What Gates said and how he said it

Immediately after President Bush nominated Robert Gates, I predicted that Gates would not enjoy his confirmation hearing. A few hours later, after a learning a bit more about the man, I revised the prediction and said that I wouldn’t enjoy the hearing.
I’ve just finished watching the replay of the morning session on C-SPAN, and found it a mixed bag. That’s not too surprising since Gates was doing his best to say what members of sides of the Iraq divide wanted to hear. Unfortunately, he seemed slightly more enthusiastic about saying what the anti-war faction wanted him to.
For example, Sen. Levin elicited a straightforward “no” when he asked Gates if we are winning in Iraq. When Sen. Inhofe asked Gates whether he agreed with Gen. Pace that we are neither winning nor losing, Gates seemed to hesitate for a split second before saying yes “at this time.”
Gates’ answers seemed carefully framed to avoid terms like “success.” It was Sen. Lieberman who finally asked whether Gates’ goal would be less to manage a withdrawal and more to achieve success. Gates used that question to tout the need for a bipartisan policy. As Sen. Lieberman probably knows from his unusual political experience this year, achieving success in Iraq (as Lieberman views success) and maintaining bipartisanship are probably incompatible objectives.
Senator Collins asked Gates what effect a U.S. withdrawal would have on the level of sectarian violence in Iraq. She offered three choices — increase it, decrease it, or leave it unchanged. Only an anti-war “blame America first” Democrat would likely endorse the absurd proposition that a U.S. exit will decrease the sectarian violence. But Gates wouldn’t rule out that possibility. His answer was “it depends.”
It was only the aggressive questioning of Lindsey Graham that was able to draw out answers that reflect the basic premises behind the adminisration’s general approach to Iraq and to the war on terror generally. As we noted earlier today, Graham seemed less successful when it came to Iran. And Gates did not look particular comfortable answering Graham’s questions.
Hillary Clinton’s questioning was the low point of the proceeding. She used her time to blast Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, stooping so low as to ask Gates whether he thought these men were intelligent and patriotic. Eager to squeeze every left-wing talking point into her brief time for questioning, she expressed concern (based on a statement Gates made years ago on the PBS show Frontline) that he believes the military tends to exaggerate the number of troops it needs to accomplish its missions. She suggested that Gates might disregard the requests of his generals the way the administration before the war ignored the call of Gen. Shinseki for vastly more troops for the invasion of Iraq. Gates assured Clinton that he would listen carefully to the military when it comes to troop levels.
It’s too bad that Gates didn’t ask Clinton whether she will do the same, since the military may well soon ask for additional troops. Indeed, Sen. McCain had anticipated the illogic of Clinton and others when he asked Gates how we went from not having enough troops in 2003, when things seemed to be going well, to having enough or too many now when it’s clear that things aren’t going that well.
Although I found Gates’ performance somewhat disappointing, it can be argued that Bush needs a Secretary of Defense who can make nice with the Democrats at least for a while. If nothing else, Gates showed he’s up to that task.
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