Gates says U.S. is not winning in Iraq' heads for confirmation

Robert Gates, President Bush’s nominee to become the next secretary of defense, yesterday admitted that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq.

Senate critics of the war saw the nominee’s opinion, given in a response during his nomination hearing, as a sharp departure from the president’s position in late October — that America was “absolutely” winning.

Asked by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, whether he thought the United States was winning in Iraq, Gates answered, “No, sir.”

The committee yesterday endorsed the Gates nomination unanimously. The full Senate will likely vote on the nomination by the end of this week.

In the second part of his hearing, Gates refined his view, saying he agreed with a statement by Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, “We are not winning, but we are not losing.” Gates said he did not want to give troops in Iraq the impression that he thought they were failing in their mission.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prospective 2008 presidential candidate, asked the same question as Levin and used his time to express frustration that the U.S. military does not have enough troops in Iraq.

He has been pushing for more troops in Iraq, a view considered unpopular, as has his close ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

McCain is heeding the call of several military leaders who said at the onset of the war in Iraq that the U.S. needed more troops to stabilize the country after the invasion. Gates acknowledged that the United States should have sent more in 2003.

“At this particular point … when the suggestion is made, as the situation deteriorates and the status quo is not acceptable, that we reduce troops or, as General [John] 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 as the situation — boots on the ground — as the situation deteriorated?” McCain asked Gates at the hearing.

“That’s a non sequitur that I have yet found to — I’m unable to intellectually embrace,” the senator concluded.

Levin has pushed for swift withdrawal of U.S. troops and is due to become the armed services panel chairman in January. McCain will be the ranking GOP member.

Gates cautioned that setting a timetable for withdrawal would tell extremists “how long they have to wait until we’re gone.”

But Levin said he would still press for a phased troop withdrawal.

Gates, a former CIA director, said there are no new ideas on Iraq, but “all options are on the table.”

His nomination hearing came just a day before the congressionally created, bipartisan Iraq Study Group is due to release its policy recommendations.

Gates said these recommendations will not be the be-all, end-all and that he would be open to a wide range of ideas and proposals on Iraq, including an analysis conducted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other reports commissioned by the White House.

Gates said that as soon as he is confirmed he would travel to Iraq to seek advice, including that of Gen. George Casey, commander of multi-national forces Iraq, and Abizaid, head of the Central Command. If confirmed, he said, he would immediately consult other military leaders and Congress.

America would be in Iraq a long time because the Iraqi military does not have any logistics or airpower of its own, he added.

He was open to new ideas, he said, but developments in Iraq would 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.

His greatest “worry” was that if U.S. forces left the country “in chaos,” regional powers including Iran and Syria would get involved “and we will have a regional conflict on our hands.”

The likely 2008 presidential candidates praised Gates for his open-mindedness and candor, but pressed him to prove his independence from Vice President Dick Cheney.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) asked Gates what made him believe the president would heed his advice after shooting down advice from prominent figures in his administration, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

“Senator, because he asked me to take the job,” Gates answered, adding that the situation has changed since other political appointees were asked to serve five years ago.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), another high-profile candidate for the presidency, was skeptical that President Bush would look at all alternatives.

“Based on your experience, do you believe that the president, the vice president and the existing secretary of defense are intelligent men?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied

Clinton: “Are they patriotic men?”

Gates: “Absolutely.”

Clinton: “Do they care about our men and women in uniform?”

Gates: “Absolutely.”

Clinton: “Do they believe that the decisions they have made for the last five years have been in America’s best interest?”

Gates: “I have not had that discussion. I’m sure that they believe that they were in the country’s best interest.”

Gates told Clinton that the process of changing strategy and tactics in Iraq would proceed with “considerable urgency.”

Levin opposed Gates’s confirmation 15 years ago, in part because Gates had been accused of skewing intelligence reports while at the CIA. This time around he said that he wants to ensure that Gates is independent-minded.