Defense Secretary-designate Robert M. Gates yesterday said the U.S. is not winning in Iraq, but he declined to endorse any one of scores of new options floating in Washington for ending the stalemate and the American troop commitment.
Mr. Gates' Iraq assessment before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which later gave its unanimous approval to his nomination, came in response to a question from Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who asked, "Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?"
"No, sir," answered the man who is likely to become the president's chief military adviser on overhauling Iraq strategy. Mr. Gates later testified that he agreed with Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs chairman, who has said the U.S. is neither winning nor losing at this point.
The response seemed to put the nominee at odds with the commander in chief.
President Bush declared: "Absolutely, we're winning" in Iraq during an October press conference. He added, however, that he was not satisfied with overall developments, including a big spike in sectarian violence in Baghdad.
Mr. Gates said of the president, "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."
The committee later, as expected, voted unanimously to approve the Gates nomination. The full Senate will take up the matter this week.
The question dominating Washington, as the White House weighs a shift in Iraq strategy, is whether to increase, decrease or rearrange the 135,000 troops on the ground. Mr. Gates said he does not know enough today to make a recommendation to Mr. Bush.
If confirmed, he said, he plans to first travel to Iraq to meet commanders and receive their assessments. The timeline suggests that any comprehensive change in policy will not come for weeks.
Mr. Gates did signal that he does not favor an immediate pullout, as favored by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat.
"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," Mr. Gates said. "So I think those are some of the concerns that we would face if we ended up leaving Iraq in chaos."
During the hearing's lunch break, Mr. Gates noted that press coverage was dominated by his not-winning comment.
"I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole," he told Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and committee chairman, in the afternoon session. "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."
The former CIA director, in sober clipped testimony, made a dramatic overture to both Democrats and Republicans. Under questioning from Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat who supports the war, Mr. Gates implored Congress to agree on a bipartisan framework for winning in Iraq, and in the larger struggle against Islamist terrorism.
"I think that it is imperative in this long war on terrorism that we face, that could go on for a generation, that there be a bipartisan agreement," he said. "Then there would be consistency on the part of whoever is elected president in 2008 and beyond, so that we can carry on this struggle in a way that they don't think we're going to cut and run."
Mr. Gates clearly distanced himself from early Bush administration Iraq policy and the war planning presided over by outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"There clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country," he testified.
He also labeled as a mistake the decision by L. Paul Bremer, the first U.S. administrator in Iraq, to dissolve the Iraqi army. Mr. Gates said it left thousands of armed men without a means to support their families and pushed them toward the insurgency. Instead, the soldiers should have been sent home -- with pay, he said.
Mr. Gates said options from the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, are "not the last word" and will likely differ from ideas from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Baker-Hamilton panel, whose report will be released today, is expected to recommend a gradual troop drawdown, but not a specific timetable.
"Frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq," said Mr. Gates, 63. "The list of tactics, the list of strategies, the list of approaches is pretty much out there, and the question is: Is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a path forward?"
Democrats and Republicans both eye Mr. Gates as the fresh face in Mr. Bush's war Cabinet who will change Iraq strategy in the fourth year of fighting and more than 2,900 American military deaths. Some on both sides are so happy to have Mr. Rumsfeld leaving the Pentagon that Mr. Gates' confirmation by the full Senate is a certainty.
Although Mr. Rumsfeld was typically feisty at Armed Services hearings as Democrats hurled charges, Mr. Gates gave measured answers to generally polite questions.
Mr. Gates is the first defense secretary nominee to undergo confirmation in time of war since 1968. Then, the Senate confirmed Clark M. Clifford to succeed Robert McNamara, who quit after a Vietnam War policy break with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
"I don't owe anybody anything," Mr. Gates said in response to a question from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, on his independence. He said he did not give up the presidency of Texas A&M University "to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log, and not to say exactly what I think."
He confronted two starkly different views on the committee itself. Mr. Levin is pushing a date-certain U.S. pullout, brigade by brigade, beginning in March. On the other end of the debate, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, wants a substantial increase in troops in Iraq beyond the current 135,000.
Mr. Gates told Mr. McCain he is "very open" to increase the Army's end strength -- its congressionally authorized force. Critics say the Army, with a half-million active soldiers, is stressed to the breaking point. Army Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander in the Iraq region, told the committee last month that he does not want more troops, in order to let the Iraqis prove themselves.
The Baker-Hamilton 10-member bipartisan group is expected to call for direct talks with Syria and Iran, two bordering regimes that support the deadly insurgency in Iraq.
Mr. Gates said he would not recommend military action against Syria and came close to ruling it out against Iran.
He called war with Iran an "absolute last resort" to stop the Islamic republic's nuclear-weapons program, but agreed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "lying" when he says Tehran is not pursuing an atomic arsenal.
"I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable," he said.