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American Forces Press Service

Gates Vows to Focus on Iraq, Troop Welfare if Confirmed

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2006 – Defense secretary nominee Robert M. Gates told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing today that if he’s confirmed to the top Pentagon post, his highest calling will be to ensure success in Iraq and look out for the men and women in uniform.

Gates told committee members during his opening statement that he’s “under no illusion why I am sitting before you today: the war in Iraq.” He said he recognizes the importance of improving the situation there.

During a questioning period, Gates said he doesn’t believe the coalition is currently winning in Iraq. But, he added, he also agrees with Marine Gen. Peter Pace’s assessment, offered Nov. 29 during a Pentagon news conference, that the coalition is not losing, either.

The period ahead is critical in tipping that scale, Gates said.

“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,” he said. “Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk of a possible reality of a regional conflagration.”

Achieving victory will require cooperation and close coordination by the many players involved. “We need to work together to develop a strategy that does not leave Iraq in chaos, and that protects our long-term interests in and hopes for the region,” he said.

Gates said he’s open to alternative strategies and tactics for operations in Iraq, including those expected soon from the Iraq Study Group, which he was involved with until President Bush nominated him as defense secretary Nov. 8.

He told the committee he also will consult with military leaders and combatant commanders in the field and “will give most serious consideration to the views of those who lead our men and women in uniform.”

Gates said he also will consult with leaders in the executive branch and Congress and share that input with the president and National Security Council. “Of course, it is the president who will decide what, if any, changes are made in our approach,” he said.

He told committee members the “most humbling” part of his job, if confirmed as defense secretary, will be making decisions that will have life-and-death consequences. “Our country is at war, and if confirmed, I will be charged with leading the men and women who are fighting it,” he said.

Gates offered high praise to the U.S. armed forces and said they proudly carry on the tradition of their predecessors, who have fought the country’s wars for the past 230 years.

“The patriots who have volunteered to serve in our armed services today have no equal in the world,” he said. “I offer this committee my solemn commitment to keep the welfare of our forces uppermost in my mind.”

Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told committee members he did not seek a return to government or the job of defense secretary. “I am here because I love my country and because the president of the United States believes I can help in a difficult time,” he said. “I hope you will reach a similar conclusion.”

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