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Senate Expected to Confirm Gates for Defense

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The senators who pass the first judgment on nominees to the Pentagon didn't waste any time. The Armed Services Committee voted last night to approve Robert Gates as the next secretary of defense. Very soon, maybe even today, the full Senate could approve him as Donald Rumsfeld's successor, which is a big change from Gates' last confirmation, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Fifteen years ago, Robert Gates endured weeks of senators questioning his integrity and candor before getting confirmed as CIA director under the first President Bush. Yesterday, it was as if all that had been either forgiven or forgotten. Republicans were eager for someone new to take charge of an unpopular war in Iraq that's cost them politically, and Democrats wanted a Pentagon chief not connected to the people who started that war.

Gates himself told the senators he had no illusion about why he was sitting before them. He said Iraq would be his highest priority.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Defense Secretary Nominee): Senator, I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M - the job that I've probably enjoyed more than any that I've ever had, making considerable personal financial sacrifice, and frankly, going through this process - to come 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, at the people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about what I believe and what I think needs to be done.

WELNA: Carl Levin, the Democrat who will chair the Armed Services panel starting in January, had a blunt question for him.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?

Mr. GATES: No sir.

WELNA: New York Democrat Hillary Clinton pointed out that Gates had reached a different conclusion from the president, who last month declared the U.S. absolutely was winning in Iraq.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): And Dr. Gates, thank you for your candor. That's something that has been sorely lacking from the current occupant in the position that you seek to hold.

WELNA: But when pressed by senators for his views on troop levels in Iraq or how those troops should be deployed, Gates demurred, saying he wants first to talk with commanders in the field. He was less reticent, when asked by South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham, about Iraq's neighbor to the east.

Senator LINDSAY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Do you believe the Iranians are trying to acquire lethal weapons capability?

Mr. GATES: Yes, sir, I do.

Sen. GRAHAM: Do you believe the president of Iran is lying when he says he's not.

Mr. GATES: Yes, sir.

WELNA: Gates maintained both Iran and Syria are meddling in Iraq, but he turned thumbs down on military action against either one.

Mr. GATES: We have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable. And I think that the consequences of a conflict - a military conflict with Iran - could be quite dramatic and therefore, I would counsel against military action except as a last resort and if we felt that our vital interests were threatened.

WELNA: On the other hand, Gates said, the U.S. ought to be talking to Syria and Iran, a strategy the White House has resisted.

Mr. GATES: I do believe that long-term stability in Iraq will be influenced by Syria and Iran. And I think that we need to look at ways - either incentives or disincentives - to bring them to try and be constructive in terms of the state on their border.

WELNA: But Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh wondered how much influence Gates will really have.

Senator EVAN BAYH (Democrat, Indiana): What leads you to believe that the president of the United States will accept your counsel?

Mr. GATES: Senator, because he asked me to take the job.

Sen. BYE: He asked the others to take the jobs as well.

Mr. GATES: Well, I think that when they assumed their positions, the circumstances that the country and the president faced were different.

WELNA: Until he was tapped to replace Rumsfeld, Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group, whose report on Iraq is coming out today. But Gates cautioned against expecting too much from that report.

Mr. GATES: It's my impression that frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq. Everybody - 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?

WELNA: Answering those questions will be Gates' job if he is confirmed as expected.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capital. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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