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Gates' main appeal as he seeks confirmation: He's not Rumsfeld

The Defense secretary nominee also wins praise from both sides of Congress for having an open mind on U.S. strategy in Iraq.

December 06, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Once one of the most controversial men in Washington, Robert M. Gates stepped into what passes in the nation's capital for a congressional love-fest Tuesday for the simple reason that he was not Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The last time around, when Gates was nominated to head the CIA in 1991, the hearings stretched over months -- with the nominee facing hundreds of tough, personal questions. This time, Gates, nominated to become secretary of Defense, was questioned publicly for less than a day. Few, if any, of the questions could be considered difficult.

The soft-spoken Gates, it seemed, could do no wrong, eliciting praise from Republicans and Democrats for his "candor" and "forthrightness."

In addition to not being Rumsfeld, Gates had the decided advantage of not having yet made up his mind on U.S. strategy in Iraq. And so, as various senators laid out their competing plans for the future of Iraq -- more trainers, more troops, fewer troops, hard deadlines -- Gates could answer that every option was on the table.

Gates told Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), who favors increasing forces, that if confirmed he would inquire as to whether the military commanders wanted more American forces, and said he would consider increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps.

Gates told Sen. Carl M. Levin (D.-Mich.), who favors withdrawing U.S. troops as a way to force Iraqis to take more responsibility, that such an option also would be considered.

Even on the question of winning and losing, Gates was able to have it both ways.

When Levin, now a war skeptic, asked whether the U.S. was winning in Iraq, Gates answered "no." But when Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) asked whether the nominee agreed that the United States was not losing, Gates was able to say: "Yes, sir. At this point."

Gates gave few hints of precisely where he was inclined to try to steer U.S. policy. But he did say the new strategy probably would be a mix of the ideas for strategic changes that are being discussed.

"It's my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq," Gates said. "The list of tactics, the list of strategies, the list of approaches is pretty much out there, and the question is: Is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a path forward?"

It may appear unlikely that Gates can craft a policy that combines both Levin's call for a scheduled draw-down with McCain's demand that the military send in more troops for a last attempt to win the war.

But Gates could well intend to try. He told Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a war supporter, that he agreed to take the Defense Department job because he saw the need to help create a basic foreign policy that both Republicans and Democrats agreed with -- akin to the broad accord that prevailed during the Cold War.

"I think that it is imperative in this long war on terrorism that we face, that could go on for a generation, that there be a bipartisan agreement," Gates said.

To that sentiment, Gates added exactly what the committee members wanted to hear: a promise that he would work with them to craft the policy.

Inclusion is not something Rumsfeld was keen on offering the Senate. And throughout the day, it seemed as if Gates was working hard to come off as the anti-Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld, both with Congress and the media, had a habit of restating questions to make them more to his liking before embarking on long answers. Gates appears to favor the more straightforward "yes" and "no."

While Rumsfeld would offer up a belittling "goodness gracious" or a strategic pause when presented a supposition with which he disagreed, Gates was taking all comers seriously Tuesday.

After Gates suggested the U.S. would capture Osama bin Laden when someone close to the Al Qaeda leader turned him in to collect the reward, Sen. Ben Nelson (D.-Neb.) asked for Gates' opinion on a plan to increase the bounty by $1 million a week.

"Sort of 'Terrorist Powerball,' " Gates quipped.

But a moment later, intent on including all suggestions, Gates added: "I'm certainly open to that, senator."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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