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Gates Hearing Expected to Focus on Iraq


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos, sitting in for Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Robert Gates is set to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee tomorrow. It will be his confirmation hearing as the next secretary of defense. He's a former CIA director and is poised to take over the position from outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

This change in leadership comes as the war in Iraq worsens and when our Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman looks at the situation he sees a precedent.

TOM BOWMAN: He was a new defense secretary facing an unpopular war. He was replacing an aggressive, and many would say, arrogant leader at the Pentagon. There were calls for more American troops. The United States wanted local forces to take over, but clearly they were not ready.

So incoming Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, after taking over from Robert McNamara, sat down with his generals and struggled with the question of Vietnam.

(Soundbite of PBS documentary)

Mr. CLARK CLIFFORD (Former Defense Secretary): We had long talks. How long would it take? They didn't know. How many more troops would it take? They didn't know. Would 206,000 answer the demand? They didn't know. Might there be more? Yes, there might be more.

BOWMAN: The year was 1968. Clifford found the situation in Vietnam endless and hopeless. It was the beginning of the end of America's involvement. He talked about his decision years later on a PBS documentary.

(Soundbite of PBS documentary)

Mr. CLIFFORD: I had a press conference and announced formally that the 206,000 troops were not to be sent.

BOWMAN: Now it's up to Robert Gates. He has just two years before the Bush presidency ends. He will have little time for a grand vision of how the military must be transformed, like Rumsfeld. Gates will be focusing on two key problems.

Mr. WILLIAM COHEN (Former Defense Secretary): I would expect that the bulk of his time is going to be taken on Iraq and Afghanistan, and either how we add to our forces or decrease our presence.

BOWMAN: William Cohen served as defense secretary under President Clinton.

Mr. COHEN: That's going to take an enormous amount of time and working with the joint chiefs, with his military leadership, and with the Congress. All of that is going to be very, very time-consuming.

BOWMAN: And there is little sense of how Gates will proceed. He told the Armed Services Committee in written responses last week that combat troops in Iraq are, quote, "critical to success there." Gates has been a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The panel is expected to issue its recommendations this week on how to proceed in Iraq.

The group reportedly will advise a gradual reduction of combat forces with all of them out by early 2008. Tens of thousands of American troops would be left behind to train and support the Iraqi military.

The issue of troops is the key point of contention in Washington. Retired Army General Jack Kean is among those who say more American troops are needed to contain the insurgency.

General JACK KEAN (U.S. Army, Retired): Iraq is hard, but it is not hopeless.

BOWMAN: Kean says there were never enough American troops in Iraq. More troops, both American and Iraqi, will be needed to secure Baghdad. He says the Pentagon may have to scrap its yearlong rotation for troops. American soldiers may have to stay until the job is done, just like in World War II.

General KEAN: They've been in hard situations before that we have found the leadership and the courage to see our way through. And in all cases, it does involve sacrifices.

BOWMAN: Kean says failure in Iraq would mean more sanctuaries for al-Qaida, more influence for Iran, and general chaos in the region.

General KEAN: It is exponentially more serious than Vietnam.

BOWMAN: Many at the Pentagon, particularly senior officers, are eagerly awaiting Gates's arrival. There was criticism that Rumsfeld brushed aside military advice. Retired Army Lieutenant General John Riggs was among a half dozen former officers who in April called on Rumsfeld to resign.

Lieutenant General JOHN RIGGS (U.S. Army, Retired): I think it's an opportunity for a fresh approach, the regaining of that trust and confidence that needs to flow between the military and our civilian authorities. And it was missing during Mr. Rumsfeld's tenure.

BOWMAN: Former Defense Secretary Cohen says Gates will face a steep learning curve. Cohen came to the Pentagon after 18 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he became well-versed on defense issues. Gates spent a quarter century at the CIA, specializing on a Soviet Union that no longer exists.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, The Pentagon.

INSKEEP: Now, before this week's hearings in person, Gates had to answer some questions by writing, and you can read some of the answers at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.