The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to confirm Robert Gates, 63, as defense secretary, with Democrats and Republicans portraying him as the man who will help overhaul President Bush's Iraq policies.
The 95-2 vote was a victory for Bush, who named Gates to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon on Nov. 8, a day after voters gave Democrats control of Congress for next year.
Even so, much of Gates' support stemmed from his pledges to consider new options in Iraq. The vote coincided with the release of an independent study lambasting Bush's approach to the war, increasing pressure on the White House to change course.
Previously, Democrats said they would probably support Gates if for no other reason than his confirmation meant the ouster of Donald H. Rumsfeld, a polarizing figure in the administration and architect of the unpopular Iraq war. But Gates' public declaration that the nation was not winning the war -- contradicting President Bush's Oct. 25 statement that "Absolutely, we're winning" -- helped warm even Bush's sharpest critics.
'Nation has turned a corner'
"That gives me hope that with this nomination and with the Iraq Study Group report, this nation has turned a corner," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
The Iraq Study Group, led by Republican James Baker III and Democrat Lee Hamilton, on Wednesday said U.S. troops should begin to take a back seat in combat in Iraq, pushing Iraqi troops to the front lines with the goal of pulling out by early 2008.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he thought Gates "recognized the high price that our troops are paying for the current policy."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he thought Gates agreed with Democrats that "only a political settlement by the Iraqis can end the violence in Iraq, and that the military force that we have there cannot do that for the Iraqis."
Unanimous committee confirmation
After five hours of nonconfrontational questions, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 24-0 on Tuesday to recommend Gates be confirmed.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., congratulated Gates on his "exemplary performance", and other lawmakers offered strong praise.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he voted for Gates because he is convinced he will help correct the problems in Iraq.
"I am confident that Dr. Gates fully understands the need for victory in Iraq," Cornyn said after the committee's vote. "Failure in Iraq would lead to increased terrorist activity by al-Qaida and regional instability as Iran tries to extend its sphere of influence."
Gates told the committee he is confident President Bush will listen to his ideas about forging a new war strategy. He also pledged to give "most serious consideration" to the view of senior military officers, a comment that appeared directed at those among Rumsfeld's critics who accused him of bullying the generals and denigrating or ignoring their advice. That is a charge that Rumsfeld strongly denies.
At the outset of an afternoon session of questions about Iraq and other subjects, Gates began by telling the committee he wanted to expand upon 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."
Call for more federal participation
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.
On other high-priority subjects, Gates said he worried 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 was uncertain whether the Army and Marine Corps needed to expand, as many in Congress advocate, and he was "sympathetic to the notion" of adding more U.S. or allied troops in Afghanistan.
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 way forward that is more effective in Iraq than the current Pentagon approach.