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New Iraq Military Team Faces Increasing Opposition

January 26, 2007 at 1:09 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The president’s newly complete war council arrived early at the White House this morning: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace; the newly confirmed commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus.

And leading them was the senior civilian in the Defense Department, Secretary Robert Gates, on the job little more than a month — the topic of discussion, the so-called surge of troops into Baghdad.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I worked with our military, and I worked with Secretary Gates to come up with a plan that is likely to succeed. And the implementer of that plan is going to be General Petraeus.

RAY SUAREZ: In the early afternoon, Gates went before the press for his first formal news briefing. His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, had frequently turned such occasions into theater, with his blunt and combative demeanor.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: Frankly, I would prefer a more informal setting than the dais and the big sign behind me and so on.

RAY SUAREZ: Gates chose a different format, calling this a roundtable, and even went so far as to speak with reporters in a different room than the one Rumsfeld used.

But Gates showed he could be blunt, in his own way.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Senator Lieberman says the Senate resolution opposing a 21,000 increase in troops would offer some encouragement to the enemy. Would you agree with that?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think it’s pretty clear that a resolution that, in effect, says that the general going out to take command of the arena shouldn’t have the resources he thinks he needs to be successful certainly emboldens the enemy and our adversaries.

RAY SUAREZ: Gates has served in government for 30 years, ending his first tenure as director of central intelligence in the first Bush administration. Before his nomination in November, Gates was president of Texas A&M University.

During his confirmation hearings last month, Gates was pointed in his assessment of the American endeavor in Iraq.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?

ROBERT GATES: No, sir.

RAY SUAREZ: Gates said the president wanted a fresh set of eyes on the task in Iraq.

ROBERT GATES: All options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq, in terms of how we can be more successful and how we can, at some point, begin to draw down our forces.

RAY SUAREZ: But the top option would not draw down the U.S. force. Instead, the Bush administration proposal is to send 20,000 more troops into Iraq. Gates took to Capitol Hill defending the plan, even if its end game was still unclear.

ROBERT GATES: I don’t think anybody has a definite idea about how long the surge would last. I think for most of us, in our minds, we’re thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years.

RAY SUAREZ: In his short time in office, Gates has made two trips to Baghdad — one an announced visit of three days, the other, just last week, a brief stopover in the Iraqi capital.

He was on his way back from Afghanistan, where he said he would push the request from commanders for more troops to take on a resurgent Taliban, just as he agreed with Army and Marine generals to expand the overall size of both services.

Gates' first weeks

Greg Jaffe
The Wall Street Journal
I think Gates has come in and said, you know, there are no fundamental rules here. We're going to have a free and open debate and a more constructive give-and-take.

For more on Defense Secretary Gates, we turn to two longtime Pentagon reporters, David Wood of The Baltimore Sun and Greg Jaffe of The Wall Street Journal.

David Wood, what changes have you seen in the Pentagon in the short time that Robert Gates has been secretary?

DAVID WOOD, The Baltimore Sun: Well, he's been there six weeks. And this afternoon was the first time, as you said, that he met with us and with the Pentagon press corps.

The first words out of his mouth were, "I apologize." And he went on to say: I'm sorry I have called you here on a Friday afternoon. I'm sorry I have crammed you into such a small room.

And, I tell you, there was stunned silence. We're used to a defense secretary who lectures us on the meaning of our questions, and -- and artfully evades them.

But he was good. So, that's a big change right off the bat.

RAY SUAREZ: Anything more than the stylistic change?

DAVID WOOD: Well yes. I think that, in the six weeks he's been there, he has reflected a willingness to listen to the military, who have not been listened to during all the long Rumsfeld years. And I think that's evident in some of the first big decisions he's taken.

RAY SUAREZ: Greg Jaffe, what have you seen?

GREG JAFFE, The Wall Street Journal: You know, I think the biggest changes is, with -- with Rumsfeld, there was a going-in position on troops, that more U.S. troops bred dependency and slowed the transition.

And that defined all the debate in the Pentagon. And I think it became the starting point for any conversation you had with the military and the uniformed military. And I think that has changed.

And I think Gates has come in and said, you know, there are no fundamental rules here. We're going to have a free and open debate and a more constructive give-and-take.

RAY SUAREZ: So, coming through the door with no preconception, but quickly signing on to the increase in troops.

GREG JAFFE: Yes. No, he does seem to think that, at least temporarily, to get a hold on things, he certainly seems to have come down in the favor, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, that more troops are what is going to be needed.

DAVID WOOD: That is something that the military has been pressing for, for a long time, and that Rumsfeld would not countenance.

And, so, again, I think it is a reflection of Gates' willingness to listen to what the military is saying, to weigh it, to sort of shape it, as that advice goes on up to the president.

Listening to the military

David Wood
The Baltimore Sun
[Gates has] got a lot on his plate. And he's only got two years to get it done. It's a very, very difficult position he's in.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the people in uniform pleased with what they have seen so far in their civilian chief?

DAVID WOOD: Yes. They are being listened to. Of course they're pleased.

RAY SUAREZ: And are you hearing the same thing?

GREG JAFFE: Yes. No, I think they are. I think they are.

You know, it's interesting. He's -- Secretary Gates has kept largely the same staff that Secretary Rumsfeld had. But one gets a sense that the staff functions very differently under him, too.

