WASHINGTON - Robert Gates, seemingly clinching confirmation as the new secretary of defense, said Tuesday the United States is not winning in Iraq and he's confident President Bush will listen to his ideas about forging a new war strategy.
He won speedy and unanimous approval from the Senate Armed Services Committee after five hours of testimony, a bipartisan show of support that suggested how eager many lawmakers are to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. The full Senate could seal Gates' confirmation as early as Wednesday.
"In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," he told the committee. But he also acknowledged the complexity of the challenge.
"There are no new ideas on Iraq," he said during a discussion of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which previewed its findings and recommendations to President Bush Tuesday and will release them Wednesday. Gates was a member of the group until Bush announced his nomination for the Pentagon job last month.
The senators voted 24-0 to support the nomination to replace Rumsfeld, who has become a symbol of the Bush administration's steadfast course in a war that has long since soured with the public and much of the world.
"I voted yes because in both the substance of his answers and the tone of his answers, he seemed open to course correction," said Carl Levin, D-Mich., who will be the committee's chairman when Democrats take control of the Senate next month.
During his appearance, Gates would not commit to any specific new course of action in the conflict. He said he would consult first with commanders and others.
Asked directly by Levin whether the U.S. is winning in Iraq, Gates replied, "No, sir." That response appeared to contradict Bush, who said at an Oct. 25 news conference, "Absolutely, we're winning."
Gates later said he believes the United States is neither winning nor losing, "at this point."
His statements on the war - and his professed openness to change - underscored pressures heaped on Bush since Democratic victories in last month's congressional elections, votes widely read as a rejection of the administration's steadfast course in the war.
Unrelenting violence by insurgents and between ethnic groups, and a U.S. death toll that has soared past 2,900, have raised questions about the effectiveness of Iraq's government. Bush in recent weeks has expressed a willingness to consider a fresh course in the war, but has shown no sign of a willingness to heed Democratic calls to start withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops.
Bush has said he wants to keep U.S. forces there until Iraq is able to govern and defend itself without being a haven for terrorists.
"It seems to me that the United States is going to have to have some kind of presence in Iraq for a long time ... but it could be with a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces than are there today," Gates said.
Iraq dominated the hearing, which began with Gates saying, "I am under no illusion why I am sitting before you today - the war in Iraq." Without mentioning Rumsfeld by name, Gates made clear that he hopes to find a strategy that is more effective in Iraq than the current Pentagon approach.
After lunch, Gates told the committee he wanted to amplify on his morning remark about not winning in Iraq. He said he did not want U.S. troops to think he believes they are being unsuccessful in their assigned missions.
"Our military wins the battles that we fight," Gates said. "Where we're having our challenges, frankly, are in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on." He said other federal agencies should do more in Iraq.
Gates, a former director of the CIA, fielded questions with apparent ease, acknowledging at times that he simply did not know the answer or needed more time for study. He was armed with details, such as the exact U.S. death count in Iraq (2,889 as of Monday, he said), and the number of extra troops NATO has been asked to provide in Afghanistan (2,500, he said).
There was little of the confrontational tone that sometimes emerged when the pricklier Rumsfeld testified before the same committee, which is responsible for overseeing the Defense Department.
If confirmed, Gates said, he planned to visit U.S. commanders and troops in Iraq "quite soon."
Gates, 63, said he believes Bush wants to see Iraq improve to the point where it can govern and defend itself, while seeking a new approach. "What we are now doing is not satisfactory," Gates said.
On other high-priority subjects, Gates said:
- He worries about the prospect of growing Iranian influence in Iraq.
- He would be open to the idea of direct talks with Iran and Syria about stabilizing Iraq.
- He is uncertain whether the Army and Marine Corps need to expand, as many in Congress advocate.
- He is "sympathetic to the notion" of adding more U.S. or allied troops in Afghanistan.
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow was pressed by reporters about Gates' remark that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq. Snow said Gates' overall testimony showed he shares Bush's view that the U.S. must help Iraq govern and defend itself.
"I know you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the president, it doesn't exist," Snow told reporters.
Gates said he came to some of his conclusions during his time on the Iraqi Study Group, but he did not say what information or testimony in that process led him.
Asked whether announcing a specific troop withdrawal timetable would send a signal of U.S. weakness, he said it "would essentially tell (the insurgents) how long they have to wait until we're gone."
Gates also expressed concern about political divisions in Iraq. Unless the dominant Shiite faction shows a new willingness to share power and national wealth with the minority Sunnis and Kurds, then the country will fracture, and "it will not be long before we have a government in Baghdad that is as hostile as the one in Tehran," he said.
Much of the questioning from panel members focused on whether Gates was committed to providing unvarnished advice to Bush. He assured the committee he would not shirk from that duty.
He said he did not give up his position as president of Texas A&M University and return to Washington to "be a bump on a log."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a likely 2008 presidential candidate and an advocate of increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq, asked whether Gates believes the U.S. had too few troops at the outset of the war in 2003.
"I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration would not make the same decisions they made," including the number of troops in Iraq to establish control after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Gates said.
"Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration," Gates said.