Gates Gets Thumbs Up From Senate Committee

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With unanimous approval from the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Texas A&M President Robert Gates is a full Senate vote away from becoming the nation's Secretary of Defense.

In his statements to the committee, Robert Gates showed no doubt about why he was present: the President came calling.

"He wants me to take a fresh look, and all options are on the table," Gates said. He would also add, "I am under no illusion why I am sitting before you today: the war in Iraq."

The headline grabber on what was, by all accounts, a productive, non-controversial hearing came off a question by the ranking Democrat on the committee, Carl Levin of Michigan.

"Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq," Levin asked.

Gates responded, "No, sir."

Arizona's Republican Senator, John McCain, was next to question Gates. "I'd like to follow on what Senator Levin said, 'We are not winning the war in Iraq.' Is that correct?"

"That is my view, yes, sir," Gates answered.

"And therefore, the status quo is not acceptable," McCain followed up.

"That is correct, sir," Gates said.

On the surface, those statements contradict the long-standing White House remarks that the country is, indeed, succeeding in Iraq. Following a recess in the hearing, Gates would clarify his remarks, saying the US is neither winning nor losing in Iraq as a whole.

"Our soldiers have done and incredible job in Iraq and I'm not aware of a single battle that they have lost," Gates told the committee.

And the fact that President Bush will make the final calls on policy was a point Gates was quick to hammer home.

"I am willing to commit that if I am confirmed, I'll be independent, that I will consider all of the options," Gates said, "but as I indicated in my opening statement, there is still only one President of the United States."

And after Tuesday, the president's nominee is one step closer to become Secretary Gates.

The full Senate vote could come as early as Wednesday.

Texas A&M was the topic of a couple of comments during the hearing.

"We know you left a very comfortable life in Texas to serve this nation again, and we are grateful," said McCain. "I'd like to offer my congratulations and condolences for your appointment." Gates offered up a laugh at the remark.

In what was a fairly smooth day of questioning, Gates seemed to relish the few moments that the school he leads was mentioned in passing, in jest, and in rivalry.

"You could let Texas A&M go a little easy on Kansas and Kansas State, but that's a whole other matter," said Kansas Republican Pat Roberts.

Gates also made mention of the fact that his wife was with the women's basketball team in Washington State.

But it was questioning from Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy that brought out one of the most poignant moments of the day, as the Democrat asked for assurances that Gates would lead the troops with courage.

"Let them know that you're the person ready to do it," Kennedy asked Gates.

"Twelve graduates of Texas A&M have been killed in Iraq," Gates would say. "I would run in the morning with some of those kids. I'd have lunch with them. They'd share with me their aspirations and their hopes. And I'd hand them their degree. I'd attend their commissioning, and then, I would get word of their death. So this all comes down to being very personal for all of us.

"I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M, the job that I've probably enjoyed more than any that I've ever had, making considerable personal financial sacrifice, and, frankly, going through this process, to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log."

The following are Associated Press reports from throughout the day Monday:

CAPITOL HILL -- Robert Gates is a step closer to being the next defense secretary.

The Senate Armed Services committee has unanimously voted 21-0 to confirm him. Chairman John Warner announced the result after the panel held a closed-door session with Gates.

During the public hearing, Gates told the committee that "all options are on the table" when it comes to forging a new approach to the war in Iraq. He also raised eyebrows by twice saying the US is not winning in Iraq. He later added he believes the US is neither winning nor losing "at this point."

After a mid-day break, Gates stressed his comment "pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole."

The full senate could vote on Gates' nomination as early as tomorrow.


CAPITOL HILL -- Robert Gates knows that it's the remark that attracted a lot of the attention at his Senate confirmation hearing this morning. And now, he wants to clarify things.

This morning, the nominee to be Defense Secretary told Democratic Senator Carl Levin that the US is not winning in Iraq. He added that he believes the US is neither winning nor losing "at this point."

After a mid-day break, Gates resumed his testimony by telling the committee he wanted to amplify on his remarks. He said, "I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole."

He also said he doesn't want US troops to think he believes they are being unsuccessful in their assigned missions. He says, "Our military wins the battles that we fight." Gates says the problems are "in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on."

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow insisted there's no disagreement between Gates and President Bush. He said they agree that the US must help Iraq govern and defend itself.


WHITE HOUSE -- The White House isn't about to get into a debate with Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates over his statement that the US isn't winning the war in Iraq.

Gates delivered that assessment during his Senate confirmation hearing today. When pressed later, he said the US isn't currently winning or losing the war.

White House spokesman Tony Snow says when you look at all of the Gates testimony, it's clear that he shares President Bush's view that the US must help Iraq govern and defend itself.

