Image: Defense Secretary Robert Gates
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday about the security challenges facing the Obama administration. He's the only Cabinet holdover from the Bush administration.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/27/2009 4:06:06 PM ET 2009-01-27T21:06:06

Even as President Barack Obama visited the Capitol Tuesday to lobby Republicans to support his stimulus plan, the most prominent Republican appointee who works for Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was briefing Congress on the foreign commitments that may decide the success of Obama’s presidency.

It’s revealing of Obama’s pragmatism that, despite being cast as the avatar of “change,” he decided to retain the defense secretary chosen by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

On Tuesday Gates gave his first overview of the new year, and of the Obama presidency, to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate committee praised Gates at the hearing.

“When he talks, people listen,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after Gates answered his questions. “There’s no more credible voice on defense matters in the country than Bob Gates. The decision to keep him on will really help this new administration get congressional support for Afghanistan and for what lies ahead in Iraq, and what needs to be done in Pakistan. We trust Gates to give us sober, realistic estimates.”

A calming influence
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., told Gates “your sensible and informed views have really helped calm down a lot of the debate here in this country.”

Terse, laconic, often answering the senators’ questions with one-word responses, Gates was an impressive witness precisely because he was so understated.

One could argue that Gates staying on in the Obama administration is vital to Obama’s national security credibility and gives him cover on his right flank. This puts Gates in an especially strong position to urge the strategies that he wants.

At one point, Gates emphasized to senators that there is continuity between Bush and Obama on the question of missile strikes on al-Qaida targets inside Pakistan. “Both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after al-Qaida wherever al-Qaida is.”

For Gates and the senators who quizzed him, the struggle in Afghanistan was the focus of much of the hearing. The U.S. deployment in Afghanistan is one that some Democrats have been skittish about for many months.

Afghanistan will be a harder war than the one the United States is now drawing down from in Iraq, Gates said.

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Three more brigades to Afghanistan
If Obama “makes the final decision to deploy additional brigades to Afghanistan, we could have two of those brigades there probably by last spring and potentially a third by mid-summer,” he said.

During the Bush years, Gates reported, some of the European NATO allies held back forces that could have been used in Afghanistan. Those NATO member nations have been “sitting on a (military) capability so that they could give the new president something when he asks.”

Last year, Gates publicly scolded NATO member Germany, saying that it was unfair for the Germans to have the “luxury” of keeping their soldiers out of combat areas in Afghanistan “thereby forcing other partners to carry an unproportionately high share of the fighting and dying.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. seemed determined Tuesday to draw Gates out on the costs of the Afghanistan operation and the need for the American people to be committed for the long term.

“Is it fair to say that casualties in Afghanistan are likely to go up?” Graham asked

“I think that’s likely,” replied Gates.

“And the amount of money we spend is likely to go up in the short term, maybe in the foreseeable future?”

“Yes, sir,” Gates said.

After leaving the hearing, Graham said the American people “are not ready” for the increased casualties and costs from the Afghan deployment “and they need to get ready.”

During the presidential campaign, Graham said, most voters did not understand the costs that would come in Afghanistan. “Most people believe that Afghanistan is done. Afghanistan is not done; Afghanistan is really in many ways just beginning.”

Graham was one of the most prominent supporters of the man whom Obama defeated, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He said he wanted to help Obama and Gates explain to the American people the need for a prolonged deployment in Afghanistan.

Of Obama, Graham said, “I think he needs to be more forceful” in explaining to the American people the stakes in Afghanistan. 

Reminiscent of Iraq rhetoric
In some ways Gates sounded a note of déjà vu on Tuesday.

Just as Bush administration officials said in 2003 and 2004 that the Iraqis needed to do more to defeat the insurgents dragging their country into civil war, so too did Gates on Afghanistan on Tuesday: “Above all there must be an Afghan face on this war. The Afghan people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them, because if they think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.”

The key is “how do we get them out in front so that the villagers see that… it is not us that is kicking down their door, it’s an Afghan who is kicking down their door to try and find a bad guy.”

He also said he is “deeply skeptical” of sending more U.S. forces beyond the 30,000 the U.S. commander there, Gen. David McKiernan, has already asked for.

Gates also told senators that “the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing” and therefore he will need to “ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements” when buying new weaponry.

Gates is an intelligence operative who has served every president since 1966.

He first reported for work at the Central Intelligence Agency, fresh off the campus of Indiana University, in 1966, when Obama was five years old.

In his long career, Gates has supplied intelligence assessments for Richard Nixon, as a member of the National Security Council staff in the twilight days of Nixon’s presidency, as well as for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan & George H. W. Bush.

As Tuesday’s testimony again showed, Gates is precise and careful in his public statements.

In some ways, the most interesting statement he has made in recent months came in a speech last October, a few days before the presidential election, a speech which got almost no media attention, except for some hostile commentary form the North Korean state-run media.

Warning about U.S. nuclear arsenal
In that speech, Gates warned that the new president and Congress would be faced with a perilous decision on nuclear weapons.

While he said the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal was currently reliable, “the long-term prognosis” was “bleak.”

He said, “No weapons in our arsenal have been tested since 1992 — so the information on which we base our annual certification of the stockpile grows increasingly dated and incomplete. At a certain point, it will become impossible to keep extending the life of our arsenal — especially in light of our testing moratorium.”

He added, “There is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.”

No senator asked Gates Tuesday about his concerns for the reliability of the nuclear arsenal.

Gates also urged funding of a joint Defense Department and Energy Department Reliable Replacement Warhead program.

He said that the program would ensure “the future credibility of our strategic deterrent. And it deserves urgent attention.”

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