In early December, when Senate Democrats politely questioned Robert M. Gates and then voted unanimously to confirm him as Defense Secretary, they bought into the conventional wisdom that Gates was a closet dove who would help guide the United States out of George W. Bush's mess in Iraq.

The thinking was that Gates, a former member of the Iraq Study Group, would represent the views of James Baker and other "realists" from George H.W. Bush's administration. Hillary Clinton and other Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee praised Gates for his "candor" when he acknowledged the obvious, that the war in Iraq wasn't being won.

Since the Gates confirmation vote on Dec. 6, however, Bush and Gates have signaled that they have no intention of extricating the U.S. military from the Iraq quagmire. They still insist on nothing short of "victory" or "success," no matter how unlikely those ends and no matter how much blood must be spilled over the next two years to avert defeat.

At his swearing-in ceremony on Dec. 18, Gates endorsed Bush's contention that a U.S. military withdrawal without victory in Iraq and Afghanistan is unacceptable.

"All of us want to find a way to bring America's sons and daughters home again," Gates said. "But, as the President has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come."

Gates also made clear that U.S. forces would remain indefinitely in Afghanistan despite the eroding military position of the U.S.-backed government there.

"The progress made by the Afghan people over the past five years is at risk," Gates said. "The United States and its NATO allies have made a commitment to the Afghan people, and we intend to keep it. Afghanistan cannot be allowed to become a sanctuary for extremists again."

Gates rejected the notion that the U.S. military intervention in either country would wind down as long as Bush is President.

"How we face these and other challenges in the region over the next two years will determine whether Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations at a crossroads will pursue paths of gradual progress towards sustainable governments, which are allies in the global war on terrorism, or whether the forces of extremism and chaos will become ascendant," Gates said.

Closet Hawk

In his brief speech, Gates also went out of his way to echo Bush's call for a more aggressive U.S. military that can intervene quickly around the world.

"I was impressed by how deployable our military has become since I last served in government" as CIA director in 1991-93, Gates said. "The President said that one of his top priorities was to help our military become more agile, more lethal and more expeditionary. Much has been accomplished in this; much remains to be done. This remains a necessity and a priority."

So, Gates is onboard with Bush's "stay-until-victory" plan for Iraq and is enthusiastic about having a "more lethal and more expeditionary" U.S. military.
Though soft-spoken and mild-mannered – especially when compared to his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld – Gates sounds in substance more like a closet hawk than a closet dove.

But the Democrats failed to probe any of Gates's inclinations at his Dec. 5 confirmation hearing. They failed to nail down his precise thinking on any aspect of the war strategy or even secure a guarantee that the Pentagon would turn over documents for 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 wiretaps 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 at the hearing, he almost invariably lined up with Bush. Though insisting that “all the options are on the table,” Gates rejected any timetable for military withdrawal as some Democrats have recommended.

Desperate to present themselves as "bipartisan," the newly victorious Democrats also avoided any impolite questions about Gates's history of deceptiveness or his role in politicizing the CIA's analytical division in the service of right-wing ideologues in the 1980s. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Secret World of Robert Gates," "Why Trust Robert Gates on Iraq," and "Robert Gates: Realist of Neo-con?"]

'Wobbly' Rumsfeld

The Democrats may have given Gates a free pass, in part, because they had been so adamant about removing Rumsfeld. Ironically, however, Bush dismissed his long-time Defense Secretary on Nov. 8, two days after Rumsfeld sent Bush a memo calling for a “major adjustment” in Iraq War strategy.

In that Nov. 6 memo, 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.”

Though the conventional wisdom has been that Bush ousted Rumsfeld on Nov. 8 as a recognition of the Democratic congressional victory on Nov. 7, it's also possible that Bush realized that Rumsfeld was “going wobbly” on the Iraq War, no longer willing to tolerate the escalating U.S. death toll with American troops caught in the middle of a sectarian civil war.

In other words, the Democrats might have cheered the removal of a Defense Secretary who was repositioning himself closer to their phased-withdrawal strategy on Iraq – and hailed his replacement, someone more in line with Bush's "stay-until-victory" thinking.

So, instead of getting the pro-withdrawal ally that they had hoped for, the Democrats may have ended up with a fresh Bush operative ready to carry out Bush's Iraq War policies though to the end of his term, without Rumsfeld's doubts and regrets.

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.'

 

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