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Will Anyone Ask a Real Question?

SASC-ing Robert Gates

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

Robert Gates will start the constitutionally required Senate confirmation process to become secretary of defense at the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on Dec. 5. However, what that committee calls an inquiry into his fitness for office will, instead, be an exercise in political posturing — mostly, but not entirely, by the senators. Tune into the C-SPAN broadcast of this important public event to see the following:

Form over Substance

The Senate is steeped in tradition and ceremony, and no senator is a bigger devotee than the current — outgoing — chairman, John Warner, R-Va. He will start the hearing with a long "opening statement." It will include a concerned but not graphic description of the unfolding disaster in Iraq, the need for a new strategy there, and a few polite words — but not too many — about Donald Rumsfeld. In view of the results of the November elections, he will end with a gentlemanly signing off as chairman of what he will describe as an "august" committee, and he will figuratively — but not yet literally — hand over the gavel to the oncoming chairman, Carl Levin, D-Mich.

When it’s his turn to talk, Levin will be more business-like, but he will convey as little new or important information as did Warner, only an alternate discourse through the obvious issues.

We will then be subjected to an agonizingly long series of "opening statements" from each and every other senator. Most will strive prodigiously to make some sort of news that earns a few seconds of coverage in the evening’s TV news. Very probably, one winner will be Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., calling for more troops to go to Iraq with some sharp rhetoric. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., will make news, or not, depending on her political calculation of whether or not she wants attention in connection with Gates’ nomination hearing. The rest will do their very best at being important; the TV newscast producers will separate the winners from the losers.

All these opening statements will take about an hour or two. Then it will be Gates’ turn for his statement. Assuming he follows the advice given to all presidential nominees appearing before the Senate for confirmation, he will say absolutely nothing but he will appear very authoritative in doing so.

Then, the "questioning" will begin. Chairman Warner will be first. He will give what amounts to yet another opening statement. At the end of it he will pose a question, but it will be utterly predictable. The big issue is, of course, Iraq; he will ask something like "Will there be a new strategy?" (Note: he will not ask what the new strategy will be.) Having been told exactly what the question will be several days earlier, Gates will "answer" it: Everything is under consideration; he has spoken at length with the president; the goal is "victory," but, no, he can’t talk to specifics (or to criteria, methods, parameters, conditions, factors, particulars, or prerequisites).

Senator Levin will ask questions next. He will very probably try to get Gates to say what he had just said he wouldn’t say: what the new Iraq strategy might be, or what descriptors might apply to it. He’ll explain to Levin that he and the president want to hear from the Iraq Study Group (the Baker-Hamilton Commission) first. Of course, if Gates and Bush don’t know exactly what Baker-Hamilton will say — and what their own response is — we are all in for new depths of incompetence.

We will then run through the other twenty-two members of the committee, each being given seven to ten minutes. We will observe the following:

More Speeches

Having already explained themselves with their "opening statements," the members will re-profess what they think is the most important national security issue in yet another speech. It will invariably take up virtually all of the senator’s allotted time. In some cases it will end in a question. In others, it will end with a request that Gates simply respond. The subject matter will vary from more on Iraq — such as another attempt to get Gates to say what he said he wouldn’t say — to why some defense program or facility in some senator’s state should be preserved for time immemorial.

In all cases, Gates will say that what the senator said was important, but, no, he will not provide any specifics. The line will be that any particulars would "prejudice" his work as secretary of defense, but exactly how a discussion of the pros and cons of expanding U.S. occupation forces in Iraq, building more F-22 fighters or C-130 transports in Georgia (Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., will ask about those), or basing a new aircraft carrier in Florida to replace the USS Kennedy might force Gates to go in one ill-advised direction or another is quite unclear. However, no senator will show the skill or determination to extract a real answer.

An Actual Question?

Somewhere along the line, some senator will ask an actual question without a five-paragraph preamble. It will, however, be read off, or summarized from, a staff memo. It may be a legalism about Gates’ involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, what parts of the United States can North Korea’s newest missile reach (if it were ever to work), or how many F-22’s would be needed to "win" against China (Saxby Chambliss again). In all cases, two things are sure to happen, or rather not: Gates will not provide a concrete answer, and the questioner will respond not with a follow-up question, but a new one — almost certainly entirely unrelated — that is again read off or summarized from a staff memo.

It will be on the basis of this Kabuki dance that the Senate Armed Services Committee will endorse Robert Gates to be secretary of defense and that the full Senate will follow its advice.

I hope I am wrong, especially regarding the Democrats. We already know from 12 years of experience from Republican control on this committee that one of Congress’s most important duties — oversight — has been deeply interred. It would be a welcome and important new development if the Democrats have awoken from their slumber, have disinterred a few investigative skills, and choose to ask real questions and extract meaningful answers.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues. He can be contacted at: winslowwheeler@comcast.net.