ROBERT BURNS AP Military Writer WASHINGTON
Robert Gates, the White House choice to be the next defense secretary, conceded today 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.” He later said he believes the United States is neither winning nor losing, “at this point.” Gates was noncommital on questions about whether and when to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal. “It depends on the conditions on the ground under which troops were withdrawn,” he said, adding that he was not yet knowledgeable enough about conditions in Iraq to offer an opinion on how a troop withdrawal would affect the sectarian violence. He said that if confirmed, he would go to Iraq soon to consult with U.S. commanders on this and other complex questions about the way forward. 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 came 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 rejected 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. He said his biggest worry on Iraq is that if U.S. forces departed while the country was in chaos, then predominantly Sunni Arab countries in the region like Saudi Arabia and Turkey would intervene, further complicating the sectarian strife there. “The Turks would not sit idly by if they saw Iraq beginning to fall apart,” Gates said. Referring to the likelihood of Iran and other countries stepping into the chaos, he added, “All of that could spread rather dramatically.” Meanwhile, Bush was getting an in-person preview today 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 giving 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 longawaited 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.” There has been little sign that Democrats, poised to take control of Congress in January, will block Gates, and a vote by the full Senate is expected by Friday. 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.