6 December 2006Andrew Buncombe and Rupert Cornwell
The man picked by George Bush to be the next Defence Secretary has admitted the US is not winning the war in Iraq and said the soaring violence threatens to erupt into an even more chaotic regional conflict if a solution is not found rapidly.
Robert Gates, striking a more humble note than his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, ever managed, said he would consult widely to try to turn around the situation in Iraq and "that all options are on the table in terms of how we address this problem". He added: "What we are now doing is not satisfactory." Asked directly if the US was winning the war, he replied: "No, sir." He later said he thought the US was neither winning or losing.
Mr Gates' comments on Capitol Hill, where he appeared yesterday at a Senate confirmation hearing, come amid increasing pressure in Washington and London to discover some way out of a war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 2,900 US soldiers, 126 British troops and as many as 655,000 Iraqis.
That effort will only intensify today when the Iraq Study Group (ISG), headed by a former secretary of state, James Baker, publishes its report on possible strategic options, and Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Washington for talks with Mr Bush focusing on Iraq, Afghanistan and jump-starting the Middle East peace process.
For much of the past three-and-half years the Bush administration has insisted the timing of a US withdrawal was dependent on progress in training Iraqi security forces, a process that has been riddled with problems.
Mr Gates, 63, said he was not knowledgeable enough about the situation in Iraq, and one of his first jobs would be to visit commanders on the ground. He stressed that he intended to give independent advice to Mr Bush and that he had not come to Washington to "be a bump on a log".
Asked when a withdrawal of US troops might come, he said: "It depends on conditions on the ground under which troops were withdrawn. Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next President of the US will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration."
An integral question remains whether events in Iraq are now, in effect, outside US influence, a position argued by some military experts. As such, a central recommendation of the Baker commission will be involving countries such as Syria and Iran to try to seek a regional solution. That is a course Mr Blair will press on Mr Bush, who has so far been unwilling to pursue such a route.
Another reality is that, given both the level of violence inside Iraq and the mass of conflicting sectarian loyalties, there are no easy or certain fixes for bringing an end to the bloodshed.
Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution said: " There is no obvious correct policy in Iraq. What matters is getting a better policy in Iraq."
Yesterday Mr Gates, a former CIA director who was once investigated for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, admitted as much when he said of the Baker report: "It's my impression that frankly there are no new ideas on Iraq. The list of tactics, the list of strategies, the list of approaches is pretty much out there. The question is, is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together [in a new way]?"
Increasingly, Mr Bush seems isolated in his public insistence that progress is being made. A recent leaked memo from a senior Marine intelligence commander in al-Anbar province concluded there was nothing the US could do to improve the situation there, yet Mr Bush, asked in late October whether the US was winning, replied: "Absolutely, we're winning. As a matter of fact, my view is the only way we lose is if we leave before the job is done." Mr Bush's nominee said his greatest concern about Iraq was that if the US left the country in chaos it would create an opportunity for other regional powers to become involved.
Mr Bush said on Fox News this week: "I'm listening to the Iraqis, I'm going to listen to members of Congress, I want to listen to the Baker commission. My attitude is I ought to absorb and listen to everything that's being said because I'm not satisfied with the progress being made."
Last night, Mr Gates won approval from the senate panel to become Defence Secretary.
Transcript of Robert Gates' Senate hearing
Mr Gates' preamble to the Senate Armed Services Committee:
"The department of defence, in peace time and in war time, always faces multiple challenges, many of which were identified in the questions the committee asked me to answer. If I am confirmed by the Senate, I will do my best to bring progress in addressing as many of these challenges as possible.
At the same time, I am under no illusion why I am sitting before you today - the war in Iraq. Addressing the challenges we face in Iraq must and will, be my highest priority, if confirmed. If confirmed, I plan urgently to consult with our military leaders and with our combat commanders in the field, as well as with others in the executive branch and in Congress.
I would then sit down with the president and members of the National Security Council to discuss the situation in Iraq and offer my thoughts and recommendations.
I will give most serious consideration to the views of those who lead our men and women in uniform. Of course, it is the president who will decide what, if any, changes are made in our approach...
Developments in Iraq over the next year or two will, I believe, shape the entire Middle East and greatly influence global geopolitics for many years to come. Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and the Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration.
We need to work together to develop a strategy that does not leave Iraq in chaos and that protects our long-term interests in and hopes for, the region..."
Mr Gates was questioned about the war by Republican senator John McCain
Mr McCain: "We are not winning the war in Iraq, is that correct? "
Mr Gates: "That is my view, yes sir."
Mr McCain: "And, therefore, the status quo is not acceptable?"
Mr Gates: "That is correct, sir."