Robert M. Gates easily won the backing of the Senate Armed Services Committee to become the next secretary of defense today, saying the United States was not winning the war in Iraq and promising to act "candidly and boldy" to reverse the course of the war.
Gates, once criticized for having politicized the CIA as the agency's director, was unanimously approved by the panel's 24 members. He is expected to be approved by the Senate to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense as soon as Wednesday.
Asked by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., if the United States was winning the war, Gates said simply, "No, sir." He returned after a break to clarify that he was referring to the broader goals in Iraq and did not mean to suggest that American soldiers were losing the military battles.
The cordial hearing focused largely on the war in Iraq and whether Gates would take bold steps to reverse the rising violence and to craft an exit strategy for the 140,000 American troops there.
Having pushed Rumsfeld out of the Pentagon the day after the November election that gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress, President Bush is under intense pressure to show progress in the war and to withdraw American troops.
Asked about Bush's goals in Iraq, Gates said, "I believe that he wants me to take a fresh look, and all options are on the table."
Gates, 63, vowed to act with "considerable urgency" in Iraq if he is confirmed. He said that temporarily increasing the number of American troops in Iraq was "an option" but agreed with Bush's long-standing statement that a withdrawal from Iraq would have to be based on "conditions on the ground."
He agreed with Bush's opposition to a specific timetable for withdrawal, saying it would tell insurgents "how long they would have to wait until we're gone."
Gates noted that he had not spent much time in Iraq, and that therefore his views on troop levels were "too unformed to be helpful."
He added, though, that current troop levels were not "overwhelming."
The reference is significant because the Powell doctrine, crafted by Colin Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, holds that the United States should wage war only with overwhelming force.
Gates said that he supported the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, but that he left it to historians as to whether that was the right decision.
Acknowledging that the Bush administration had made mistakes in the war, he said American policymakers had underestimated the magnitude of the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq because they had failed to realize that "the country was broken economically, socially, politically."
The nominee indicated a difference from Rumsfeld both in policy and in style.
Gates did not name Rumsfeld or Powell, who resigned as secretary of state after feuding with Rumsfeld.
But he appeared to allude to what administration officials privately describe as poor communications between the two men.
As a former member of the Iraq Study Group -- the group slated to make recommendations on Iraq policy to Bush on Wednesday -- Gates said the panel had been told that some agencies had lacked coordination because their managers had failed to talk to one another.
Gates said, "It's personal relationships that matter, and when the secretary of state and the secretary of defense aren't speaking to one another, it actually matters in the way -- in the councils of government."
He said he was not leaving as head of Texas A&M University "to become a bump on a log and not say exactly what I think."
Gates said that the outcome of the Iraq War was of grave importance, and that a negative outcome threatened to cause a regional conflict.
"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," Gates said. And, he added, "I think that you could have Saudi Arabia. You could have Turkey, Syria, Iran. All would be involved."
Gates drew strong support even from former critics such as Levin, one of 31 senators to vote against Gates as CIA head in 1991. During a break from the hearing, Levin said he was "very, very pleased" by Gates, who offered "a welcome breath of honest, candid realism." Levin said he would press for a speedy confirmation.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also thanked the nominee for his candor, adding a swipe at Rumsfeld.
"That's something that has been sorely lacking from the current occupant in the position that you seek to hold," Clinton said. "We need a strong secretary of defense, but that doesn't mean strong-headed."
Gates said an assumption that Iraqi Shiites would act as Iraqi nationalists and resist Iranian influence has "proved questionable."
Yet Gates also defended the president. When Clinton said Gates' acknowledgement that the United States was not winning the war differed from the president's view, Gates countered, claiming that if that were the case, the president would not be seeking "fresh eyes" and "new approaches."
While praising Gates, senators expressed strong concerns about the course of the war.
"We have failed, so far, to secure the country and defeat the insurgency, and we have failed to disarm the militias and create a viable Iraqi military or police force," Levin said.
Levin briefly raised the question that prompted Levin and others to vote against Gates in 1991. But the senator noted that the independent counsel in that case now backs Gates' nomination, and then voted for Gates himself without "misgivings."