WASHINGTON — Robert Gates won approval by a Senate panel Tuesday to be the next defense secretary after a daylong hearing in which he said the U.S. is not winning the war in Iraq and there could be a "regional conflagration" if the country is not stabilized.
At a Senate confirmation hearing that was long on praise for Gates and short on criticism, the man President Bush picked to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld said he is open to new ideas about correcting the U.S. course in Iraq. He said the war would be his highest priority if confirmed as expected.
In a closed-door meeting following five hours of open testimony, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 21-0 to recommend approval of Gates' nomination, said panel chairman John Warner, R-Va.
A vote by the full Senate could come Wednesday and is virtually certain by week's end.
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.
"In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," he added. He did not commit to favoring any specific new course, saying he would consult first with commanders and others.
Asked point-blank by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., whether the U.S. is winning in Iraq, Gates replied, "No, sir." He later said he believes the United States is neither winning nor losing, "at this point."
At the outset of an afternoon session of questions about Iraq and other subjects, Gates began by telling the committee he wanted to amplify on his remark about not winning in Iraq. He did not withdraw the remark but said, "I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole."
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."
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow was pressed by reporters about Gates' answer that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq -- one that seemed to be in conflict with the president's own position.
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Snow said that Gates' testimony, taken in its entirety, shows 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.
"If you want to try get a nuanced and full understanding of where Bob Gates stands on these issues with regard to the president and his policies and the definition of what it is to win and Iraq and what it takes, then I think you're going to find he agrees" with Bush, Snow said.
The spokesman rejected any notion that Gates' assessment of the war would be demoralizing to U.S. troops. "What I think is demoralizing is a constant effort to try to portray this as a losing mission," Snow said.
Gates was noncommittal on questions about whether and when to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal, saying it "depends on the conditions on the ground." He also said that if confirmed he would go to Iraq soon to consult with U.S. commanders.
Asked later whether announcing a specific troop withdrawal timetable would send a signal of U.S. weakness, Gates said it "would essentially tell (the insurgents) how long they have to wait until we're gone."
The hearing was nonconfrontational, with occasional hints of humor from Gates. Much of the questioning from panel members was focused on whether Gates would provide independent advice to Bush, and the former CIA director assured the committee that 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."
Questions of hindsight
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's regime, Gates said.
He also told Levin he believes a political solution in Iraq is required to end the violence.
The confirmation hearing came amid intensifying pressure for a new approach, reflecting the outcome of the Nov. 7 elections that put Democrats back in control of both houses of Congress.
U.S. deaths in Iraq have topped 2,900, and questions persist about whether Iraq will devolve into all-out civil war.
Future of U.S. troops in Iraq
"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.
Bush has repeatedly rejected the idea of a quick U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and 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.
Waiting on the Iraq study group
Meanwhile, Bush had an in-person preview of a prestigious blue-ribbon panel's recommendations for a new way forward in Iraq. Talking to reporters, Snow said that commission chairman James A. Baker III mere gave a glancing briefing and did not leave the report behind.
Gates, who served on the commission until his nomination was announced by Bush on Nov. 8, said he did not know what the panel would recommend.
"It's my impression that frankly there are no new ideas on Iraq," he said.
There has been little sign that Democrats, poised to take control of Congress in January, will block Gates, and a vote by the full Senate is expected by Friday.
Gates said at one point that "long-term stability in Iraq will be influenced by Syria and Iran and said the U.S. government should "look at ways to bring them to be constructive. How we do that, I don't have any specific ideas at this point."
Of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, he said: "The way we'll catch bin Laden eventually, in my view, is that just as in the case of Saddam Hussein, one of his people will turn him in."
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