Robert Gates Unanimously Confirmed by Senate Armed Services Committee; Testifies U.S. Is Not Winning Iraq War

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The Senate Armed Services Committee has unanimously approved the nomination of Robert Gates to be the next secretary of defense. Gates testified before the committee Tuesday that the United States was not winning the war in Iraq and that all options remained on the table for dealing with the war. We play highlights of the hearing. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate Armed Services Committee has unanimously approved the nomination of Robert Gates to be the next secretary of defense. Gates testified before the committee Tuesday that the U.S. is not winning the war in Iraq and that all options remain on the table for dealing with that war.

In a 21-to-nothing vote, the committee approved him to replace Donald Rumsfeld, who quit last month amid criticism of Iraq policy. Gates’ nomination now goes to the full Senate for a confirmation vote, which could be held as early as today. He’s expected to win approval. In his opening statement Tuesday, Gates made it clear that he would make Iraq his highest priority.

ROBERT GATES: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: The hearing came on a day when more than 60 people were killed in shootings and car bomb attacks in Iraq. Three U.S. soldiers were also killed. Gates went on to say he was open to new ideas on Iraq, but warned the situation there could lead to a wider regional conflict.

ROBERT GATES: While I am open to alternative ideas about our future strategy and tactics in Iraq, I feel quite strongly about one point: Developments in Iraq over the next year or two will, I believe, shape the entire Middle East and greatly influence global geopolitics for many years to come. Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people, and the next president of the United States, will face a slowly, but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region, or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration. We need to work together to develop a strategy that does not leave Iraq in chaos, and that protects our long-term interests in and hopes for the region.

I did not seek this position or a return to government. I am here because I love my country and because the president of the United States believes I can help in a difficult time.

AMY GOODMAN: During the hearing, the incoming chair of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, listed for Gates what he said were the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: The situation in Iraq has been getting steadily worse, not better. Before the invasion of Iraq, we failed to plan to provide an adequate force for the occupation of the country or to plan for the aftermath of major combat operations. After we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, we thoughtlessly disbanded the Iraqi army and also disqualified tens of thousands of low-level Ba’ath Party members from future government employment. These actions contributed to the chaos and violence that followed and to alienating substantial portions of the Iraqi population.

We have failed, so far, to secure the country and defeat the insurgency, and we have failed to disarm the militias and create a viable Iraqi military or police force. And we have failed to rebuild the economic infrastructure of the country and provide employment for the majority of Iraqis. The next secretary of defense will have to deal with the consequences of those failures.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate hearing on Robert Gates nomination began a day before the Iraq Study Group releases its findings. Gates served on the panel until he was nominated. Arizona Republican and presidential hopeful John McCain has been calling for additional troops to be sent to Iraq. During Tuesday’s hearing, McCain questioned Gates about troops levels and asked him again to clarify whether he thought the U.S. is winning the war.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We are not winning the war in Iraq. Is that correct?

ROBERT GATES: That is my view, yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: And therefore, the status quo is not acceptable?

ROBERT GATES: That is correct, sir.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I know you did a great deal of work with the Iraq Study Group. And there is a general consensus of opinion now, in hindsight, that we didn’t have sufficient number of troops at the time of the invasion to control Iraq, either Anbar province, the looting, most importantly the weapons and ammunition depots that were looted at the time. And when anarchy prevails, it’s very difficult to gain control of a country. Do you agree that at the time of the invasion we didn’t have sufficient troops to control the country, in hindsight?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I’ve had to deal with hindsight in some of the decisions that I’ve made, Senator McCain, and sometimes it’s not very comfortable. I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration probably would not make the same decisions that they made, and I think one of those is that there clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: And so, and yet at this particular point in time, when the suggestion is made, as the situation deteriorates and the status quo is not acceptable, that we reduce troops or, as General Abizaid said, that he had sufficient number of troops. In your study, when did we reach the point where we went from not having enough troops to having sufficient number of troops, as the situation—boots on the ground, as the situation deteriorated? That’s a non sequitur that I have yet found to—I’m unable to intellectually embrace.

