its message on the war strategy.

“The administration voices have gotten more consistent,” Levin said. “There was one moment when there was a lack of consistency, but that was gone weeks ago and the administration has been strong and consistent.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a national security and defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said an ambiguous policy is helpful to the president.

“Obama wants the flexibility,” said O’Hanlon. “Because he’s reserving the option to essentially declare the mission a failure and pull out next year, he’s not going to eliminate the ambiguity.”

But O’Hanlon said Senate Republicans are putting “too much stock in this one issue.”

“The weakness of the Afghan government is a much more fundamental problem” than questions about U.S. resolve to continue the fight, O’Hanlon said.

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Gates urged Republicans at the meeting to support a supplemental military spending bill to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, warning that it was difficult to shift Pentagon funds to keep troops supplied.

He also asked Republicans to ratify the START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. One lawmaker asked how the administration would pay the $5 billion in estimated implementation costs.

The lawmaker, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said there is not enough room in the Defense Department budget to cover the treaty without taking crucial funds away from important programs.