A Senate committee Tuesday unanimously approved Robert Gates to be the next U.S. defense secretary and sent the nomination to the Senate floor for confirmation, expected as early as Wednesday. At a hearing earlier in the day, Gates said he does not believe the United States is winning in Iraq, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.
Robert Gates offered a sober assessment of the U.S.-led war in Iraq before the Senate Armed Services Committee as he responded to questioning from Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is set to become the panel's chairman next year:
LEVIN: "Mr. Gates, do you believe we are currently winning in Iraq?"
GATES: "No, sir."
Later Gates clarified his remarks to say he also believes the United States is not currently losing in Iraq. But he did lay out a dire scenario if Iraq is not stabilized soon:
"Our course over the next year or two is 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 face the very real risk and possible reality of a regional conflagration," said Robert Gates. "We need to work together to develop a strategy that does not leave Iraq in chaos and protects our long term interest in and hope for the region."
Lawmakers of both parties praised Gates' candor. Senator Levin expressed hope that Gates, if confirmed, would lead a course correction in Iraq:
"It also bodes well for the possibility at least for a change in direction in the future of Iraq policy in this country," he said.
Gates, a former Central Intelligence Agency director, did not endorse any new course in Iraq, saying he would first consult with commanders on the ground. But he said he is opened to new ideas.
The nominee said having contacts with with Iran and Syria would be worthwhile, although not necessarily through direct talks.
"I think in the long run, we are going to have to acknowledge the influence of Iraq's neighbors and the potential to make the situation either better or worse in Iraq," he said.
The Bush administration has accused Iran and Syria of helping foment violence in Iraq and has resisted direct talks.
In related matters, Gates said U.S. military action against Iran - which the United States believes is pursuing a nuclear weapons program - should be, in his words, the absolute last resort, and the first option should be diplomacy. He said he feared an attack on Iran could unleash a wave of terrorism and that Tehran might provide weapons of mass destruction to terror groups.
Gates also said he would not support an attack on Syria. Such a move, he said, would increase anti-Americanism and complicate relations with virtually every country in the region.
The outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, offered a strong endorsement of Gates following the committee vote.
"He is eminently qualified to hit that ground [to lead the Pentagon], and I think he shows strong leadership and [will] be a strong voice to work with our president," said John Warner.
Gates is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate to succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has been criticized by members of both political parties for his handling of the war in Iraq.