War Stories

Enter the Grown-Up

Robert Gates’ impressive—and reassuring—confirmation hearings.

Robert Gates

The most eyebrow-raising moment—of many such moments—in Robert Gates’ confirmation hearings today came when Sen. Robert Byrd, the stentorian Democrat of West Virginia, asked if he favored attacking Iran.

Most witnesses in Gates’ position would duck the question, citing the time-honored practice of avoiding “hypotheticals.” No senator would have condemned him for following precedent. But Gates plunged right in and said, basically, no.

“We have seen in Iraq,” Gates replied, “that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable.” The Iranians couldn’t retaliate with a direct attack on the United States, he said, but they could close off the Persian Gulf to oil exports, send much more aid to anti-American insurgents in Iraq, and step up terrorist attacks worldwide.

Byrd then asked about attacking Syria. “The Syrians’ capacity to do harm to us is far more limited,” Gates said, but an attack on Syria “would give rise to a significantly greater anti-Americanism” and “increasingly complicate our relationship with every country in the region.”

I’ve been watching defense secretaries in confirmation hearings for 30 years, off and on, but I don’t think I’ve seen any perform more forthrightly than Gates did this morning.

When he was asked if invading Iraq was a good idea in retrospect, he paused, then said, “That’s a judgment the historians are going to have to make.”

When Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the panel’s senior Democrat, asked if the United States was winning the war in Iraq, he said, “No, sir.” Later, when James Inhofe, R-Okla., asked if he agreed that we weren’t losing the war either, Gates replied, “Yes,” but added, “at this point.”

When Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., * asked if he favored a return to the military draft, given a decline in Army recruitment, he said, “No,” then added—again, without prompting—that this decline might be temporary, that the numbers will climb back up once young people see that joining the military doesn’t mean they’ll be sent to Iraq.

It is impossible to imagine any of George W. Bush’s previous Cabinet appointees, or any of his sitting Cabinet officers, making such stark—and, at least implicitly, critical—statements in an open Senate hearing.

In short, Gates may well be that entity that Washington has not seen for many years: a truly independent secretary of defense.

“I don’t owe anybody anything,” Gates told Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, when asked whether he’d be loyal to truth or to power.

An intriguing sign of his autonomy appeared at the start of the hearing, when he said that his wife couldn’t be with him today because she was escorting the women’s basketball team of Texas A&M University—where Gates has happily been president the last four years—to an out-of-town game. The loyal wife with the adoring gaze is a traditional staple at confirmation hearings. Her absence—and, still more, the blatantly casual reason for her absence—drove home the point that Gates has no need for this job, no stake in the town, and no interests in its arbitrary rituals.

Gates is no Mr. Smith. He was an insider, by all accounts a ferocious bureaucratic infighter, for 26 years, many of them inside the Central Intelligence Agency, some of those as Director Bill Casey’s deputy, hardly a post for keeping one’s hands clean. Many of his answers at today’s hearing had a distinctly calculated quality. Even so, Bush’s other top aides have never paid so much as lip service to such sentiments.

At one point during the questioning, Gates noted that 2,889 Americans had died in Iraq “as of yesterday morning”—a sharp contrast (and, no doubt, an intentional one) to the time when then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz appeared before the Senate Committee on Armed Services and did not know how many of his fellow citizens had been killed in the war that he helped put in motion.

When Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., threw Gates a soft pitch—asking what he’d learned from his vast experience in Washington—he not only hit it out of the park but carefully tagged all the bases and shook hands with all the basemen as he trotted around the diamond.

Among the lessons he recited: All agencies have to work together to get anything done; consulting with Congress is really important; so is treating people’s views with respect; and respecting the professionals—for instance, listening to military commanders when you’re planning a war—is really, really important, because “if you don’t make them a part of the solution, they will become a part of the problem.”

In other words, he was telling the panel: “Anoint me, for I am the anti-Rumsfeld.”

Is he for real? Who can say at this point. Sen. Levin said at the outset that he’d voted against Gates in 1991 when President Bush’s father nominated him to be CIA director, on the grounds that Gates hadn’t been candid about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Levin also read a passage this morning from former Secretary of State George Shultz’s memoirs in which he slammed Gates—who, at the time, was the CIA’s deputy director—for manipulating intelligence data to suit his and Casey’s policy views. Gates replied that the dispute stemmed from the very tense relationship between Shultz and Casey. True enough, but Gates skirted the substance of Shultz’s claim: that Gates and Casey exaggerated evidence that the Soviet Union was a growing threat and a sponsor of terrorism—and downplayed evidence to the contrary. It was the one moment, during the hearing, of outright mendacity on Gates’ part—and serious enough to justify lingering suspicions.

But the main question, at this point, isn’t about Gates; it’s about Bush. For the past six years, there has been a tendency to blame this administration’s colossal mistakes on Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, but several former officials have told me that, on many occasions, Bush really has been “the decider.” Soon, Rumsfeld will be gone. Cheney will be isolated. We may find out what George W. Bush really thinks.

Gates had two things to say about that prospect at today’s hearing. When Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., asked why he thinks Bush will heed his advice on Iraq, Gates replied, “Because he asked me to take this job.” Yet earlier, when Kennedy asked him where his loyalties lay, he said, “I’ll be independent. … But,” he emphasized, “there is still only one president of the United States, and he will make the final decision.”

Correction, Dec. 6, 2006: Due to an error in notes, this article originally misidentified the senator who asked Gates if he favored a return to the draft. It was Bill Nelson, D-Fla., not Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. (Return to corrected sentence.)