Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that chances are “fairly remote” that President Obama’s timetable for withdrawing from Iraq will be stalled in any major way by deteriorating conditions in the war zone.
The secretary’s comment should reassure Democratic skeptics who have said they are worried about possible loopholes in the president’s announcement that he plans to end U.S. combat in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010.
Gates, the only Cabinet member held over from the Bush administration, also told moderator David Gregory that President Obama “is somewhat more analytical” than his predecessor.
“He makes sure he hears from everybody in the room on an issue – and if they don't speak up, he calls on ’em,” Gates said. “President Bush was interested in hearing different points of view, but didn't go out of his way the make sure that everybody spoke if they hadn't spoken up before.”
Initially, when Gregory asked what's different about working for President Obama versus President Bush, Gates said with a laugh: “That sounds like the subject of a good book.”
And Gates will have quite a book when he writes the sequel to his 1996 memoir. He was sworn in on Dec. 18, 2006, so he has watched two war presidents make monumental decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary Gates joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1966 and spent nine years at the National Security Council. He was president of Texas A&M University when President George W. Bush lured him back into public service.
In the interview taped late Saturday afternoon on the “Meet the Press” set in Washington, Gates said how long he remains at the Pentagon will be up to the president. When asked if he would stay for the entire first term, he added: “That would be a challenge.” But he said he has “no date in mind” for departing.”
On Iraq, Gates played down the chances of any major slowdown in the withdrawal plan.
“What the President has said is that as commander-in-chief, he always … retains the flexibility and the authority to change a plan or adjust it if he thinks it's in the national security of the United States,” Gates said. “The fact is, I don't think any of us believe that that will be necessary.”
Pressed by Gregory, Gates added: “I would characterize the likelihood of significant adjustments to this plan as fairly remote.”
Some Democratic leaders have criticized the number of forces that will remain in supposedly non-combat roles. Gates noted that “the commanders … would've preferred that the combat mission not end until the end of 2010.”
“So having a somewhat larger residual, or transition, force, mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner,” Gates said. “The President has said that that will be a transition force of 35,000 to 50,000. … As he pointed out, in the absence of any new agreement with the Iraqis, we have to be at zero by the end of 2011. So, that 50,000 or 35,000 is a way-station on the way to zero.”
At one point, Gregory asked: “When the United States finally leaves Iraq, will it have achieved victory?”
Gates replied: “I think we have had a significant success [on] the military side. … The political side is still a work in progress in Iraq. And frankly, I think before you start using terms like ‘won’ or ‘lost’ or ‘victory’ or ‘defeat,’ those are the kinds of things that I think historians have to-- have to judge. But I think that from the standpoint of the military mission-, we will have enjoyed significant success.”
On other topics, Gates said:
About changes to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan: “We're reviewing exactly that in the administration right now. That's what the Pakistanis and the Afghans were in town for, was to participate in that review. We're talking to the Europeans, to our allies. We're bringing in an awful lot of people to get different points of view as we go through this review of what our strategy ought to be.”
About Iran: “However one might criticize the war in Iraq, I don't think that either the last administration or the current one have been distracted from the growing problem with Iran and its nuclear program in least over the last number of years. … [T[here has been a continuing focus on how do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear weapons program? They're not close to a stockpile. They're not close to a weapon at this point. And so, there is some time.”
About Mexico: “What is important is that President [Felipe] Calderón of Mexico, perhaps for the first time, has taken on the battle against these cartels. And because of corruption and the police and so on, he sent the federal- army of Mexico into the fight. The cartels are retaliating. I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past. Some of the old biases against cooperation … between our militaries … are being satisfied. … Providing them with training, with resources, with recognizance and surveillance kinds of capabilities.”
About where Russia is going: “That's a good question. That's not entirely clear.”