When he took the oath as secretary of defense, Robert Gates was weighed down by factors he couldn't ignore and couldn't alter. We are continuing to search for just the word that describes the U.S. mission in Iraq. But you can't do it, given American sensibilities, in the presence of the doommaker, and President Bush was the dominant figure at the ceremony.
Robert Gates minced no words on the matter of the responsibility we have in Iraq. He acknowledged the final objective, which is "to find a way to bring America's sons and daughters home again." But that will happen the day after tomorrow. What happens tomorrow is a continuation of the struggle, because "failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come."
What can Mr. Gates mean when he speaks of failure "at this juncture"? The same day he spoke, the Pentagon reported that attacks against American and Iraqi targets had surged to their highest level recorded so far. The insurgents punctuated their mission by reducing electricity in Baghdad to dangerously low levels. "Now Baghdad is almost isolated," said Karim Wahid, the Iraqi electricity minister. "We almost don't have any power coming from outside." If we proceed with a surge in American manpower, is it expected that fresh troops will bring their own electricity?
The American public hasn't been informed on the matter of whether we will send reinforcements to Baghdad. One element in the decision whether to do so will surely be the fact that there aren't millions of young men and women pounding at the recruiting offices' doors asking to be sent over to do duty in Iraq. Exchanges of opinion on the matter of an increase in manpower in Iraq express the ambivalence of the high command. President Bush has said that he doesn't want to be rushed into a decision on extra troops. So what is he waiting on?
Mr. Gates has said that he will personally visit Iraq in the days to come, but this assurance brings no confidence. Personal visits to the scene don't have the magical effect that once upon a time they did. Candidate Dwight Eisenhower promised, in 1952, that if elected president he would personally visit Korea. He did so, and the war eased up. But there were other contingent developments (Stalin died), and there is nothing to assure Secretary Gates that a visit to the war front will bring fresh illumination.
It must have been especially taxing on Gates to find perspectives that would permit him to speak in the presence of a commander in chief who has to accept responsibility for the apocalyptic edge in the words spoken. If "failure" in Iraq is conceivable, or even predictable, then responsibility for that failure lies with the same commander in chief under whom Robert Gates will now be serving.
Words used by Gates and by President Bush make it plain that the ceremony, the installation of a new secretary of defense, was political in nature. Same president, same insurgency in Iraq, new secretary of defense, New York, New Haven and Hartford, as the old comedy line used to interpose. But the challenge was squarely put -- to the American people. And what will certainly be new, and will soon be evident, is the attitude of the new Congress. Will it find the means to reformulate our policy in the Middle East, in such a way as to avoid calamity and restore national credibility?