Defense nominee gains approval of U.S. Senate panelWASHINGTON: Robert M. Gates, President George W. Bush's nominee to be defense secretary, won unanimous approval from a Senate panel on Tuesday after testifying that the United States was not winning in Iraq and that American failure there could ignite "a regional conflagration" in the Middle East.
At one point, Gates said it was "too soon to tell" whether the American invasion of 2003 had been a wise decision. He added: "My greatest worry if we mishandle the next year or two and 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."
Gates is expected to win confirmation from the full Senate as early as Wednesday to succeed Donald H. Rumsfeld. At the daylong hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrats and Republicans praised what they called Gates's refreshing candor.
Gates gave few firm signals on Tuesday about his own favored options for Iraq, but portrayed himself as a flexible realist, open to all options for adjusting American strategy. But he made clear that he had concerns about a rapid military withdrawal, and said the recommendations to be made public on Wednesday by the Iraq Study Group would be important but not "the last word."
"It's my impression that frankly there are no new ideas on Iraq," Gates said, pointing out that there are multiple other government reviews under way. "The question is: Is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a way forward?"
The group, headed by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, is expected to propose that American combat troops be pulled back from Iraq, but not necessarily withdrawn, by sometime in 2008.
In 2003, Gates supported the administration's decision to invade Iraq. In his testimony on Tuesday, however, he made clear that his operating style and approach would be in some respects different from those of Rumsfeld and his deputies, who have led the Defense Department for nearly six years. Gates expressed grave reservations about taking military action against Iran, an idea that the Bush administration has not ruled out in trying to halt its nuclear program.
"I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort," Gates said. "I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable. And I think that the consequences of a conflict, a military conflict, with Iran could be quite dramatic. And therefore, I would counsel against military action, except as a last resort."
Gates said he also opposed any attack on Syria, which the Bush administration has criticized, along with Iran, for contributing to the instability in Iraq.
Gates's most direct statements about Iraq came during exchanges with Senators Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who will take over as the panel's chairman, and John McCain of Arizona, who will become the top-ranking Republican.
"Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?" asked Levin, who has pushed for announcing a date to begin withdrawing American troops from Iraq. "No, sir," Gates replied, adding that he did not believe that the United States was losing, either.
Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, pointed out that Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had used language similar to Gates's at a policy forum in Washington on Monday.
As recently as October, Bush said that "absolutely, we're winning" in Iraq, though he also made clear he was dissatisfied with the pace of progress.
Warner, the chairman of the Senate committee, said the message from last month's elections was that "change is needed."
Gates said he agreed with Levin that it was "worth looking into" the idea of withdrawing troops to instill a "sense of urgency" in the Iraqi government to resolve sectarian strife. But he ruled out setting a date for a withdrawal.
Under questioning from McCain, Gates said there had not been sufficient troops in Iraq immediately after the 2003 invasion. If confirmed, he said, he would consult with ground commanders about whether they wanted additional forces.
Gates also appeared to differ slightly with Bush's frequent declaration that Iraq is the "central battlefield" in fighting terrorists. Asked if he agreed with that description, Gates called Iraq "one of the central fronts in the war on terror" but said the United States also faced a "dispersed" enemy of Islamic militants worldwide.
But he was more direct in criticizing the Bush administration's decision to disband the Iraqi Army and, for a time, to bar from government jobs tens of thousands of Iraqis who were members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Several Democrats, while applauding Gates's forthrightness and willingness to consider new tactics, questioned whether Bush would follow his advice on a new strategy.
"Senator, I'm not coming here to be a bump on a log and not say exactly what I think," Gates told Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. He added: "There is still only one president of the United States. He will make the final decision."
Gates said he had abandoned certain positions he once held on certain national security issues. Asked about an article he wrote in 1994 advocating a military strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities, Gates said he had changed his mind about how to deal with the communist country's developing nuclear program. "I believe that clearly at this point, the best course is the diplomatic one," Gates said.
If confirmed, Gates said, he would make an early visit to Iraq to assess the situation. He visited Iraq in September as a member of the Iraq Study Group, a post he resigned after being nominated by Bush on Nov. 8 to take charge at the Pentagon. On Tuesday, Bush and Baker ate lunch together to talk about the recommendations the group would make, said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.
Gates did not say whether he intended to roll back any of Rumsfeld's initiatives, but there were indications that his tenure at the Pentagon would be vastly different from the nearly six-year term of Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon brimming with ideas for a leaner, more agile military. He promised to challenge what he saw as the status quo thinking of the military services, and he brought in civilian aides who clashed repeatedly with senior uniformed officers.
Gates offered no such agenda or vision. He said the campaign to transform the military needed to continue, but admitted that he was not familiar with the details of Rumsfeld's efforts. He also questioned some of the Pentagon's efforts before the Iraq war to analyze raw intelligence.
Gates's presumably easy path to confirmation contrasts with his two previous nomination hearings before the Senate, both for the post of director of central intelligence. Gates withdrew his nomination the first time, in 1987, after questions arose about his role in the Iran-contra affair.
After being nominated again by Bush's father in 1991, Gates was confirmed, but 31 Democrats voted against him, including 12 senators who are still in office.
Levin, one of those who opposed him in 1991, said after Tuesday's vote, "I voted yes because in both the substance of his answers and the tone of his answers, he seemed open to course correction."
As the day wore on and his confirmation appeared increasingly secure, Gates seemed to absorb the weight of the job. He asked to expound on his morning remark about not winning in Iraq, saying he did not want the troops to believe they were being unsuccessful.
"Our military wins the battles that we fight," Gates said. He added that "where we're having our challenges, frankly, are in the areas of stabilization and political developments," and that he believed that other federal agencies should contribute more assistance in Iraq.