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A cold slap of reality

The Bush administration has gone from a breathless plan to change the Middle East to a breathless plan to preserve it, from democracy promotion to conflagration avoidance.

That was the cold shower offered Tuesday by Robert Gates, the former CIA chief, on his way to being unanimously endorsed as the new defense secretary by a Senate panel craving a cold shower.

He told the Armed Services Committee, peppered with wanna-be future presidents, that the U.S. occupation could lead to a Baghdad as hostile as Tehran, and set off "a regional conflagration" if Iraq is not deftly handled in the next couple of years.

Gates asserted that if America left Iraq in chaos, Iran and Syria could encroach more, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia might jump in to stop the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis by Shiites. "We're already seeing Hezbollah involved in training fighters for Iraq," he said. "I think all of that could spread fairly dramatically."

It was the sort of realistic assessment that never came from Rummy, except when he privately admitted in a classified Nov. 6 memo that their Iraq strategy was "not working well enough or fast enough," offering a silly hodgepodge of wildly tardy or dubious options, like telling the Iraqis to "pull up their socks."

It was chilling to see in print that the man who spent nearly four years overseeing the war did not have any idea what to do in Iraq; his basic plan was not so much to fix the problem as to lower expectations. The memo offered the following lame-brained prescriptions to manage perception:

"Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to re-adjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not 'lose.' " And this: "Recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) - go minimalist."

Junior took the advice to manage perceptions by minimizing Rummy two days after he sent the memo. The walls had closed in on W.; he could no longer minimize the war, which was escalating, or the perception that it was not going well, which had spread into Republican ranks. Even Gen. Peter Pace, yes man that he is, acknowledged on Monday that "We're not winning but we're not losing."

The old criticisms of whether Gates massaged intelligence were forgotten; the senators would have embraced an ax-murderer if he had seemed sensible about Iraq.

There was no blathering on Tuesday about "known unknowns" or "Henny Penny" pessimists. The soft-spoken, vanilla Gates offered a sharp contrast from the finger-wagging, flavorful Rummy. In a remarkable shift from the mindless bellicosity and jingoism of the last few years, Gates said he did not favor military action against Iran or Syria.

Gates conceded that there would be no silver bullet. "It's my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq," he said. Asked by Robert Byrd who was responsible for Sept. 11, Saddam or Osama, Gates did not try to fudge. "Osama bin Laden, senator," he replied. Asked who has represented a greater threat, he repeated "Osama bin Laden."

W. insisted to Fox News' Brit Hume on Monday that his "objective hadn't changed" and that "we're going to succeed in Iraq." Asked by Carl Levin if America was winning in Iraq, Gates answered, "No, sir."

After lunch, the nominee clarified his remarks, saying he had not meant to criticize the troops, that the reversals in Iraq were not their fault. They don't lose battles in Iraq because there are no battles. There's just a counterinsurgency that they can't see and that they weren't prepared or equipped to fight.

2006, New York Times News Service