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Defense Secretary Nominee Gates Says U.S. Not Winning in Iraq

December 5, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Of all the problems and concerns Robert Gates could inherit as secretary of defense, the war in Iraq by far is the most pressing.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense-Designate: I am under no illusion why I am sitting before you today: the war in Iraq. Addressing the challenges we face in Iraq must and will be my highest priority, if confirmed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Iraq also was foremost on the minds of senators on the Armed Services Committee as they questioned Gates. As a former member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, Gates tried to respond with his working knowledge of the issues.

But the committee’s top Democrat, Carl Levin, might have tripped up Gates with this direct question.

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

ROBERT GATES: No, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gates thought better of that answer after the committee broke for lunch.

ROBERT GATES: While I was having lunch and eating my sandwich, I was watching the news, and I certainly stand by my statement this morning that I agreed with General Pace that we are not winning but we are not losing.

But I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole. Our military forces win the battles that they fight; our soldiers have done an incredible job in Iraq. And I’m not aware of a single battle that they have lost. And I didn’t want my comments to be interpreted as suggesting that they weren’t being successful in their endeavors.

Gates discusses troops commitment

Robert Gates
Defense Secretary Nominee
In my view, 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for setting goals and timetables for Iraq, Senator Warner read to Gates a statement President Bush has repeated on recent occasions.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: Did you understand fully what's in the mind of the president when he said, "We're going to stay in Iraq until the mission is completed"?

ROBERT GATES: Mr. Chairman, I have the sense that the president's view of accomplishing the mission at this point is an Iraq that can defend itself, can sustain itself, and can govern itself. I also believe that he understands that there needs to be a change in our approach in Iraq, that what we are doing now is not working satisfactorily.

When he asked me to take this job, as he put it, he wanted someone with "fresh eyes" to look at the situation and make recommendations. In my view, 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Levin followed up.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I want to ask you about that statement of the president, which he's made twice in recent weeks. "We are going to stay in Iraq as long as the Iraqis ask us to be there." Doesn't such an open-ended commitment send a message to the Iraqis that, somehow or other, it is our responsibility as to whether or not they achieve a nation, rather than it is their responsibility to reach a political settlement?

ROBERT GATES: It seems to me that the United States is going to have to have some presence in Iraq for a long time. The Iraqi forces clearly have no logistical capability of their own; they have no air power of their own.

So the United States clearly, even if whatever changed approached or strategy we come up with, the president implements, works, we are still going to have to have some level of American support there for the Iraqi military. And that could take quite some time, but it could be with a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces than are there today.

Gates: Don't leave 'Iraq in chaos'

Robert Gates
Defense Secretary Nominee
My greatest worry, if we mishandle the next year or two and if we leave Iraq in chaos, is that a variety of regional powers will become involved in Iraq, and we will have a regional conflict on our hands.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, current chairman of the Intelligence Committee, asked Gates to predict the consequences of a troop draw-down, if not handled correctly.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R-KS), Chairman of Intelligence Committee: I think we have to tell the American people: Yes, we want everybody home as soon as possible, but if we do it the wrong way, we're going to face a lot of credibility problems and a lot of dangers that they have to understand affects their daily lives and pocketbooks. Would you comment, sir?

ROBERT GATES: My greatest worry, if we mishandle the next year or two and if we leave Iraq in chaos, is that a variety of regional powers will become involved in Iraq, and we will have a regional conflict on our hands.

Iran is already involved in Iraq and, as I suggested earlier to Senator Byrd, could become much more so. The Syrians have not been helpful in Iraq but could become much more harmful to our effort.

But I think that it would be very surprising if the other Sunni countries in the Middle East would allow the Sunni population in Iraq to be the victims of an ethnic cleansing. I think that the Turks would not sit by idly if they saw Iraq beginning to fall apart.

So I think that you could have Saudi Arabia, you could have Turkey, Syria, Iran, all would be involved. We're already seeing Hezbollah involved in training fighters for Iraq. I think all of that could spread fairly dramatically.

And as you suggest, I think the manner of our managing the next phase in Iraq has very strong lessons for other countries in the world. There's no question. In fact, Osama bin Laden's been very straightforward about the impact on him of our withdrawal from Somalia after our soldiers were killed there.

And so I think that there is a risk that others looking around the world would see that we don't have the patience and we don't have the will. So I think those are some of the concerns that we would face if we end up leaving Iraq in chaos.

Changing the course in Iraq?

Robert Gates
Defense Secretary Nominee
If I'm confirmed, as soon as I'm sworn, I intend to actually move very quickly in terms of the consultations with the commanders in the field, and with the chiefs, and with others, in terms of formulating my recommendations.

KWAME HOLMAN: Several committee Democrats, New York's Hillary Clinton among them, came back to the question of the president's willingness to change course in Iraq.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: It is quite frustrating to many of us to see the mistakes that have been made -- some of which you have enumerated -- and to wonder whether there is any change that will be pursued by the president. Do you have an opinion as to how and when the process will occur that might lead to some changes in options and strategies?

ROBERT GATES: My sense, Senator Clinton, is that this process is going to proceed with considerable urgency.

I would tell you that, if I'm confirmed, as soon as I'm sworn, I intend to actually move very quickly in terms of the consultations with the commanders in the field, and with the chiefs, and with others, in terms of formulating my recommendations, so I would say -- certainly from my standpoint and I think also from the administration's -- with considerable urgency.

KWAME HOLMAN: And to Kennedy of Massachusetts, Gates said...

ROBERT GATES: Senator, I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M, the job that I probably enjoyed more than any that I've ever had, making considerable personal, financial sacrifice, and frankly going through this process, to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log, and not to say exactly what I think, and to speak candidly and, frankly, boldly to people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about what I believe and what I think needs to be done.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late this afternoon, the Armed Services Committee unanimously approved Gates' nomination to become defense secretary; a vote by the full Senate is expected by week's end.