WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that the top military commander in Iraq is not the sole adviser on the war and suggested that President Bush this year will be confronted with competing views on what to do next.
Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he will weigh in, along with the head of U.S. Central Command and the service chiefs, in addition to Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq.
"It's clear that Gen. Petraeus' views will have a very strong impact on this, but I think the president will need to hear other points of view as well," Gates said.
Last month, after meeting with Petraeus, Bush signaled that he might endorse a pause in troop reductions.
"My attitude is, if he (Petraeus) didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed," Bush said. "I said to the general, if you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you."
Bush's remarks have irritated Democrats, who say the Iraqis will not bother to reconcile politically unless they know U.S. troops are on their way out.
"It is long past time that the Iraqi leaders hear a clear simple message: We can't save them from themselves," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., panel chairman. "It's in their hands, not ours, to create a nation by making the political compromises needed to end the conflict."
U.S. commanders are concerned that recent security strides made in Iraq could be reversed if the extra troops come out too soon. Last year, Bush ordered five more Army brigades to the country.
One of those extra brigades left in December and the other four are due to come out by July, leaving 15 brigades, or roughly 130,000 to 135,000 troops — the same number as before Bush sent the reinforcements.
Petraeus is scheduled to report to the president and to Congress in April on possible additional cutbacks and any recommended changes in strategy. Petraeus recently said it would be prudent to "let things settle a bit" after the current round of troop cuts is completed in July.
Testifying on Bush's half trillion defense budget for 2009, Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not say whether they agree with Petraeus that more time might be needed before troop cuts continue.
Mullen said he did not think that keeping 15 brigades in Iraq would automatically prevent the Army from reducing its 15-month combat tours to 12 months.
But, he added, that the upcoming decision will be difficult because the strain on the forces is great. U.S. ground forces are not broken, but they could be, he said.
"The well is deep, but it is not infinite," Mullen said. "We must get Army deployments down to 12 months as soon as possible. People are tired."
Much of the Pentagon's annual budget request is aimed at expanding the ranks of ground forces and improving their ability to fight. The spending blueprint seeks $20.5 billion to boost the size of the Army by 7,000 soldiers, to 532,400, and add 5,000 Marines to expand the Corps to 194,000.
Mullen's stern warnings are likely to become welcome political fodder for anti-war Democrats, who want legislation requiring that troops spend more time at home between combat tours. Last year's efforts to pass such a bill failed after intense lobbying by Gates, who says it would do more harm than good and tie the hands of military commanders.
Of the more than half trillion requested by the Pentagon, only $70 billion would go toward war spending, representing a fraction of what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan likely will cost. Defense officials say the money is expected to last until early 2009, when the next president takes over.
Democrats said they were frustrated that the military's latest budget does not include a full accounting of next year's war costs.
"While the monetary cost is not the most important part of the debate over Iraq or Afghanistan, it does need to be part of that debate, and the citizens of our nation have a right to know what those costs are projected to be," Levin said.
If the current rate of war spending is a guide, the additional request for 2009 is likely to exceed $100 billion, Gates said. But, he added that he has no confidence in that number, in part because he doesn't know how many troops will be in Iraq this fall. Also uncertain is whether Congress will approve the $102.5 billion still needed in this budget year, he said.
"I can give you a number if you wish. But I can tell you the number would inevitably be wrong," Gates said.