During his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing today, one of Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates' most telling exchanges was with Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. In it, Gates came very close to endorsing the view of Iraq war critics that the Bush administration should have focused on Osama Bin Laden rather than Saddam Hussein. He also expressed extreme reluctance about going to war with Iran, or for that matter, Syria. Anyone hearing Gates would have to assume that he would not endorse a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, as some neoconservatives have urged:
SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D-WV): Do you support--now we hear all these rumors about the potential for an attack on Iran, due to its nuclear weapons program, or on Syria, due to its support of terrorism. Do you support an attack on Iran?
MR. GATES: Senator Byrd, I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort; that any problems that we have with Iran, our first option should be diplomacy and working with our allies to try and deal with the problems that Iran is posing to us. I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable. And I think that the consequences of a conflict--a military conflict with Iran could be quite dramatic. And therefore, I would counsel against military action, except as a last resort and if we felt that our vital interests were threatened.
SEN. BYRD: Do you support an attack on Syria?
MR. GATES: No, sir, I do not.
SEN. BYRD: Do you believe the president has the authority, under either the 9/11 war resolution or the Iraq war resolution, to attack Iran or to attack Syria?
MR. GATES: To the best of my knowledge of both of those authorizations, I don't believe so.
SEN. BYRD: Would you briefly describe your view of the likely consequences of a U.S. attack on Iran.
MR. GATES: It's always awkward to talk about hypotheticals in this case. But I think that while Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror both in the--well, in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country is very real. They are certainly not being helpful in Iraq and are doing us--I think doing damage to our interests there, but I think they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq.
I think that they could provide certain kinds of weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons, to terrorist groups. Their ability to get Hezbollah to further destabilize Lebanon I think is very real. So I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things, and perhaps more, that I just described.
SEN. BYRD: What about an attack on Syria? Could you briefly describe your view of the likely consequences of a U.S. attack on Syria.
MR. GATES: I think the Syrian capacity to do harm to us is far more limited than that in--of Iran, but I believe that a military attack by the United States on Syria would have dramatic consequences for us throughout the Middle East in terms of our relationships with a wide range of countries in that area. I think that it would give rise to significantly greater anti-Americanism than we have seen to date. I think it would immensely complicate our relationships with virtually every country in the region.
SEN. BYRD: Would you say that an attack on either Iran or Syria would worsen the violence in Iraq and lead to greater American casualties?
MR. GATES: Yes, sir, I think that's very likely.
SEN. BYRD: Your answer is yes on both questions.
MR. GATES: Yes, sir. Very likely.
SEN. BYRD: With respect to Osama bin Laden, within eight months of taking Baghdad, our troops captured Saddam Hussein. However, five years after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. Who is responsible, Dr. Gates, in your judgment, for the 9/11 attacks; Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?
MR. GATES: Osama bin Laden, Senator.
SEN. BYRD: Over the past five years, who has represented the greater threat to the United States; Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?
MR. GATES: Osama bin Laden.
--John B. Judis