By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006
The Senate overwhelmingly approved Robert M. Gates yesterday as the new defense secretary to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld, sealing a swift confirmation with a vote of 95 to 2 that reflected bipartisan confidence in his willingness to overhaul U.S. strategy in Iraq.
Senate Democrats and Republicans lauded Gates's frankness after a day of testimony Tuesday in which he acknowledged that the United States is not winning in Iraq, and said that historians would have to judge whether the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 was correct. He also pledged to take a fresh approach to Iraq in which "all options are on the table."
Two Republican senators -- Jim Bunning (Ky.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.) -- voted against Gates, with Bunning saying that Gates's criticism of "our efforts in Iraq" sends the wrong message to U.S. troops and allies.
Gates, 63, a former CIA chief and Russia expert who has served four previous presidents, is to be sworn in Dec. 18 as the nation's 22nd defense secretary.
President Bush called Gates soon after the vote to congratulate him. "I am confident that his leadership and capabilities will help our country meet its current military challenges and prepare for emerging threats of the 21st century," Bush said in a statement. "He is an experienced, qualified, and thoughtful man who is well respected by members of both parties."
Gates said that his first priority in taking the helm at the Pentagon will be to consult with senior U.S. commanders in the field and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to formulate recommendations on Iraq "with considerable urgency."
Gates's blunt public acknowledgement of problems in Iraq was amplified by yesterday's release of the Iraq Study Group report, which concluded that "current U.S. policy is not working" and has led to a "grave and deteriorating" situation there.
Both events have created a sense of momentum as pressure builds on the Bush administration to shift course in Iraq, where violence is at record levels and more than 2,900 U.S. troops -- including 10 killed yesterday -- have lost their lives since the U.S.-led invasion.
Gates, however, as with the Iraq Study Group report, has made clear that he knows of no startlingly novel ideas for stabilizing the country of 26 million people.
"There are no new ideas on Iraq. The list of tactics, the list of strategies, the list of approaches, is pretty much out there," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing Tuesday. "The question is: Is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a path forward?"
Senators from both parties said they were encouraged by Gates's willingness to speak his mind.
"He came to the table refreshingly open in a nonpartisan way," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on the Senate floor before yesterday's vote.
"He has asserted his independence," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) also endorsed Gates -- an Eagle Scout and Wichita native -- saying his "manner and temperament" not only helped him win him Senate approval but would help him as defense secretary in facing "the most significant challenge of our time."
Indeed, several senators laid out the host of difficulties that Gates will confront at the Pentagon, including not only Iraq but also tough budget trade-offs and severe readiness problems in the Army and Marine Corps that have left the United States less prepared to respond to other potential world crises.