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Gates Cites U.s. Flaws In Iraq Policy

Defense nominee says troop strength after invasion was insufficient.

Panel Oks Nomination

Candid responses are praised by both parties.

December 06, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to become Defense secretary, testified Tuesday that the United States was not winning the war in Iraq and said he would consider new courses of action, including a gradual withdrawal of American troops.

Appearing before a Senate committee weighing his confirmation, Gates proved a sharp contrast to outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who repeatedly and briskly defended the Bush administration's conduct of the war and its ultimate merit before his resignation last month.

Just hours after the hearing, the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved Gates' nomination. He could take office this month once he receives the backing of the full Senate, expected to come this afternoon.

Gates labeled several administration decisions on Iraq as clear mistakes that compounded the problems in the country.

"I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration probably would not make the same decisions that they made," Gates said. "There clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country."

Gates diverged from administration positions on several occasions during five hours of questioning. He also said the U.S. erred in disbanding the Iraqi military after its defeat and went too far in removing Baathist Party officials from government -- key administration moves blamed for allowing violence and disorder to spread.

Gates' more conciliatory approach at the hearing seemed to mark a new phase in which recriminations over the war's origins give way to debates over how to extricate American forces without leaving chaos behind.

"Thank you for your candor," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a potential presidential contender, told Gates. "That's something that has been sorely lacking from the current occupant in the position you seek to hold."

The tone Tuesday was unlike any of scores of hearings in recent years on Iraq, as the military's predicament and congressional impatience and anxiety have grown more acute. Gates responded simply and directly to questions that might have provoked a furor with Rumsfeld.

"Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?" asked Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"No, sir," Gates replied without elaboration.

Gates' assessment, markedly more dismal than any advanced by the administration, conflicted with Bush's claim as recently as six weeks ago at a major White House news conference that, "Absolutely we're winning."

Gates, a supporter of the war in 2003, 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."

Swift Senate approval?

Gates' testimony put the White House on the defensive, forcing the administration to insist that Gates shared Bush's views on the importance of building an Iraqi government that could sustain and defend itself.

"I know that you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the president," White House spokesman Tony Snow said during a news briefing. "It doesn't exist."

Quick approval by the Senate would differ from Gates' months-long confirmation process in 1991, when he was nominated to become CIA director. Then, Gates was grilled on accusations that he bullied analysts into shaping intelligence to fit the Reagan administration's worldview.

Some of the questions were raised again Tuesday. Democrats as well as Republicans pressed Gates about whether he would be honest with Bush in his views of Iraq, even if they were pessimistic, and insisted he allow military leaders to be equally blunt in their assessments. Rumsfeld has been accused of stifling dissent within the Pentagon.

Gates promised to welcome differing views and insisted he would pull no punches.

"I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M, the job that I've probably enjoyed more than any that I have ever had ... to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log," Gates said. "I can assure you that I don't owe anybody anything."

Gates was praised for his answers by Republicans and Democrats as his responses indicated that all options were on the table, even though some were contradictory.

Although Gates was intentionally vague about which strategic route he preferred -- refusing to answer some questions on troop levels until he consulted with military commanders -- he drew several lines. He was cool toward a firm timetable for withdrawal, saying it would telegraph to U.S. adversaries how long they needed to wait before relaunching an attack on the Iraqi government.

But he acknowledged that the number of U.S. troops did not constitute an "overwhelming force" and signaled he was open to enlarging the size of the Army and Marine Corps in order to find more troops for Iraq.

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