Despite winning the Nov. 7 elections largely due to public anger over the Iraq War, congressional Democrats crumbled in their first post-election confrontation with President George W. Bush on the future direction of that conflict.

Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee floundered though inept questioning of former CIA Director Robert M. Gates, Bush’s new choice for Defense Secretary, failing to nail down the nominee’s precise thinking on any aspect of the war strategy or even to secure a guarantee that the Pentagon would turn over documents for future oversight hearings.

Among many gaps in the questioning, the Democrats didn’t press Gates on whether he shared the neoconservative vision of violently remaking the Middle East, whether he endorsed the Military Commissions Act’s elimination of habeas corpus rights to fair trials, whether he supports warrantless eavesdropping by the Pentagon’s National Security Agency, whether he agrees with Bush’s claim of “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as a Commander in Chief who can override laws and the U.S. Constitution.

When Gates did stake out substantive positions, he almost invariably lined up with Bush’s “stay-until-victory” plan in Iraq. Though insisting that “all the options are on the table,” Gates rejected any timetable for military withdrawal as some Democrats have recommended. He also echoed Bush’s argument that an American pullout would lead to a regional cataclysm.

Instead, Gates advocated an open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq. “We are still going to have to have some level of American support there for the Iraqi military and that could take quite some time,” Gates said.

Democrats couldn’t even get a commitment from Gates to turn over Pentagon documents for congressional oversight. Gates qualified his answer with phrases such as “to the limits of my authority” – suggesting that the Bush administration might well resist demands from Congress for sensitive papers about the war – and that Gates wouldn’t interfere.

Though much of the news media’s attention at the hearing focused on Gates’s concession that the United States wasn’t “winning” the war in Iraq, that admission was made in the context of Gates agreeing with assessments from Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Republican committee chairman John Warner.

Yet, because Gates offered some bromides about his “fresh eyes” and his determination not to be “a bump on a log,” the Democratic senators praised his "candor,” hailed the principle of “bipartisanship,” and joined with their Republican counterparts in endorsing Gates’s nomination on a 21-0 vote.

The unanimous Senate Armed Services Committee vote ensures that Bush will get his new Defense Secretary without giving any significant ground to the Democrats about the Iraq War or anything else.

In turn, Gates’s confirmation buys Bush at least several months to continue his Iraq War policies without appreciable interference. Some Democrats have talked about holding free-standing hearings on the war once they take over in 2007, but the Democrats now will have little leverage to compel meaningful administration cooperation.

So, when it finally becomes apparent that Gates is presiding over a continuation of Bush’s war strategy, Bush will be that much closer to the end of his term. Democrats can then justify further inaction because of the impending 2008 presidential campaign.

In the meantime, hundreds of more American soldiers and tens of thousands more Iraqis will be dead – and anti-American hatred will have spread and deepened throughout the Islamic world.

The Rumsfeld Irony

Ironically, Bush got his free pass on Gates because the Democrats were desperate for the removal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumfeld, but the surprising switch to Gates on Nov. 8 coincided with Rumsfeld finally calling for a “major adjustment” in Iraq War strategy.

In a Nov. 6 memorandum – just two days before Bush ousted him – Rumsfeld proposed a troop pullback plan similar to one recommended by Democratic Rep. John Murtha to “withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions” to safe areas of Iraq or to Kuwait. Rumsfeld also suggested “an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases from 55 now to 10 to 15 by April 2007 and to five by July 2007.”

What’s less clear is whether Rumsfeld’s “going wobbly” on the Iraq War influenced Bush’s decision to remove him. Bush had publicly declared his intention of keeping Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, but Bush suddenly reversed course and approached Gates while Rumsfeld was preparing his memo

When Bush announced Rumsfeld’s ouster in the wake of the Democratic electoral victory, the Washington press corps immediately assumed that Rumsfeld’s ouster represented an assertion of power by the more pragmatic advisers who surrounded Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush.

Newsweek enshrined that conventional wisdom in a cover showing Poppy stepping into the foreground and Sonny slinking to the rear. But George W. Bush’s aides disputed that interpretation, finding a receptive ear from right-wing pundit Fred Barnes and the neoconservative Weekly Standard.

Barnes reported that the younger George Bush didn’t consult either his father or the elder Bush’s advisers about appointing Gates. The younger Bush only picked the ex-CIA chief after a two-hour face-to-face meeting at which Bush assured himself that Gates was onboard the neoconservative notion about “democracy promotion” in the Middle East.
"Two days before the election, the President summoned Gates to his ranch near Waco, Texas,” Barnes wrote. “It was the first time they’d talked about the Pentagon position. … It was only the two of them. No aides participated in the meeting.

"The President wanted ‘clarity’ on Gates’s views, especially on Iraq and the pursuit of democracy. He asked if Gates shared the goal of victory in Iraq and would be determined to pursue it aggressively as defense chief.

"He asked if Gates agreed democracy should be the aim of American foreign policy and not merely the stability of pro-American regimes, notably in the Middle East. Bush also wanted to know Gates’s ‘philosophy’ of America’s role in the world, an aide says, and his take on the pitfalls America faces. ‘The President got good vibes,’ according to the Bush official.” [The Weekly Standard, Nov. 27, 2006]

Despite this published account, the Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee ducked any questions about this Bush-Gates recruitment meeting or what Gates might have said that gave the President such “good vibes.”

Lost History

The Democrats also avoided any queries about evidence that emerged in the 1990s contradicting Gates’s earlier sworn testimony that he had no substantive roles in Reagan-era covert policies to arm both Iraq and Iran during their eight-year war.

For instance, there was no reference at the hearing to a 1995 affidavit from Howard Teicher, one of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council aides, who placed Gates in the middle of operations to arrange third-country weapons for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by CIA Director William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates, according to Teicher’s affidavit. “The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.

Though the Teicher affidavit followed Gates’s last confirmation hearing to be CIA director in 1991 – and put in question Gates’s credibility – it didn’t exist for the Democrats who questioned Gates at his Dec. 5, 2006, hearings. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]

At the Dec. 5 hearing, it was also noteworthy that Gates was introduced and endorsed by former Sen. David Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat who was Senate Intelligence Committee chairman at the time of Gates’s 1991 confirmation hearings.

Boren’s appearance underscored the coziness that had limited those 1991 hearings. In Gates’s memoirs, From the Shadows, Gates even thanked his friend, Boren, for shepherding his CIA nomination through the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed,” Gates wrote.

What Boren did not do in 1991 was seriously investigate allegations linking Gates to a variety of corrupt activities involving Iran, Iraq, Central America and the politicization of intelligence – albeit Boren’s review in 1991 was a lot more thorough than what the Senate Armed Services Committee did in its one-day hearing on Dec. 5.

Even with almost 3,000 American soldiers dead in Iraq and estimates of more than a half million Iraqis killed in a war that has now lasted longer than the U.S. participation in World War II, the Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee set aside their constitutional duty to examine the fitness of Cabinet appointments, sacrificing that principle on the altar of “bipartisanship.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

Back to Home Page