WASHINGTON – Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee for defense secretary, won unanimous approval Tuesday from the Senate Armed Services Committee, forwarding the nomination to the full Senate for a vote.
"We have just concluded our vote and so far as we know, 21 senators were present, all unanimous," panel chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said. Later, the remaining three senators on the panel added their approval.
Warner said it's his judgment Gates can hit the ground running as the United States tries to find a resolution in Iraq.
"He is imminently qualified to hit the ground, and I think shows strong leadership and will be a strong voice to work with the president," Warner said.
Gates' nomination is on a fast track, with the Senate planning to vote on the confirmation on Wednesday. He appeared Tuesday for his confirmation hearing. His answers gave lawmakers hope for a new policy on Iraq, which many senators say is bogged down by sectarian violence that requires a political solution over a military response.
"What he did both in the substance of his answers and in the tone that he set addressed the key issues that we face. Is he open to major course correction in Iraq, clearly he was and is. That doesn't mean it will happen, that is going to be up to the president, but clearly this new secretary of defense is open to a major course correction and it is needed," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the incoming chairman of the panel when Democrats take the majority next month.
During the open hearing, the nominee said the U.S. is neither winning nor losing the war in Iraq, and "all options are on the table" for a fix. He warned that if the situation doesn't improve soon, it could expand into a "regional conflagration."
"What we are now doing is not satisfactory," Gates said at his confirmation hearing. "In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq.
"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 and possible reality of a regional conflagration. 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," Gates told the Armed Services panel.
After a lunch break, Gates returned to the committee to add that his remarks pertain "to the situation in Iraq as a whole" and is in no way meant to leave U.S. troops with the impression they were not being successful in their assigned missions.
"Our military wins the battles that we fight," he said, adding the problems are "in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on."
In opening testimony to the panel weighing his confirmation, Gates said he will look most closely at proposals and ideas that will lend stability not only to Iraq but to the greater Middle East.
"While I am open to alternative ideas about our future strategy and tactics in Iraq, I feel quite strongly about one point: 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.
Levin said the next defense secretary will lead a military that is the most capable in the world, but faces a "monumental challenge" in coming up with a successful Iraq policy.
"If confirmed as secretary of defense, Robert Gates will face the monumental challenge of picking up the pieces from broken policies and mistaken priorities for the past few years," Levin said at the opening of Gates' confirmation hearing. "First and foremost, this means addressing the ongoing crisis in Iraq."
In a dig at outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Levin added that the nominee is taking over a position previously held by a civilian leader who has alienated members of Congress as well as administration officials and military leaders within the Pentagon.
"The next secretary will have to work hard to heal these wounds and address the many problems facing the department and the country. Success will require more than total commitment, it will require an individual who is creative, fair and open-minded and above all, an individual who can listen to, learn from and work with others. It will also require an individual who is willing to speak truth to power and encourage others to do the same," Levin said.
Warner offered Gates some early advice on working with Congress, which will be in Democratic hands next year.
"You have been nominated for one of the most important positions in government. If confirmed, you will be an important part" of the review process between Congress and the administration, Warner said in an opening statement.
"I urge you not to restrict your advice or your personal opinions regarding the current — and future — evaluations of strategies. In short, you simply have to be fearless in discharging your statutory obligations as the 'principal assistant to the president in all matters relating to the Department of Defense,'" he said.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow responded to Gates comment about winning or losing in Iraq by saying the nominee's remarks are consistent with what President Bush has been saying. But asked whether Bush thinks the United States is winning in Iraq, Snow said the president did believe it.
"If you want to try to get a nuanced and full understanding of where Bob Gates stands on these issues with regard to the president and his policies and the definition of what it is to win in Iraq and what it takes, then I think you're going to find that there is — that he agrees and also that he is committed to the mission. And that's what the bulk of today's about," Snow said.
Gates, the current president of Texas A&M University, faced mainly routine questioning ahead of his confirmation vote in the Senate. He was introduced by former Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who hails from Gates' home state, and David Boren, D-Okla., the longest-serving chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and head of the panel when Gates endured a grueling confirmation process to become CIA director in 1991.
