Dr. Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, got off to a bit of a rocky start in his role as the perspective administration representative in charge of America's warfighting capability. On Tuesday, in his one day of testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates managed to stir up a whirlwind of controversy with a single two-word answer: "No, sir."
These words, uttered in response to Senator Carl Levin's (D-Mich.) pointed question, "Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?," set Gates up, in the eyes of both the media and the Democrats, as a welcome opponent to the administration's current point of view on the war, as exemplified by President Bush, who said at an Oct. 25 news conference, "Absolutely, we're winning."
Though he tried to mitigate his position after lunch, saying that he did not want troops to think he believes they failing in their mission, Gates was unable to convince many that his later-adopted stance of "we are neither winning nor losing at this point" was accurate - especially since, when specifically asked by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) whether he agreed with his statement to Levin, he confirmed his previous response.
US and foreign media outlets, including terrorist-friendly Al-Jazeera, immediately ran with Gates's comments under blaring headlines like "Gates: US not winning Iraq war," and in articles which prominently featured a loose quotation of his statement regarding the lack of stability in Iraq, and the potential for a "regional conflagration."
This earned Presidential spokesman Tony Snow some heat at Tuesday evening’s press conference. One reporter asked the press secretary if he thought that it was "demoralizing" for the potential Secretary of Defense "to say to troops out in the field who hear this that America is not winning the war," to which Snow responded:
What I think is demoralizing is a constant effort to try to portray this as a losing mission. You know what you ought to do? You ought to talk to some of the troops when they come back. Give them a call. I think you'll find that they are committed to the mission, and furthermore, you will find that Bob Gates, in his testimony today, did nothing to give the indication that he lacks confidence in either the mission or the people conducting it.Though Gates attempted to further moderate his response by saying, "Our military wins the battles that we fight," and by adding, "Where we're having our challenges, frankly, are in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on," it was too late to undo what his two-word answer had done.
The administration made a valiant attempt to spin this public comment as the positive that it may prove to be. In his Tuesday evening briefing, Snow said, "There are any number of times...when an advisor may come in and tell a President something that a President may or may not wish to hear, but this is a President who is not afraid of having somebody tell him what they consider to be the truth. As a matter of fact, he welcomes it."
In other words, Gates is a man who is ready and willing to offer his analysis, advice, and fresh ideas on Iraq. With regard to the administration's point of view as stated by the President, Gates is incorrect on the status of an impending victory in the region; however, what may really be missing from this discussion - as has seemingly been the case more often than not of late - is a definition of winning itself.
A former member of James Baker's Iraq Study Group, one thing that Gates was ostensibly hired for was his perspective on - and ideas for a successful conclusion to the situation in - the Middle East. A proponent of direct talks with Iran and Syria, and of seeking a political solution in the region rather than a military one, Gates has critiqued US troop levels in Iraq as too small after the initial invasion, and has also argued for a reduction in the number of forces now in the country as soon as the Iraqis can be reasonably expected to handle their own security.
"In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," Gates told the committee, which approved his nomination by a 24-0 vote after only five hours of testimony.
The quick, unanimous vote was, in part, an "anybody but Rumsfeld" statement by many who viewed the outgoing Secretary of Defense as a symbol of the administration’s stay-the-course attitude in a conflict which has been losing popularity for some time now - despite evidence to the contrary in the form of a classified memo from Rumsfeld to President Bush, sent two days before the election, in which he outlined several new ideas for the prosecution and the publicization of the Iraqi conflict.
Sen. Levin, the rising committee chairman, said that he "voted yes because in both the substance of his answers and the tone of his answers, he seemed open to course correction." Ten other Democrats - including Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) - voted in favor of Dr. Gates, which brings up an interesting issue: a year from now, if Iraq policy has not been changed, the situation in the region has not improved, and massive troop withdrawals have not commenced, campaigning Democrats who gave him the rubber-stamp approval after only five hours of questioning may have some pretty serious questions of their own - from their own side - to answer.
As far as the present goes, Snow assured the media and the public that the suggested disagreement between Gates and the President "doesn't exist."
Let's hope that that is, in fact, the case, and that Gates's statement that we are not winning in Iraq - a claim which was immediately echoed far and wide by our enemies - was either a misstatement or a result of the lack of a clear objective in the region, rather than a statement of belief in our armed forces' failure in their mission. For, in the unlikely event that Dr. Gates does believe that we are doomed to failure in Iraq, then, should he be confirmed by the full Senate, the President will have a negative, defeatist voice within his own cabinet, influencing defense policy. The fact that the voice in question will be that of the man who is responsible for leading our Armed Forces to victory in war gives this the potential to be a problem much larger than an opposition-controlled Congress.