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A call for bipartisan work on Iraq

The Defense secretary says the presidential candidates should be thinking ahead about the war on terrorism.

January 28, 2008|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — If Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had his way, the protracted presidential nomination battles underway in the Republican and Democratic parties would end sooner rather than later.

"Once somebody contemplates the prospect that they may be president of the United States, they're going to begin thinking about what they're going to inherit," Gates said in an interview. "And I think it will be, regardless of party, a sobering realization."

It is unusual for a sitting Defense secretary to comment on an ongoing presidential campaign. Gates acknowledged it might "be an inappropriate thing to say."

But when he was nominated in 2006, Gates set for himself the improbable goal of finding a bipartisan agreement for the divisive U.S. involvement in Iraq. Cooling the overheated war debate of the nomination process, he said, is one step toward a plan that both parties can generally accept.

Whether Gates can succeed in such a quest before he leaves the Pentagon in a year will be one of the most closely watched dramas of the waning days of the Bush administration.

"This is quite unique to have the secretary of Defense really thinking about these issues, certainly at this point of time," said John P. Burke, a presidential historian at the University of Vermont who has studied transitions between administrations.

In an interview this month marking the midpoint of his expected two-year stint, Gates acknowledged that the country might never come together around the deeply contested issue of Iraq, but insisted there were areas of commonality.

"I think that if we can get the situation in Iraq to the point where people see it's headed in the right direction, then maybe we can focus on the broader elements of the war on terror, and that's where I think there is a much broader degree of agreement," Gates said.

"Personally, I think consensus is out of the question," he said. "What I'm talking about is a broad bipartisan agreement that sustaining some level of presence there for a longer term, for stabilization, is important."

His top goal is cementing the gains by U.S. forces over the last year. But Gates considers it essential that the two parties forge a common ground on Iraq, just as they did during the Cold War, so that the military gains do not evaporate when the next administration takes office.

Historians have their doubts about his chances for success.

"Even at times of war or great international stress, there's an effort to rethink previous policies," said Paul C. Light, an expert on government transitions at New York University. "The incoming administration believes that the transition plan is really an effort to extend the influence of the prior administration, and they generally say, 'We're going to do it differently. We're going to be better.' "

The White House changed hands during wartime in 1952 and 1968. But in neither era did the country's Defense officials make efforts to ensure a continuity of policy.

"There wasn't, to my knowledge, anything that would resemble an effort by Clark Clifford, who was secretary of Defense [in 1968], to sit back and think about what the new administration needs to do," Burke said.

Gates' comments reflect his views of the duties of national security professionals: to put aside partisan rancor in the interest of cool-headed, rational analysis of international crises.

Gates hasn't always managed to steer clear of the political fray. But Democrats on Capitol Hill have given Gates high marks for his efforts over the last year to reach out, particularly on Iraq policy. He has met repeatedly with some of the war's most outspoken critics in Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.).

In October, Gates appointed John J. Hamre, the deputy Defense secretary under President Clinton, to chair the Defense Policy Board, the official advisory panel to the Defense secretary once headed by Richard Perle, a leading war advocate.

"He is far more open-minded, far more willing to listen to other ideas; he welcomes other ideas, he solicits ideas," Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters recently. "This is not just something personal, about body language and tone. This is substance."

But there have been signs of strain. During the pre-Christmas fight over war spending, Gates chastised Democrats for meddling in war planning by attempting to insert a withdrawal timeline into its annual funding bill.

Democratic leaders relented, but demands for a faster withdrawal are likely to resurface in March, when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, is expected to unveil his next round of recommendations.

Part of Gates' challenge is to mend long-festering political wounds.

"Most recent secretaries did think they were responsible for bipartisan support for defense policy," Hamre said. "But Bob Gates is a unique figure in that he had to rebuild it, not just sustain it."

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