Topic A at today's Senate confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary Bob Gates was Iraq. Topic B was Afghanistan. Topic C? That was the fate of Texas A&M's football team, naturally. (You know how politicos love their sports-talk.)Somewhere down around the bottom of the alphabet was China. Which is really too bad. Because one of the biggest choices Gates will have to make in his term at the Pentagon will be how to handle Beijing.As guys like Tom Barnett have endlessly pointed out, there are, roughly speaking, two competing camps in the Defense Department. One group -- mostly Army guys and Marines -- wants to retool our military, to go after terrorists and tackle insurgents. The other -- largely made up of Air Force and Navy-types -- thinks that Iraq and Al-Qaeda are distractions from the one mortal enemy that can really threaten America long-term: the Chinese.Donald Rumsfeld's words favored the first camp. "[P]repar[ing] for wider asymmetric challenges" is a "fundamental imperative" for the military, the Pentagon noted in the Quadrennial Defense Review, its every-four-years look at grand strategy. We're in the middle of a "Long War." Iraq and Afghanistan are just the opening battles.But follow the money, and a very different set of priorities emerges. The Pentagon is spending its $70 billion budget on new weapons like it's the Cold War all over again with China stepping in for the Soviets. Nearly $10 billion a year goes to ballistic missile interceptors originally designed to stop Russian missiles; $9 billion to new-jack fighter jets meant to take on MiGs; $3.3 billion to next-gen tanks and fighting vehicles; $1 billion for the Trident II nuclear missile upgrade; and $2 billion for a new strategic bomber.Gates can continue the trend. Or more than five years after 9/11, he can commit to focusing the Defense Department firmly, absolutely on the two-front war which he admits the U.S. is "not winning." That's the fundamental choice to be made. You can change tactics in Iraq - or not. But as long as China remains front-and-center for so much of the military, it's hard to see how the U.S. winds up winning this "Long War."UPDATE 6:10 PM: So what will Gates do? Here's the only interchange on China from today's hearings:
SEN. INHOFE: The -- in 2000, we formed the U.S.-China Security Economic Review Commission, and it's usually referred to the U.S.- China Commission. They have had -- come out with five reports. This is the fifth report that just came out. I've been disturbed that no one seems to care about these. They don't seem to read these and understand what's in them. I have a couple of questions about that I want to ask you. But I am concerned about China, and I'd like to hear what your thoughts are.And just in the last month the Chinese hackers, as you, I'm sure, have read, have shut down the e-mail and official computer work at the Naval War College. The -- this is referred to by this commission as the "tightened rein" "Titan Rain."In September the Department of Commerce experienced a massive shutdown of its computer system. This goes on and on.In July the State Department acknowledged that Chinese attacks had broken into systems overseas and in Washington.Recently China's been -- used lasers to blind our satellites.On October 26th a Song-class Chinese submarine surfaced near the USS Kitty Hawk. They'd been following them undetected for a long period of time.I've had occasion to spend quite a bit of time in Africa, and I noticed that China's presence in Africa, particularly in those states around the Sea of Guinea and where they have great oil reserves, is there. And they are way ahead of us. It happens that China and United States are the two countries that depend on foreign sources of oil more than any of the other countries.The -- as this continues, I'd like to ask you what your feeling is about this as a top priority, about how you view China, about whether or not you have read these reports, and if not, if you would or if you plan to do that, and if you agree with some of that which you have heard coming out in these reports.MR. GATES: Yes, sir. I have not read the reports.SEN. INHOFE: And I would also say that we watched this -- as we were drawing down in the 1990s, they increased their military procurement by over 1,000 percent. So this is a great concern.Go ahead.MR. GATES: Yes, sir. I have not read the reports. I would be more than willing to do so.I've been aware, just from reading in the newspapers -- it's been a number of years since I received any classified intelligence on what the Chinese were up to. But it's been my impression that they've had a very aggressive intelligence-gathering effort against the United States. Some of these other things that you've mentioned -- this is the first time I've heard about that. And clearly, if confirmed, this would be something that I would want to get well informed on quickly(Bigs ups: Inside Defense for the transcript.)UPDATE 7:15 PM: "I've been watching defense secretaries in confirmation hearings for 30 years, off and on, but I don't think I've seen any perform more forthrightly than Gates did this morning," coos Fred Kaplan.
The most eyebrow-raising momentof many such momentsin Robert Gates' confirmation hearings today came when Sen. Robert Byrd, the stentorian Democrat of West Virginia, asked if he favored attacking Iran.Most witnesses in Gates' position would duck the question, citing the time-honored practice of avoiding "hypotheticals." No senator would have condemned him for following precedent. But Gates plunged right in and said, basically, no."We have seen in Iraq," Gates replied, "that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable." The Iranians couldn't retaliate with a direct attack on the United States, he said, but they could close off the Persian Gulf to oil exports, send much more aid to anti-American insurgents in Iraq, and step up terrorist attacks worldwide...When Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the panel's senior Democrat, asked if the United States was winning the war in Iraq, he said, "No, sir." Later, when James Inhofe, R-Okla., asked if he agreed that we weren't losing the war either, Gates replied, "Yes," but added, "at this point..."It is impossible to imagine any of George W. Bush's previous Cabinet appointees, or any of his sitting Cabinet officers, making such starkand, at least implicitly, criticalstatements in an open Senate hearing.In short, Gates may well be that entity that Washington has not seen for many years: a truly independent secretary of defense.