As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates joins in baiting Iraq War critics for supposedly aiding the enemy, the Democrats have been taught once more the value of handing a bipartisan olive branch to George W. Bush.

In December 2006, ignoring warnings from former CIA officers who had worked with Gates, Senate Democrats embraced his nomination to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They fawned over Gates at a one-day hearing, spared the former CIA director any tough questions, and then unanimously endorsed him.

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and others hailed Gates’s “candor” when he acknowledged the obvious, that the United States wasn’t winning the war in Iraq, a position that even Bush subsequently embraced.

In December, the “conventional wisdom” was that Bush would bend to the troop-drawdown recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and that Gates – as a former member of the ISG – would guide the President toward disengagement from Iraq.

But in rushing Gates’s nomination through with only pro forma hearings, the Democrats sacrificed a rare opportunity to demand answers from the Bush administration about its war policy at a time when the White House wanted something from the Democrats, i.e. the quick confirmation of Gates.

At minimum, the Democrats could have used an extended confirmation hearing to explore, in detail, Gates’s views about the military challenges in the Middle East and ascertain what he knew about Bush’s future plans.

They also could have taken time to examine exactly who Gates is, whether he is the right man to oversee the complex conflicts in the Middle East, and what his real record was in handling regional issues in the past.

Gates allegedly played important but still-secret roles in controversial U.S. policies toward Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. In addition, former CIA officers have criticized Gates for “politicizing” the CIA’s intelligence analysis as a top CIA official in the 1980s.

Some of the CIA institutional and personnel changes that Gates implemented led to the CIA’s malleability in the face of White House pressure over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction in 2002-03, former CIA officials said. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Secret World of Robert Gates."]

So, was Gates a closet neoconservative ideologue hiding behind Boy Scout looks and mild manners? Or was he more a yes man who would bend to the will of his superiors? His record could be interpreted either way. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Robert Gates: Realist or Neo-con?"]

But the Democrats politely evaded these thorny questions.

Rumsfeld’s Lament

The Senate Armed Services Committee also could have called Rumsfeld to explain his Nov. 6 memo which contained recommendations for U.S. troop redeployments similar to those suggested by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania. Two days after that memo was sent to Bush, the President fired Rumsfeld and replaced him with Gates.

The Democrats could have demanded that Rumsfeld explain what had led to his change in thinking and whether his “going wobbly” was the precipitating fact in his firing. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Gates Hearing Has New Urgency."]

By extending the hearings a few days, they also could have asked Rumsfeld and Gates about the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations.

Under White House pressure, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, R-Virginia, scheduled Gates’s one-day hearing the day before former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton released the ISG’s report listing 79 recommendations to address the "grave and deteriorating" situation in Iraq.

Though then still in the Senate minority, committee Democrats had the power to demand fuller hearings. But they were desperate to demonstrate their bipartisanship and their generosity in victory, extending Bush an olive branch and hoping that Bush would respond in kind.

Immediately after the perfunctory hearing, Gates got unanimous approval from the Armed Services Committee and the next day won confirmation from the full Senate. He was opposed by only two right-wing Republican senators.

In the seven weeks since then, it’s become clear that Bush bamboozled the Democrats again. The “conventional wisdom” of early December turned out to be all wrong.

Bush dashed the Democrats’ hopes for a bipartisan strategy on Iraq by unceremoniously junking the Baker-Hamilton recommendations.

Instead of moving to drawdown U.S. forces, he chose to escalate by adding more than 20,000 new troops. Instead of negotiating with Iran and Syria as the ISG wanted, Bush sent aircraft carrier strike groups to the region and authorized the killing of Iranian agents inside Iraq.

Instead of building on the bipartisan approach of the Iraq Study Group, Bush pronounced himself the “decision-maker” and signaled his surrogates to step up accusations that the Democrats were aiding and abetting the terrorists.

Gates’s Thanks

For his part, Gates has shown his thanks to the Democrats for his cakewalk confirmation by speeding up deployment of the new troops even as Democrats struggle to fashion a non-binding resolution opposing the escalation.

Gates also picked up Bush’s favorite cudgel to pound the Democrats for supposedly helping the enemy.

“Any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to those folks,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon on Jan. 26. “I’m sure that that’s not the intent behind the resolutions, but I think it may be the effect.”

Now, as Bush rushes more troops to Iraq, the Democrats are left to debate whether the non-binding resolution on the “surge” should refer to it as an “escalation” or, as some Republicans would prefer, an “augmentation.”

Though vowing stronger action in the future, many Democrats already have ruled out blocking new funds for the war because that would open them to more accusations of disloyalty. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken impeachment “off the table,” too.

So, the Democrats are again learning a hard lesson they should have mastered years ago, that this breed of Republicans views Democrats as suckers who can be easily seduced with a few sweet but empty words like “bipartisanship” and “comity.”

In December, the Democrats voluntarily sacrificed a golden opportunity to use the Gates nomination to force an examination of Bush’s war strategy. At that moment, they held real leverage over the administration to get documents and other needed information.

Instead, they engaged in wishful thinking, opted to be nice and are now finding what their gestures of bipartisanship got them.

[To see Consortiumnews.com's new archive on Gates-related articles, click here.]

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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