By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to become the next secretary of defense, said he opposes a swift pullout from Iraq, arguing in written testimony submitted yesterday to Congress that "leaving Iraq in chaos would have dangerous consequences both in the region and globally for many years to come."
Gates, whose confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin next week, also staked out positions on Iran and Syria that are consistent with his past views but appear to be at odds with the Bush administration's current policies. He called for diplomatic engagement with both countries, noting that "even in the worst days of the cold war the U.S. maintained a dialogue with the Soviet Union and China and I believe those channels of communication helped us manage many potentially difficult situations."
Until he was nominated earlier this month by President Bush, Gates was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). That group is said to be leaning toward recommending that the Bush administration seek stability in Iraq partly by holding an international conference that includes Iraq's neighbors. In 65 pages of written answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates repeatedly mentions such a conference.
"Our engagement with Syria need not be unilateral," Gates stated. "It could, for instance, take the form of Syrian participation in a regional conference."
That position conflicts with the U.S. stance on Syria particularly. The White House is deeply angry with Damascus, which it believes has broken a variety of commitments, such as pledges to contain traffic by foreign fighters across its border with Iraq and to close the offices of extremist groups. Its support for Hezbollah and its possible role in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Lebanon -- the other beleaguered model for democracy in the region -- also have infuriated the administration. White House officials say they have already tried talking to Syria, to no avail.
Gates, a veteran intelligence official, also staked out strong positions on a variety of other subjects, from the growing strength of the Chinese military to the need to deploy a missile defense system even if it is incomplete.
In other comments touching on Iraq, Gates appears to criticize the handling of the invasion. "I believe the use of pre-emptive force should be based on very strong evidence," he said when asked about the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in part because of the belief, now largely discredited, that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. But Gates also noted that in 2003, he believed that Hussein possessed such weapons or the capacity to develop them.
He also stated that he intends to "improve" the Pentagon's ability to carry out post-invasion operations. "With the advantage of hindsight, I might have done some things differently," he said in response to a question about the six years in which Donald H. Rumsfeld has been defense secretary.
Discussing the war in Afghanistan, Gates also took the interesting step of criticizing the administration of President Bush's father, of which Gates was part. "In my opinion, we must avoid repeating the mistakes of the late 1980s when in retrospect we neglected Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal," he stated.
But he stood by the earlier Bush administration's decision not to invade Iraq after ousting Hussein's military from Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Gates, who was then deputy national security adviser, argued that going to Baghdad was not part of the plan and would have shattered the coalition of nations that supported the war's limited objective of pushing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Gates, who had the reputation of being a hawkish realist during the Cold War, seemed to be back in that mode in his discussion of China's growing military strength. "It appears to me that China is building capabilities to fight short duration, high-intensity conflict on its periphery," he wrote.
Although he believes China wants to take over Taiwan peacefully if possible, he writes, "their capabilities suggest they are prepared to consider the use of force if peaceful efforts fail."
He also endorsed continuing to develop and deploy strategic missile defense systems, even if they are incomplete or not fully tested. "North Korea and Iran continue to develop longer range missiles and are determined to pursue weapons of mass destruction," he wrote. "In this regard, defenses with a limited operational capability, at least initially, are better than no defenses."
Touching on a recent flurry of speculation about whether a military draft should be resumed, Gates said he is "absolutely" committed to preserving the all-volunteer force.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.