In his remarks, Dole, whose wife, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., serves on the panel, endorsed the policy of staying in Iraq until it's secure and putting Gates in the position of reaching that goal.
"In the American experience, wars that enjoy equivocal support from our people usually end with equivocal outcomes. This is why our country must unite beyond a strategy for a successful military mission, a viable exit plan and a recognizable vision for Iraq's future. I agree with the president that Bob Gates is the man to make this happen," Dole said.
Gates went through rounds of questioning that alternated between Republicans and Democrats, starting with Warner and Levin. Warner said during a break that it was moving along smoothly, and only a few senators returned for the afternoon question-and-answer period.
"Certainly, judging from what occurred this morning, I think that we can be quite optimistic that this nomination will move forward in an orderly and a careful process, consistent with the longstanding traditions of this committee and the Senate in its role in advise and consent," he said.
"What we heard this morning was a welcome breath of honest, candid realism about the situation in Iraq," added Levin. "There will be some additional hard questions this afternoon for Dr. Gates, I know. But I must tell you I was very, very pleased by what we heard this morning."
In written testimony offered to the committee ahead of the hearing, Gates said he supported Bush's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 and would oppose a quick exit for U.S. troops. Gates wrote that leaving Iraq in the chaotic state it's in now would "have dangerous consequences" in the region and around the world "for many years to come."
But he said in looking back, he probably would have done some things differently, for instance planning better for the aftermath from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and end of major combat.
Gates told panel members on Tuesday that he believed the president was not satisfied with the outcome of operations in Iraq and had called on Gates to be the new secretary so that fresh eyes could look at the problem. Currently, nearly 140,000 U.S. forces are in Iraq, and several lawmakers have suggested the number is either not enough or too much.
"I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration would not make the same decisions they made," including the number of troops in Iraq to establish control after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, Gates said.
"It seems to me that the United States is going to have to have some kind of presence in Iraq for a long time ... but it could be with a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces than are there today," he later said.
Bush said Monday that "Mr. Gates understands that we're in an ideological struggle and that the United States must succeed in helping this young democracy govern, sustain and defend itself." But he added that it's illogical and impractical to leave Iraq prematurely.
"Al Qaeda has made it clear that they want to team up with extremists inside of Iraq to drive us out of Iraq and the Middle East; we'd be disgraced; our allies would no longer support us. And when you throw in the mix Iran, which is very aggressive in the Middle East, you've got the ingredients for a very dangerous situation," Bush said.
Before Gates headed up to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the president offered his expressions of confidence in the nominee.
"Those who wear the uniform know they'll have a friend in Bob Gates in the Defense Department. He admires our military, he respects those who have volunteered to serve our country," Bush said. "He's going to do an excellent job for us."
The president told reporters he hopes for speedy confirmation so Gates "can get sworn in and get to work."
On Monday, Bush said he spoke with Gates before his nomination in November about what is expected in the job.
"I talked to him about two things: one, succeeding in the Middle East; and, secondly, transforming the military at the same time," Bush told FOX News' Brit Hume.
"I think that Don Rumsfeld has done remarkable work in transforming our military. I believe he has got the process far enough down the road and Bob Gates will be able to continue that," Bush said.
At the hearing, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., asked Gates his view on the wisdom of attacking either Syria or Iran, both of which have been accused by the Bush administration of hurting U.S. interests in Iraq. Gates said he would not advocate attacking either nation under current circumstances.
Byrd asked whether a U.S. attack on either Syria or Iran would worsen the violence in Iraq and lead to more U.S. casualties there.
"Yes, sir, I think that's very likely," Gates replied. During the vote, Byrd offered the motion to approve Gates for the post.
Addressing the problem of capturing or killing Usama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, Gates said it is important to keep bin Laden "on the run." It is particularly difficult to obtain reliable and timely intelligence on bin Laden's movements, he added.
"The way we'll catch bin Laden eventually, in my view, is that just as in the case of Saddam Hussein, one of his people will turn him in," Gates said.
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.