RAY SUAREZ: Same staff as Donald Rumsfeld, both in the civilian ranks and in the military ones?

GREG JAFFE: Well, on the civilian side, he largely hasn't replaced the civilian -- the civilian folks. Clearly, he has made some changes -- or there have been some changes made in Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the things that have changed in the last couple of weeks, an endorsement of increasing the size of the Army and Marines, putting a naval group off the coast of Iran, signing on to the president's plan for going forward, are these carryovers from things that were already in the works, or is the new secretary's stamp really on them?

GREG JAFFE: I think, particularly on the troops issue, the new secretary's stamp is really on that. It was very clear where Rumsfeld was on that issue.

In terms of the other ones, I think it's less clear. You know, Secretary Rumsfeld seemed to have a real fondness for appointing Navy admirals to high positions, for example. Fallon was his pick for Pacific Command, and was a -- seemed to be a favorite of his as well.

RAY SUAREZ: David Wood, what do you think?

DAVID WOOD: I think it's fair to say that the -- like I said, he's listening to the military, reflecting a lot on their concerns.

But the things he has set in motion are very unclear, as to how they're going to turn out. For example, expanding the size of the military, I mean, wow, that's expensive and going to be very, very difficult to recruit that many new folks.

The changes he's made in Iraq, changing -- you know, changing the tactics slightly, also a high-risk operation -- and we don't know how any of those things are going to turn out.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, he came to the job with American troops deployed on two battlefields. What are some of the things that have to be dealt with sooner? What are some of the top items that he's going to have to move -- move along...

DAVID WOOD: Well, look, my impression is that the Pentagon is -- I mean, there are huge crises crashing in every window of the Pentagon.

There's the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are not going particularly well, and will end, one hopes, relatively well, but only after a lot of effort and bloodshed. There is the whole confrontation with Iran and North Korea. There's China on the horizon. There are huge problems.

The readiness of combat units in the United States is being eroded, because a lot of the equipment is being shipped to Iraq. And, if there were another big crisis, it would be very difficult for the units here to respond to them.

So, he's got a lot on his plate. And he's only got two years to get it done. It's a very, very difficult position he's in.

Working with limited time

Greg Jaffe
The Wall Street Journal
The Army is in a really fragile state right now. And I think the pushing of troops into Iraq has made it more fragile. And [Gates], I think, [is] going to really have to wrestle with possibly the prospect of a broken Army a year from now.

RAY SUAREZ: Any items you want to add to the plate, Greg Jaffe?

GREG JAFFE: I would say, about six or seven months from now, he's going to have some really tough decisions. By that point, the surge will have been in place.

To get the surge going and to sustain the surge, you had to rob from units back home. And that's hurt the readiness of units back home. You know, the Army is in a really fragile state right now. And I think the pushing of troops into Iraq has made it more fragile. And he's, I think, going to really have to wrestle with possibly the prospect of a broken Army a year from now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, along with those pressing issues that you have both talked about, there are the things that a secretary of defense always has to deal with, interservice rivalries, weapons programs that have to be signed off on or -- or gotten out of.

Does he also have a bunch of those things pressing down on him at the same time as he's negotiating two wars and the political demands that are being made on him?

GREG JAFFE: I think he's come in -- and he said this in his confirmation hearing -- with a very clear notion that he has got a limited amount of time. And his job is to fix Iraq.

One of the things he did was, he kept Gordon England, Secretary Rumsfeld's deputy, who is deeply immersed in things like weapons programs and other issues, I think, largely because he didn't want those consuming his time.

Expanding the military

David Wood
The Baltimore Sun
There's not enough equipment to go around as it is. And they're going to expand the Army and Marine Corps significantly. Where that new equipment is going to come from is something they have not figured out yet.

RAY SUAREZ: David Wood, you heard Greg Jaffe refer to the possibility of a broken Army. Does this signing off on the increase in the size of the Army very quickly, and moving ahead with that, and starting to talk about it in hearings, so on, is that part of addressing that fear?

DAVID WOOD: Yes, but it's going to take five years or longer. That's the plan, to get it done in five years.

So, there is no immediate relief. One thing they have done, interestingly enough, a very small change in the way they use the National Guard. Up until now, they have been mobilizing them for 18 months or longer, and as individuals. Now they're going to mobilize a unit for 12 months. And it's going to make the whole training and equipping part go much more smoothly.

So, it's a tiny little adjustment in this big machine that will make things go easier. Overall, though, I think, the problem is enormous. There's not enough equipment to go around as it is. And they're going to expand the Army and Marine Corps significantly. Where that new equipment is going to come from is something they have not figured out yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Has it gotten any easier to do the job during this slight breather between Rumsfeld leaving and Robert Gates really fully gaining control?

GREG JAFFE: Has it gotten easier for Secretary Gates?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, are -- do people feel more freed to talk to you, for instance?

GREG JAFFE: Oh.

Yes. You know, I do think that there is a -- more of a culture of openness. I traveled with Secretary Gates last week. And you did get the sense that his staff, in particular, which was Rumsfeld's staff that he had largely inherited, I think felt more comfortable around us.

People are less worried that, if they say something that doesn't conform to the sort of party line, that they will get thwacked on the wrist.

RAY SUAREZ: Greg Jaffe, David Wood, thank you both.

DAVID WOOD: Thank you.