Reaching Across the Aisle On Iraq

Donald Rumsfeld had little stomach for talking to members of Congress, Democrat or Republican. But his successor as Defense secretary, Robert Gates, can't seem to get enough of them—especially Democrats. This summer, Gates intervened in a nasty spat between his No. 3 deputy, Under Secretary Eric Edelman, a former adviser to Dick Cheney, and Sen. Hillary Clinton after the senator requested a briefing on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Edelman accused her of aiding the enemy, and Cheney backed him up. But Gates wrote Clinton a conciliatory letter and ordered Edelman to brief her. Late last week Gates had lunch with the Senate Democratic Policy Committee—something Rumsfeld never did. And within days, administration sources tell NEWSWEEK, Gates is expected to appoint Bill Clinton's former deputy Defense secretary, John Hamre—a highly regarded technocrat—as chairman of his Defense Policy Board, an influential advisory body. (Hamre declined to comment on his imminent appointment except to say, "I have been asked to serve.") This, too, is a remarkable break from Rumsfeld, who staffed his board with conservatives and named hard-liner Richard Perle to run it.

Aides to Gates say that his most significant, and least heralded, maneuver is his ongoing effort to find a middle ground that will allow the next president, even a Democratic one, to continue a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. "A sustainable Iraq policy will require support from both Democrats and Republicans," his spokesman, Bryan Whitman, tells NEWSWEEK. Gates's motivation, aides say, is not only the strains on the Army but also his belief that the Iraq debate has grown too politicized. He wants to "lower the temperature," says a senior Defense official who did not want to be named discussing conversations with the secretary.

That's why Gates is pushing President Bush to sanction even more troop drawdowns than Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, has recommended. In his recent congressional testimony, Petraeus called for a reduction to "presurge" levels of 130,000 by July 2008, but he refused to say what would happen after that. Gates quickly overrode his Iraq commander, indicating in comments to reporters that drawdowns would continue at the same rate. His aim: to get below 100,000 troops by the end of 2008, just before the next administration takes over. While Gates and the leading Democratic candidates, including Hillary, are still far apart on withdrawal timetables, they appreciate the effort. "It's a complicated minuet he's doing—trying to move the administration while remaining loyal to it in order to create a bridge to the next administration," says a top foreign-policy adviser to Hillary Clinton. And if a Democrat does capture the White House in 2008, the Clinton adviser adds, Hamre "is certain to be shortlisted for secretary of Defense."