Candor happened on Capitol Hill this week. Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, told a Senate confirmation committee hearing that "we're not winning" the war in Iraq.
It was enough to earn him confirmation. True, Gates came back after lunch to modify his bluntness a bit -- he added that we're also "not losing" yet, and that it's too soon to tell whether invading Iraq was the right decision -- but his initial flat-out statement was a needed bit of realism and a breath of fresh air wafting through the political fog of war.
Gates will inherit the tough task of salvaging Rumsfeld's disaster -- a disaster born of bad assumptions, poor planning and a state of denial about the true state of affairs in Iraq. Gates inherits what has become, despite continuing White House dissembling, a civil war by any reasonable definition. But he also inherits an eroding situation in Afghanistan, a military stretched thin by long commitments in both places, and the need to work within a mission-accomplished administration that still desperately wants to deny Gates' blunt and accurate assessment.
The one thing he will not inherit -- thanks, encouragingly, to an initial winning bit of strategy on his part -- is a hostile Senate and perhaps, by extension, Congress. As much as his hearings may be a short-term embarrassment for the White House, in the long run they could win at least some good will for the Bush administration and some backing for the Gates Pentagon and its plans. In that light, it's worth remembering that Gates is not only a former CIA deputy director but also a former member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that this week released its policy recommendations. He has been intimately involved in the Iraq analysis strategy process, and is worth listening to -- a conclusion the president would do well to reach.
In the meantime, America can ponder the tone Gates set in his daylong confirmation hearing. Perhaps the most important response, in terms of strategic vision, was his admission that "my greatest worry, if we mishandle the next year or two and if we leave Iraq in chaos, is that . . .we will have a regional conflict on our hands. You could have Saudi Arabia, you could have Turkey, Syria, Iran . . ."
That is a strong indication that Gates sees the dangers in precipitous withdrawal, and the strategic threat represented by an inflamed Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict. Piled atop national tensions, that rift could pit an anti-American arc of nations -- from Iran through Iraq and Syria to a puppet Lebanon -- against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
Gates deserved the full Senate confirmation he got. America also needs him to continue his candor while he serves as defense secretary, because the more realistic America's conduct of this war becomes, the better.