Peter Spiegel and Julian Barnes, writing for the L.A. Times, point out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is clearly not just going along with the Bush game plan in Iraq, and seems willing to cut a path of his own instead. Gates isn't parroting the administration's stance against Iraq funding that is tied to results-oriented milestones. Quite the opposite:
During a recent trip to the Middle East, Gates told the Iraqi government that time was running out and praised Democratic efforts in the U.S. Congress to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying it would help prod the Iraqis. He reiterated that point during a meeting with reporters last week.
A spokesman for Gates insisted there was no distance between the Defense secretary's thinking on the timetable for Iraq and views held by the White House or Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
But his warnings to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are just the latest indications from Gates that he believes the window of opportunity for the administration to get Iraq right is closing sooner rather than later.
Gates' pragmatic stance cuts against the partisanship we've come to expect from high-ranking administration positions:
Any determination by Gates that time is running out on the current plan could severely complicate the administration's strategy this summer, a prospect that has begun to worry some backers of the troop "surge."
"I believe Gates is on a completely different page than President Bush and Gen. Petraeus," said a former senior Defense official who has supported the buildup. "He wants to see some results by summer, and if he doesn't see those results, he seems willing to throw the towel in."
Gates was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended in its report last year that most combat troops withdraw by early 2008. Gates did not sign the report; he has said that formal deliberations did not start until after he left for the Pentagon. But several people who worked on the report said Gates was closely involved in early drafts and would have supported its eventual conclusions.
Gates's push for a September evaluation is actually a compromise position. He's previously pushed strongly for a re-assesment this summer.
When Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, suggested in recent weeks that a progress report may have to wait until the fall, Gates responded harshly.
"I was a little disturbed, frankly, to hear that one of our military officers -- and I don't know who it was -- saying it will be fall before we have some good idea," Gates told a congressional hearing, unprompted by any question about timing.
Gates eventually gave way after Bush himself announced that he would give Petraeus until September.
It's likely Gates actions are being received as strong signals by the Republicans in Congress, emboldening folks like House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner and the second-ranking Republican in the Senate Senator Trent Lott, both of whom recently indicated that they'd like to take pause in the fall to re-evaluate the surge and the plan going forward.
In contrast to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's constant bunglings, Gates obvious awareness of the realities in Iraq, and his integrity in speaking truth to power -- both in Washington and Baghdad -- are a breath of fresh air, and may well be the game-wining move we need to finally bring the troops home.
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