ROBERT GATES: Senator, I was a part of the Iraq Study Group during their education phase, I would say, and I resigned before they began their deliberations. I would tell you that when we were in Iraq, that we inquired of the commanders whether they had enough troops and whether a significant increase might be necessary. And I would say that the answer we received was that they thought they had adequate troops.

It seems to me that as one considers all of the different options in terms of a change of approach in Iraq and a change of tactics, that inquiring about this again is clearly something, and it may be that a secretary of defense might get a more candid answer than an outside study group that was visiting them. But we certainly—the response that we received in Baghdad was that they had—they had enough troops.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush has continued to dismiss calls for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Michigan Democrat Carl Levin asked defense secretary nominee Robert Gates about the president’s position.

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: Senator, I haven’t spoken with the president about those remarks, so I’m going to have to interpret them myself. 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 our—if whatever changed approach 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. And so I would interpret the president’s remarks in this vein, that we will—we are willing to continue to help the Iraqis, as long as they want our help. I don’t think that it implies that we will be there at the level of force we have or doing the things that we are doing in a major combat way for the indefinite future.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Byrd, the Senate’s most senior member, broadened the discussion beyond Iraq. Citing rumors of a possible U.S. military strike on Iran and Syria, the West Virginia senator bluntly questioned Gates on the issue.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Do you support—we hear all these rumors about the potential for an attack on Iran, due to its nuclear weapons program, or on Syria, due to its support of terrorism. Do you support an attack on Iran?

ROBERT GATES: Senator Byrd, I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort, that any problems that we have with Iran, our first option should be diplomacy and working with our allies to try and deal with the problems that Iran is posing to us. 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 and if we felt that our vital interests were threatened.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Do you support an attack on Syria?

ROBERT GATES: No, sir, I do not.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Do you believe the president has the authority, under either the 9/11 war resolution or the Iraq War resolution, to attack Iran or to attack Syria?

ROBERT GATES: To the best of my knowledge of both of those authorizations, I don’t believe so. …

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Within eight months of taking Baghdad, our troops captured Saddam Hussein. However, five years after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. Who was responsible, Dr. Gates, in your judgment, for the 9/11 attacks: Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?

ROBERT GATES: Osama bin Laden, Senator.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Over the past five years, who has represented the greater threat to the United States: Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?

ROBERT GATES: Osama bin Laden.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: How do you intend to catch Osama bin Laden?

ROBERT GATES: Senator, I have no doubt that our forces have been trying their best to find Osama bin Laden. I’m not familiar with the effort that has been devoted to this over the past two or three years. I will say I think Osama bin Laden has become more of a symbol for jihadist terrorists than an active planner and organizer of terrorist attacks. In fact, one of the consequences of our success in Afghanistan has been the denial of that country as a place to plan these sophisticated terrorist operations, such as the attacks that took place on 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Lindsey Graham also questioned Gates about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons in the context of posing a threat to Israel.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you believe the Iranians are trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability?

ROBERT GATES: Yes, sir, I do.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you believe the president of Iran is lying when he says he’s not?


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you believe the Iranians would consider using that nuclear weapons capability against the nation of Israel?

ROBERT GATES: I don’t know that they would do that, Senator. I think that the risks for them obviously are enormously high. I think that they see value—



SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The president of Iran has publicly disavowed the existence of the Holocaust. He has publicly stated that he would like to wipe Israel off the map. Do you think he’s kidding?

ROBERT GATES: No, I don’t think he’s kidding. And—but I think that there are, in fact, higher powers in Iran than he, than the president. And I think that while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, I think that they would see it, in the first instance, as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons—Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Can you assure the Israelis that they will not attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, if they acquire one?

ROBERT GATES: No, sir, I don’t think that anybody can provide that assurance.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Gates’ confirmation now goes to the full Senate for a vote, which could come as early as today. He’s widely expected to win approval. When we come back from break, we’ll talk about a parliamentary delegation from Britain that’s come to the United States to speak with congressmembers and other Bush administration officials about ending extraordinary rendition. We’ll also have a debate on a Supreme Court around the issue of school desegregation. This is Democracy Now!, We’ll be back in a minute.

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