WASHINGTON — By a vote of 95-2, the Senate approved President Bush’s defense secretary nominee Wednesday, a day after the nomination sailed through the Armed Services Committee.
Robert Gates, a former CIA director, will be sworn in December 18.
Two Republican senators — Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Jim Bunning of Kentucky — cast the only no votes.
“He’s the right guy at the right time,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
During Wednesday’s debate on the nomination, it seemed Democrats had been successfully wooed by Gates.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he was “favorably impressed” by Gates’ candor and forthrightness.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been a vocal critic of Bush’s Iraq policy, added that he believes Gates will be “an independent thinker and give candid and frank advice to the president about a way forward in Iraq.”
However, Kennedy warned, the American people “are demanding a lot more than a change of faces at the Pentagon … They’re demanding — and they deserve — a comprehensive change in our policy.”
The vote comes a day after Gates was confirmed by the Senate Armed Services Committee 24-0 on Tuesday.
No significant opposition to Gates’ nomination surfaced during the confirmation process. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said before the Wednesday vote that Gates would be confirmed unless something “untoward” turned up during the hearings. (Watch why Gates was expected to be approved Video)
Bush announced Gates’ nomination the day after Democrats snared the necessary seats to take control of both houses of the new Congress when it convenes in January.
GOP and Democratic leaders on the armed services committee agreed to proceed with Gates’ confirmation this year, rather than wait until the Senate changes guard in January.
Gates, the 63-year-old president of Texas A&M University, was nominated November 8 to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Gates has shown signs that he is willing to voice unpopular opinions to the administration. In addition to his criticism of the Iraq war’s handling, Gates also has pledged to improve the Pentagon’s postwar planning.
Before his nomination, Gates was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose highly anticipated report offers the Bush administration alternatives to its current strategy in Iraq. (Watch Bush discuss what happens now after receiving Iraq Study Group report Video)
Testifying before the committee for hours Tuesday, he told members that the U.S. course in Iraq “over the next year or two” would shape the entire Middle East. (CNN’s Andrea Koppel on Gates’ testimony Video)
When asked by Levin, incoming chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, if he thought the U.S. was winning the war, Gates replied, “No, sir.”
Later, he clarified his remark, saying the United States wasn’t losing either and that his comment pertained to Iraq as a whole, not just as a military endeavor.
“Our military forces win the battles that they fight. Our soldiers have done an incredible job in Iraq, and I’m not aware of a single battle that they have lost,” he said.
As recently as October, Bush said the United States was winning the war.
Gates also told Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona the “status quo isn’t acceptable” and that the United States invaded Iraq without enough troops.
The nominee said he suspects that in hindsight the Bush administration would have handled some decisions differently, “and I think one of those is that there clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country.”
The nominee also told the committee that he was “open to new ideas” regarding policy in Iraq and that “all options are on the table.” (Watch Gates explain how the U.S. must maintain “some presence in Iraq for a long time” Video)
“I am under no illusion why I am sitting before you today: the war in Iraq,” Gates told the committee. “I welcome the many alternative strategies and tactics proposed by members of Congress and others.”
No timeline given
Gates, who served in the administration of the first President Bush as CIA director and deputy national security adviser, gave no timeline for ending the conflict in Iraq.
But he repeatedly referenced “the next year or two” when discussing U.S. options in the war-torn nation. (Watch how Gates will tackle his “highest priority” Video)
“Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk and possible reality of a regional conflagration,” he said.
Developments in Iraq during that time will “greatly influence global geopolitics for many years to come,” he said.
Also affecting regional stability, Gates said, is how the United States handles its acrimonious relationships with Iran and Syria.
Gates has previously said the United States should include both countries in efforts to stabilize Iraq, an opinion Bush does not share.
Though neither country is well-equipped militarily to exact harm on the United States, both pose threats to the region and U.S. interests, Gates said during the hearing.
Iran concerns Gates because “their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror — in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country — is very real,” he said.
But, the nominee said, while the Islamic republic is working against U.S. interests, “I think they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq.”
Attacking Iran would be an “absolute last resort” if diplomatic efforts to dissuade the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions fail, he said.
Syria poses even less of a threat to the U.S., and any U.S. military attack on Syria would have grave consequences for the region, said the former CIA director.
“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,” Gates said.