The President Has Encouraged Me To Speak My Mind About Iraq. He Would Just Prefer That I Not Do It Out Loud.

Is Robert Gates becoming the Paul O'Neill of President Bush's second term? Someone, in other words, who not only can't stay on the same page as the White House, but who may have lost his songbook altogether -as often seemed the case with the former Treasury secretary? Twice now in the past week, Defense Secretary Gates has raised hackles at the White House with headline-making comments on Iraq that sounded a different note from the official line. First, at a time when Bush was hammering away at Democrat-sponsored spending bills that would set a withdrawal deadline, Gates suggested on a trip to Jordan last week that the debate on Capitol Hill over an Iraq withdrawal deadline was "helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited." Then, during a stop in Iraq a few days later, Gates said "the clock is ticking" and that U.S. troops would not be patrolling Iraqi streets "open-endedly."

That also seemed to give aid and comfort to Democrats who argue for a deadline. ''Unlike some in your administration who have been playing politics by criticizing the debate in Congress over responsible timelines, Secretary Gates recognizes that debating the timelines is constructive because it exerts pressure on Iraq's leaders to forge political compromises,'' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders wrote in a letter to Bush.

Gates's comments also unsettled Iraq strategists on the Bush team who fear that too many signals about the limits of U.S. patience could backfire, rather than induce the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to get its act together. "If they feel we're going to leave, they'll cut deals with Moqtada Sadr" and other bad guys, says one Iraq expert who consults with the White House. A DoD official says the Pentagon has heard a "question or two" about Gates's comments from the White House, but that is all. A White House spokesperson did not immediately return a call asking for comment.