Senators So Very, Very Not Contrary Toward Gates

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

And so it came to pass, in the 12th month of the sixth year of the reign of Bush, that a prophet came forth to deliver us from the war in Babylon.

Actually, it was only Bob Gates at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but the rapturous senators seemed to regard the president's second defense secretary as a harbinger of the Second Coming.

"We're very pleased," Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said twice.

"Very, very pleased," added soon-to-be-chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

"We're very grateful," proffered John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"We're all very impressed," Warner continued.

"Very proud," contributed Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). "Very enthusiastic . . . and very happy."

Gates earned these very, very nice words because of one very important attribute: He is not Donald Rumsfeld. He gave no wiseacre answers, asked himself no questions and said nothing to disparage the "Army you have." Instead, he made the obvious statement that the Bush administration, until yesterday, had refused to utter: We are not winning in Iraq. Where Rummy was incurably aloof -- he originally used an automatic signature machine to sign letters to the kin of dead troops -- Gates sounded human.

"The pressures of the hearing are nothing compared to the pressures I got from a woman who came over to me at the hotel while I was having dinner the other night, seated by myself," the nominee said. "She congratulated me on my nomination and she said, 'I have two sons in Iraq. For God's sake, bring them home safe.' "

The room went quiet as Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who had been questioning Gates, smiled and nodded in agreement. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) joined the nodding, and the smiles spread down both sides of the dais as Gates vowed independence. "I can assure you that I don't owe anybody anything," the nominee promised.

Gates, who won the committee's unanimous support by day's end, was confident enough about his prospects that he told the senators his wife had skipped the hearing to accompany "the Texas A&M women's basketball team to an away game in Seattle."

The senators, too, exhibited few signs of tension: Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) read a news clipping about himself headlined "Nelson Defeats Harris," then perused a housing report. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) worked his way through a box of candy and a large cup of coffee. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) thumbed their BlackBerrys. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) rehearsed her questions, written in large type on numbered index cards. An evidently distracted Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke of communing with fallen troops. "I talk to those who've lost their lives, and they have that sense of duty and mission," he reported.

Even the war protesters lacked enthusiasm: Only six dissenters answered organizers' call to picket in front of the Hart Office Building before the hearing. In this environment, Gates felt comfortable enough to lighten things up a bit. When Ben Nelson proposed continually increasing the bounty for Osama bin Laden, Gates noted: "A sort of Terrorist Powerball."

Gates made no promise to end the war in Iraq or to bring home the troops. But he endeared himself to the candor-starved senators at the start with just two words. "Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?" Levin asked.

"No, sir," Gates replied. In fact, he worried about "the very real risk and possible reality of a regional conflagration."

Seven times, Gates assured the senators that all options are "on the table" -- even a "dramatically smaller" number of troops in Iraq. Nine times, Gates and his questioners agreed on the need for "fresh eyes" or a "fresh look" or a "fresh approach" -- a development Levin, Bill Nelson and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) declared "refreshing."

But if Gates was offering fresh eyes (his reading glasses rested on the witness table), he could not promise a fresh face. The veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration was ushered into the room by a literal old guard: former senators Bob Dole and David Boren.

The current senators, having embraced Gates as the ticket out of Iraq, encouraged him to say something bad about Bush policies. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) got Gates to criticize the administration's disbanding of the Iraqi army and de-Baathification of the government. McCain got him to say that "there clearly were insufficient troops." Byrd got him to say that it would be folly to attack Iran or Syria. Warner got him to say that Bush "understands that there needs to be a change in our approach in Iraq." Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) got him to say that Iraq wasn't necessarily the "central front" in the fight against terrorism. Levin got him to criticize the Pentagon's handling of intelligence.

But it was Kennedy, the old liberal, who elicited an emotional response when he noted that 59 Americans had been killed in Iraq since Gates was nominated.

Gates, unlike some predecessors at the Pentagon, knew the war's total tally: 2,889 dead as of Monday morning. "Twelve graduates of Texas A&M have been killed in Iraq," said the nominee, who is A&M's president. "I would run in the morning with some of those kids. . . . I'd hand them their degrees, I'd attend their commissioning, and then I would get word of their death. So this all comes down to being very personal for all of us."

Very well said.

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