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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 19:12 GMT
Washington diary: The capital's best theatre
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill are some of the best political theatre that Washington can lay on.

Robert Gates with President Bush
Smiles now, but what comes next for Mr Gates and Mr Bush?
Monday's production starring Robert Gates, who now stands to be confirmed as defence secretary by the full Senate after having been anointed by the Armed Services Committee, offered drama of a Nordic, sobering kind - more Ibsen than Shakespeare.

The committee's high table was peppered with men and one woman who dream of becoming president - as well as a few who once dreamt of it.

And yet we were subjected to no senatorial bombast or rhetorical flourishes.

This was a sober conversation held by serious people in suits about the most vexing issue, concerning America today: the war in Iraq and how not to lose it.

The last time Mr Gates had to face the Senate for a confirmation hearing in 1991, he had a tough time convincing some of the same senators that he was the right man to run the CIA.

Ironically, there were accusations that he had massaged intelligence as a senior CIA apparatchik to mollify his political masters.

There was his alleged involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The veteran Secretary of State George Schultz once said that he never trusted Mr Gates to tell him the truth.

Truth to power

A year ago, such a charge, with so many cringing resonances, might have delayed the smooth passage of Mr Gates through the confirmation process.

On Monday it wasn't even mentioned. A plotted plant would have been confirmed as long as it wasn't called Rumsfeld.

Robert Gates at his Senate confirmation hearing
Mr Gates swallowed hard and said the US was not winning
Instead, the former spy master - who is known as a consummate Washington insider with the touch of an eel and the looks of an ageing choir boy - spoke truth to power, and more particularly to his new boss in the Oval Office.

Asked twice if America was winning the war in Iraq, he gulped and evinced a flat, curt: "No."

The up and down movement of his Adam's apple said more than all the spin meisters inside the Beltway.

The cable TV channels and bloggers hyperventilated with excitement.

In the afternoon, Mr Gates described how - while in the Senate cafeteria during a break in the proceedings - he almost choked on his humble sandwich when watching TV reports of his appearance with growing alarm.

"I said we are not winning the war," he corrected himself. "I didn't say we are losing it."

Point taken.

But the message was clear, stark and undeniable: Uncle Sam is in big trouble.

Cold shower

Mr Gates also spoke truth to Senator Edward Kennedy, who tried to needle him about coming to Washington as the president's yes man at the Pentagon.

"Senator, I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M, the job that I've probably enjoyed more than any that I have ever had, making considerable personal financial sacrifice, and, frankly, going through this process, to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log and not to say exactly what I think," he replied. Then the cold shower continued to gush.

Hillary Clinton at the Robert Gates confirmation hearing
Hillary Clinton may be wondering about her White House ambitions
"All options are on the table," Mr Gates told his audience, including, one supposes, the "cut-and-run" alternative decried by the White House.

And if America gets the next year or two wrong, then the consequences of failure could be a "regional conflagration", far worse than anything we have seen so far... a crisis which the next president of the United States will have to sort out.

The atmosphere in the committee chamber was as glum as the assessment.

Hillary Clinton looked particularly morose.

Perhaps she was having second thoughts about running for a job that would involve cleaning up the Iraq mess. So all eyes are now on the Iraq Study Group.

The report is already being sold at select bookstores in the capital.

I doubt however whether it will be as popular as the 9/11 report, which was beautifully written and, though profoundly tragic and alarming, dealt with an event in the past.

The Baker/Hamilton tome concerns an unfolding event with no obvious denouement and a confused plot line.

It may just be too depressing to fly off the shelves.


Matt Frei Troubled times
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