At the outset of the hearing, Sen. Carl Levin, who will take over the committee chairmanship in January, hit Gates with a loaded question right off the bat: "Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?"
Gates was equally blunt in responding. "No, sir," he said simply.
Levin's follow-up question was just as freighted. The senator pulled out a quote from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, from a Nov. 23 press conference, and read it to Gates: "The crisis is political, and it is the politicians who must try to prevent more violence and bloodletting. The terrorist acts are a reflection of the lack of political accord." Levin asked Gates if he agreed with Maliki's statement.
"Yes sir, I do," Gates answered.
Gates's answer was important. In Levin's view, Maliki's statement reinforced the Democrats' own arguments to begin a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces. "There's no military solution here now," Levin explained to TIME last week. "There's only a political solution now. That's why we should not put so much emphasis on a military solution and we should force the politicians to reach some kind of compromise on Iraq."
In response to another question from Levin, Gates indicated that he would be open to modest troop withdrawals to force the Iraqi political leadership to take on more responsibility for security. "All options are on the table," Gates said. He also was not shy about suggesting that Rumsfeld had made misjudgments in the Iraq war. Asked by Republican John McCain, a likely 2008 presidential candidate, if the Pentagon had too few troops in Iraq at the outset something the senator has long argued Gates agreed. "There clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion," the former CIA director said.
Gates later hedged on some of his blunt opening words. After asserting that the U.S. is not winning the war, he added that U.S. forces are not necessarily losing. And after watching TV news accounts of his jarring opening answer during a lunch break, Gates returned in the afternoon with a hasty caveat that the soldiers on the ground in Iraq have won every individual battle they've fought. His no-win comment, he maintained, "pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole."
Even so, Gates's straight talk impressed Senate Democrats and Republicans. And it appeared to rattle the White House. Press Secretary Tony Snow insisted to reporters that Bush hadn't nominated a loose cannon. "If you want to try get a nuanced and full understanding of where Bob Gates stands on these issues with regard to the President and his policies and the definition of what it is to win in Iraq and what it takes, then I think you're going to find he agrees" with Bush, Snow labored to explain.
But Gates, 63, made it clear to the senators that he intended to make up his own mind on Iraq. While he agreed with McCain that staying the course in Iraq was unacceptable, he refused to back the Arizona senator's proposal to increase U.S. troop strength in Iraq. When Gates visited the country as part of the Iraq Study Group, he said, all the ground commanders told him they "thought they had adequate troops." Gates quickly added that if confirmed he'd be going back to Iraq to see if he would get "a more candid answer" from ground commanders on troop levels. He also pronounced himself "very open" to the idea of increasing the strength of the Army and Marine Corps, whose personnel and equipment are wearing out from the war.
Gates stressed he would be his own man at Defense: he didn't seek out the Pentagon job, Gates told the senators, and he isn't returning to Washington now just to "be a bump on a log." "I don't owe anybody anything," he declared. Already, Gates seems to be distancing himself from the White House contention that Iraq was the central front in the war on terror. Iraq is "an important front," Gates conceded, but not the only one; the U.S. faces a "dispersed threat" from other parts of the world.
Levin, in his questioning, read to Gates the response of CENTCOM chief Gen. John Abizaid at a Nov. 15 Armed Service Committee meeting, when McCain pressed him on his proposal to send more troops to Iraq: "I've met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the corps commander, General Dempsey we all talked together. And I said, 'In your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?' And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do this work. I believe that more American troops prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future." To Levin, that statement helped make his case that the U.S. should begin a phased withdrawal of forces. Does Abizaid's reasoning "resonate with you?" Levin coyly asked Gates.
"It makes sense to me," Gates responded.
Levin, who had voted against Gates's nomination to be CIA director 15 years ago, seemed almost relieved that he was willing now to take over the Defense Department. Simply hearing Gates acknowledge that the U.S. was not winning the war is "a necessary refreshing breath of reality," Levin said. Gates's candor is "something that has been sorely lacking," added Sen. Hillary Clinton, another Democrat on the committee.
The Democrats' chief worry was whether Gates's straight talk would make a difference with Bush. The candor was welcome, Sen. Evan Bayh told the nominee, "but you are not the ultimate decision-maker." Gates's close friends have the same fear. "Bob could be pragmatic," one told TIME, "yet the ultimate decision-maker is not in the Pentagon. He's across the river in the White House. There's a very stubborn moral streak in George Bush." Bayh asked what made Gates assume Bush would take his advice. "Senator, because he asked me to take the job," Gates responded.
Levin, however, predicted a "speedy confirmation" for Gates. A vote on the Senate floor is expected this week, perhaps as early as Wednesday. Levin was one of those who voted against Gates when he last appeared before the Senate for confirmation hearings after George Herbert Walker Bush picked him to be CIA director in 1991 and critics accused him slanting intelligence to suit anti-Soviet hardliners during the Reagan administration. Levin threw out only one softball question about those old charges which Gates easily handled. Levin was far more interested in how Gates would deal with Iraq.
Gates said he's "open to a wide range of ideas and proposals." He also insisted that, despite Bush's stay-the-course rhetoric, the President "wants me to take a fresh look" at Iraq.