A Fresh Old Hand

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

ROB ERT M. GATES, asked by President Bush to provide "fresh eyes" at the Defense Department, began yesterday by offering the Senate Armed Services Committee a refreshingly candid voice. Asked near the beginning of his confirmation hearing if the United States was winning the war in Iraq, he responded with two words: "No, sir." He later spelled out some of the mistakes that explain that failure -- including the deployment of too few troops -- with a frankness rarely heard from a Bush administration Cabinet member. Where outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld commonly batted down or evaded legitimate congressional questions, Mr. Gates was responsive to the most tendentious queries, calmly explaining to Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) why he would not favor a U.S. invasion of Syria. He said one of his two principal goals was to help forge a truly bipartisan policy for the war on terrorism; his performance yesterday was a good start.

Mr. Gates's first challenge, as he acknowledged, is Iraq, and there he no more possesses a simple solution than does the Iraq Study Group, which is due to report today. The Defense nominee said he would be open to all options, but he made clear that he does not favor a quick or unconditional withdrawal of American forces or the abandonment of efforts to shore up the elected Iraqi government and its army. He warned that such an abandonment could lead to "a regional conflagration" that would deeply damage U.S. interests in the region. "Frankly," he said, "there are no new ideas on Iraq. The list of tactics, the list of strategies, the list of approaches, is pretty much out there. And the question is: Is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a path forward?"

We share Mr. Gates's view that a consensus can be reached on a new course for Iraq, one that would involve a mix of the pieces that he and senators from both parties returned to yesterday: more training for Iraqi forces and a handoff of combat duties that would allow for a reduction of U.S. troops; pressure on Iraqis to reach a political settlement; more aggressive regional diplomacy. A couple of Democratic senators questioned whether President Bush accepted Mr. Gates's view that the status quo is unacceptable. The veteran Washington operative responded forcefully: "I am not . . . [coming] back to Washington to be a bump on a log and not to say exactly what I think, and to speak candidly and, frankly, boldly to people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about . . . what I think needs to be done."

We hope Iraq will not be the only subject for such candor. Mr. Rumsfeld also leaves behind the pressing question of whether the Army and Marine Corps are too small to handle the press of engagements around the world -- as we believe they are. Also, how can the department manage a procurement budget intended to "transform" the military for 21st-century battles and also pay for big conventional weapons systems conceived during the Cold War? Was the enormous expansion of Defense Department intelligence operations since 2001 a necessary shift or a wasteful byproduct of Mr. Rumsfeld's bureaucratic infighting? Mr. Gates promised to investigate all these matters; we hope his answers will be as sure and unvarnished as those he offered yesterday.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company