Snow says reporters "want to pit a fight" between Gates and Bush -- but that it "doesn't exist."

He also rejected any suggestion that the statement from Gates would be demoralizing to US troops.

Instead, Snow criticized as "demoralizing" what he describes as "a constant effort to try to portray this as a losing mission."


CAPITOL HILL -- Is Iraq in a civil war?

When asked that question today, the man expected to be America's new defense secretary says the situation there is "more complex than a single title."

Robert Gates is telling Congress that the presence of US forces in Iraq is clearly used as a provocation by some involved in the violence. But asked if withdrawing troops would decrease sectarian violence -- or cause chaos -- Gates says it depends on the conditions left behind.

Before being nominated, Gates was on the Iraq Study Group, which is expected to report tomorrow on possible options for the war. Gates says if confirmed, one of the first things he'd do is go to Iraq and hear what commanders on the ground think of the various options.


CAPITOL HILL -- A warning against leaving Iraq in "chaos" from President Bush's pick for defense secretary.

At his confirmation hearing, Robert Gates says that scenario would likely turn the war there into a regional conflict. And he warns that other Sunni countries won't allow the Sunnis in Iraq to become what he calls "victims of an ethnic cleansing."

Noting that the Iranians already have a hand in Iraq, Gates contends they could become more harmful. Ditto for Syria. And he believes Turkey and Saudi Arabia could also become involved.


CAPITOL HILL -- Tough talk from the man expected to be America's next Pentagon chief.

Robert Gates is telling a Senate panel he's not quitting a job he enjoys, and making a financial sacrifice, just to be what he calls a "bump on a log."

In vowing to be independent, Gates insists he doesn't "owe anybody anything." And he says he'll tell both the White House and Congress exactly what he thinks.

On another matter, Gates says a military attack on Iran would be "an absolute last resort." He warns there could be "quite dramatic" consequences. Gates says the Iraq war has shown that "once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable."

He warns that while Iran is not being helpful in Iraq, diplomacy still should be the first option in dealing with them.


CAPITOL HILL -- Asked if he believes America is currently winning in Iraq, the president's choice for defense secretary bluntly told a senator, "No, sir."

That was Robert Gates' answer when the question came up at his confirmation hearing this morning. And it led Democratic Senator Carl Levin to thank Gates for what he calls a "refreshing breath of reality."

Gates is telling the Senate Armed Services Committee the US will have to have "some presence in Iraq for a long time." He notes that with the Iraqis lacking things like air power and logistical know-how, America will still have to provide some form of support, regardless of any strategy change.

Republican Senator John McCain offered Gates "congratulations and condolences" on his appointment. McCain has been pushing to send more troops to Iraq, and Gates says he's open to that. But Gates says he first wants to make sure the military is already making the best use of its forces.


CAPITOL HILL -- President Bush's choice for a new defense secretary is telling a Senate panel the Iraq war will be his "highest priority."

Robert Gates say he's "under no illusions" about why he's in line for the job, adding he didn't seek it, but answered Bush's call.

Gates is telling lawmakers that developments in Iraq over the next year or two will greatly shape events to come in the Mideast and elsewhere. He says things could steadily improve -- or there's the "very real risk and possibility" of greater Mideast trouble. He warns Iraq can't be left "in chaos."

Incoming Armed Services Committee Carl Levin told Gates a "monumental challenge" awaits him. The Michigan Democrat says Gates will have to pick up the pieces of what he calls "broken policies and mistaken priorities."

Republican John Warner says he'd like the hearing to end today.


CAPITOL HILL -- A leading Senate Republican will call on President Bush to include Democrats in the Iraq debate at the start of today's confirmation hearing for Robert Gates as defense secretary.

In his opening statement, Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner will say the president has a "moral obligation" to privately solicit the opinions of Democrats, who will take over control of Congress next month.

Bush is rethinking his policy in Iraq and awaits the recommendations of an independent bipartisan panel and an internal assessment of US options before making any decisions.

After returning from Iraq in early October, Warner said that if the situation did not improve within three months, the US should reconsider its options.


WHITE HOUSE -- President Bush has expressed support for his nominee to be defense secretary ahead of Senate confirmation hearings today.

In a brief appearance with Robert Gates at the White House this morning, Bush says he'll be a fine defense secretary and hopes for a speedy confirmation. Bush says US military personnel know they "have a friend in Bob Gates."

Meantime, when hearings convene, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel will suggest that Bush consult with Democrats about any Iraq policy changes.

John Warner's opening remarks say President Bush has a "moral obligation" to US troops and their families.

In written testimony to the panel, Gates said he opposes a quick withdrawal of US forces.

Gates' confirmation is assured. No senator has spoken out against him.