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Gates May Seek New Iraq Plan, Tracking Clifford's Vietnam Path By Ken Fireman

Bloomberg | June 21, 2007

The new defense secretary arrived at a moment of crisis with the war at a stalemate, public support tumbling and the president groping for a new strategy.

Within a few months, he had replaced the top generals, imposed his will on those remaining and persuaded the president that the only exit from the bloody conflict was disengagement.

Robert Gates in 2007? No, Clark Clifford in 1968.

Just as Clifford convinced President Lyndon Johnson of the need to change course at the height of the Vietnam War, some officials and military and foreign-policy experts say, Defense Secretary Gates may be gearing up to persuade President George W. Bush George W. Bush to move toward a drawdown in Iraq.

``I see signs of it,'' said retired Army General William Odom, who served in Vietnam and ran the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan. ``Look at his assessments of the state of affairs out there. There is an elasticity to his position.''

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, agrees. He said Gates's public comments indicate that he is ``playing a prodding role'' within the Bush administration, aimed at ``trying to prepare the way for a shift of course.''

Levin and Odom say that Gates enjoys considerable leverage within the administration. The secretary has repaired relations with senior uniformed officers and members of Congress -- two groups his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alienated -- and projects what he calls a ``no happy-talk'' tone about Iraq. That gives him credibility that may make Bush reluctant to reject his counsel.

`Strong Cards'

``He has very strong cards to play, if he wants to play them,'' said Odom, now with the Hudson Institute in Washington.

While Odom and Levin are both longtime critics of the war, even one of its original supporters, former Pentagon adviser Kenneth Adelman, shares the view that Gates is likely to come down on the side of gradual disengagement.

``Bob Gates is a very realistic guy,'' said Adelman, who backed the 2003 U.S. invasion but now says the war has been mismanaged. ``He will look at the situation and ask himself, `Can we win this?' If the answer is, not really, he won't be interested in sacrificing more American lives.''

Some analysts, such as Michael O'Hanlon of Washington's Brookings Institution, say Gates will move cautiously, given the fierce commitment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to the Iraq enterprise.

`Hard for the President'

``I think he's going to be careful,'' O'Hanlon said. ``He knows it will be hard for the president to modify this strategy.''

Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who supports the current troop buildup in Iraq, said Gates should be buying more time for the military to do its work.

``Right now it's the job for Gates to get out there and say, `Don't expect miracles by September,''' said Kingston, whose district includes Fort Stewart, a major Army base near Savannah. ``He needs to be out there articulating it.''

While Gates has expressed support for an eventual transition to a residual U.S. force that could help stabilize Iraq after most combat troops leave, he has been careful to keep his options open in his public statements.

``What I'm thinking in terms of is a mutual agreement where some force of Americans, mutually agreed, with mutually agreed missions, is present for a protracted period of time,'' Gates said on May 31.

Scowcroft Ties

Gates, 63, comes from the ``realist'' school of foreign policy, symbolized by his long ties to Brent Scowcroft, the White House national security adviser during George H.W. Bush's presidency. After serving as Scowcroft's deputy, Gates headed the Central Intelligence Agency.

If Gates chooses to weigh in on the side of reducing U.S. forces, his moment is likely to arrive in September, when the U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, will issue a much-anticipated progress report on the war; the funding for military operations in Iraq will expire; and Republican lawmakers -- who thus far have resisted efforts to force a change in course -- will return to Washington after spending the August recess listening to war- weary constituents.

Turning Point

The comparable moment in Clifford's tenure came in early 1968, in the immediate aftermath of the Tet Offensive. In examining a request from his generals to add another 206,000 U.S. troops to the 525,000 already in Vietnam, Clifford became convinced that the war was unwinnable through military means and that the U.S. must seek a negotiated solution.

``Within weeks I had come to the conclusion that my overwhelming priority as secretary of defense was to extricate our nation from an endless war,'' Clifford wrote in ``Counsel to the President,'' his memoirs, published seven years before his death in 1998.

Clifford persuaded a reluctant Johnson to reject the generals' request and take the first steps on a path that led to a 1973 agreement ending U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Gates has so far attempted no such fundamental reorientation. He arrived at the Pentagon just as Bush was formulating plans for a troop buildup and carried it out even as requests from field commanders increased it to 30,000 from 21,500. He has said that any judgment about the buildup, which has boosted U.S. forces in Iraq to 156,000, and what follows can't come before autumn.

`Wait and See'

``It's premature to answer that question,'' he said in Baghdad on June 16. ``We'll have to wait and see where we are in September.''

Gates has already put his stamp on the Defense Department. He has replaced eight senior military commanders -- including the Army chief of staff, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and the top general in Iraq -- as well as the Pentagon's chief intelligence official.

When the Iraq progress report arrives in September and the strategy debate is fully joined, Gates will play a pivotal role, said Adelman, who served on the Pentagon's advisory Defense Policy Board.

``He's the biggest player besides the president,'' Adelman said. ``That really is where the rubber meets the road. My experience is that the president is very reluctant on security issues to go against the secretary of defense.''

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