At a Senate confirmation hearing that was long on praise for Gates and short on criticism, the man President Bush chose to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld said he is open to new ideas about correcting the U.S. course in Iraq. He said the war would be his highest priority if confirmed as expected.
Gates, 63, said he believes Mr. Bush wants to see Iraq improve to the point where it can govern and defend itself, while seeking a new approach. "What we are now doing is not satisfactory," Gates said.
"In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," he added. He did not commit to favoring any specific new course, saying he would consult first with commanders and others.
Asked directly by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., whether the U.S. is winning in Iraq, Gates replied, "No, sir." He later said he believes the U.S. is neither winning nor losing, "at this point."
Levin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, thanked Gates for what he called a "refreshing breath of reality."
At the outset of an afternoon session of questions about Iraq and other subjects, Gates began by telling the committee he wanted to amplify on his answer. He did not withdraw the remark but said, "I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole."
He said he did not want U.S. troops to think he believes they are being unsuccessful in their assigned missions.
"Our military wins the battles that we fight," Gates said. "Where we're having our challenges, frankly, are in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on."
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow was pressed by reporters about Gates' answer that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq – one that seemed to be in conflict with the president's own position.
Snow said that Gates' testimony, taken in its entirety, shows he shares Mr. Bush's view that the U.S. must help Iraq govern and defend itself.
"I know you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the president, it doesn't exist," Snow told reporters.
"If you want to try get a nuanced and full understanding of where Bob Gates stands on these issues with regard to the president and his policies and the definition of what it is to win and Iraq and what it takes, then I think you're going to find he agrees" with Mr. Bush, Snow said.
The spokesman rejected any notion that Gates' assessment of the war would be demoralizing to U.S. troops. "What I think is demoralizing is a constant effort to try to portray this as a losing mission," Snow said.
Gates was noncommittal on questions about whether and when to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal, saying it "depends on the conditions on the ground." He also said that if confirmed he would go to Iraq soon to consult with U.S. commanders.
Asked later whether announcing a specific troop withdrawal timetable would send a signal of U.S. weakness, Gates said it "would essentially tell (the insurgents) how long they have to wait until we're gone."