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Senate Hearing on Gates Nomination Gets Underway

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing today on Robert Gates -- President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as U.S. Defense Secretary. Gates had a long career at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He rose from an entry-level job to become the head of the agency in 1991 under President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. If confirmed, Gates will face a major challenge -- the war in Iraq.

President Bush announced his choice of Robert Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on November 8th. That was one day after the mid-term election -- in which the Republican Party lost control of Congress. The vote was seen as a repudiation of President Bush's Iraq policy. What to do in Iraq is the main focus at today’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd said recently, "He has been given a unique opportunity now to help us go in a new direction in Iraq, get us in a new direction on the conduct of foreign policy. He certainly has the background and ability to do that. I just hope he'll take advantage of it."

In written responses to preliminary questions by the Senate panel, Gates said he agreed with President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. But he implicitly faulted the Pentagon for post-invasion planning -- saying with hindsight, he "might have done some things differently." He also seemed to rule out an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

Gates, who headed the CIA under President Bush senior, will bring his background in the intelligence field to the job. This will serve him well, according to Kevin O'Connell -- who heads the private Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington.

"I think that Mr. Gates will have a keen sense of the kinds of things we do in the intelligence business and the extent to which they create certainty or uncertainty in what we know about the world's complex problems,” says O’Connell. “He'll understand in perhaps a more nuanced way some of the details of collection that are out there, some of the details of how we do analysis in the analytic bureaucracy and he'll certainly have first-hand experience in how to communicate those to a president and other senior national leaders."

But some observers note Gates has no experience running a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon or managing a big ground war. However, Kevin O'Connell dismisses this criticism as insignificant.

"I think he'll quickly learn the Pentagon and its current style. He certainly was familiar with it from his past experience but I think he'll learn the nuances of the Pentagon, circa 2006, 2007 in a very quick fashion. He's a very quick study."

If confirmed, Gates is likely to bring a different personal style than outgoing Secretary Rumsfeld, who was seen by some as brusque and abrasive. Some observers compare the choice of Gates to President Johnson's pick of Clark Clifford as Defense Secretary in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Clifford eventually advocated a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Now, as the fighting in Iraq continues, a new Defense Secretary is stepping in, and the strategy may change.

But Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute notes a change is already underway. "One could suggest that a new Secretary of Defense opens up the field for a change in Iraq, but clearly that change is already afoot. So Mr. Gates could certainly pull it in one direction or another if he had strong opinions on the other hand it seems fairly clear that the president himself has already jumped on board that horse so it's going to be a little bit difficult for Gates to steer it if, in fact, he has different opinions."

Gates has spent the preceding weeks meeting with key U.S. Senators, including Democrat Ted Kennedy and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Gates is expected to win confirmation, in a Senate vote that will likely come later this week.