Robert M. Gates is the choice of a politically weakened administration to prosecute a war increasingly seen as militarily unwinnable. But Gates met with great anticipation at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on December 5, during which he often delivered candid comments about the challenges involved in stabilizing Iraq. Gates, who will succeed Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, said near the outset of his hearing that the United States is not winning in Iraq (Reuters), which seemed to clash with comments by President Bush (Editor & Publisher). Fielding numerous queries from Republican and Democratic senators on Iraq, Gates also said “all options are on the table,” although he did not spell out his preferences. He won unanimous approval from the panel and nearly unanimous approval (WashPost) from the Senate.
Gates directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the administration of George H.W. Bush after a long career in the agency as well as a stint on the National Security Council. He acquired the reputation among some as “the consummate realist and pragmatist,” in the words of Gary G. Sick, an expert on Iran who worked with Gates at the White House in the 1970s. Gates cochaired a 2004 CFR Task Force on Iran that called for sustained engagement with Tehran on a range of issues. A Financial Times portrait said of Gates: “Most of Washington and the international community will be reassured simply by his presence—and his predecessor’s absence.” And even top Senate Democrats, like Carl Levin (D-MI), who voted against Gates after tough hearings for the CIA job in 1991, offered gracious words at the December 5 hearing.
Gates’ hearing, and the December 6 release of the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, could signal a new direction in U.S. policy on resolving the war in Iraq. But in closed session, Gates was still expected to revisit scrutiny from his difficult 1991 confirmation hearings on his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair as well as allegations he shaped intelligence (NPR) on the Soviet Union to suit the views of powerful officials in the Reagan administration. Gates assured Armed Services Committee members of his independence and willingness to speak candidly to the White House, saying “I don’t owe anybody anything” (McClatchy).
Lawmakers from both parties appear to be especially keen for signs of the flexibility that Rumsfeld lacked, at least until his eleventh-hour memo calling for a “major adjustment” in Iraq war policy. President Bush has rejected the notion of the bipartisan commission being used as political cover for a withdrawal from Iraq, even as the country resembles a civil war in the view of a number of experts.