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Senators support Pentagon nominee

WASHINGTON -- Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to be defense secretary, won unanimous approval from a Senate committee on Tuesday after testifying that the United States was not winning in Iraq and that American failure there could ignite "...

WASHINGTON -- Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to be defense secretary, won unanimous approval from a Senate committee on Tuesday after testifying that the United States was not winning in Iraq and that American failure there could ignite "a regional conflagration" in the Middle East.

At one point, Gates said it was "too soon to tell" whether the U.S. invasion of 2003 had been a good idea. He added: "My greatest worry if we mishandle the next year or two and leave Iraq in chaos is that a variety of regional powers will become involved in Iraq, and we will have a regional conflict on our hands."

Gates is expected to win confirmation from the full Senate as early as today to succeed Donald Rumsfeld. At the all-day hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrats and Republicans praised what they called Gates' refreshing candor.

Gates gave few firm signals on Tuesday about his own favored options for Iraq, but portrayed himself as a flexible realist, open to all options for adjusting U.S. strategy. But he made clear that he had concerns about a rapid U.S. drawdown, and said that the recommendations to be made public today by the Iraq Study Group would be important but not "the last word."

"It's my impression that frankly there are no new ideas on Iraq," Gates said, pointing out that there are multiple other government reviews under way. "The question is: Is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a way forward?"

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The group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, is expected to propose that U.S. combat troops be pulled back from Iraq, but not necessarily withdrawn, by sometime in 2008.

In 2003, Gates supported the administration's decision to invade Iraq. But on Tuesday, he declined to answer a question from Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., about whether he now believed the invasion was a good idea.

"Frankly, senator, I think that's a judgment that the historians are going to have to make," Gates said. "Was the decision to go in right? I think it's too soon to tell."

In his testimony, however, he made clear that his operating style and approach would be in some respects different from those of Rumsfeld and his deputies, who have led the Defense Department for nearly six years. Gates expressed grave reservations about taking military action against Iran, an idea that the Bush administration has not ruled out in trying to halt its nuclear program.

"I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort," Gates said. "I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable. And I think that the consequences of a conflict, a military conflict, with Iran could be quite dramatic. And therefore, I would counsel against military action, except as a last resort."

Gates said he also opposed any attack on Syria, which the Bush administration has criticized, along with Iran, for contributing to instability in Iraq.

Gates' most direct statements about Iraq came during exchanges with Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who will take over as the committee's chairman, and John McCain of Arizona, who will become the top-ranking Republican.

"Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?" asked Levin, who has pushed for announcing a date to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. "No, sir," Gates replied, adding that he did not believe that the United States was losing, either.

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Gates said he agreed with Levin that it was "worth looking into" withdrawing troops to instill a "sense of urgency" in the Iraqi government to resolve sectarian strife.

Moments later, under questioning from McCain, Gates said there had not been sufficient troops in Iraq immediately after the 2003 invasion. If confirmed, he said, he would consult with ground commanders about whether they wanted additional forces.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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