Story Highlights• NEW: Full Senate to vote on nomination Wednesday or Thursday, aide says
• Defense secretary nominee says next "year or two" will determine Iraq's fate
• Robert Gates says U.S. invaded Iraq with inadequate troop levels
• Nominee fears chaos in Iraq could spark a regional conflict
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved President Bush's nomination of Robert Gates to be defense secretary Tuesday and sent it to the full Senate for approval, the committee's outgoing chairman said.
Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia announced the committee's 24-0 decision after a closed session.
The full Senate could vote Wednesday, but senators may not have an opportunity to vote until Thursday, depending on how many lawmakers want floor time to speak on the nomination, a Senate aide said.
Gates, the 63-year-old president of Texas A&M University, was nominated November 8 to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Testifying before the committee for hours, he told members the United States was not winning the war in Iraq and that the U.S. course there "over the next year or two" would shape the entire Middle East. (CNN's Andrea Koppel on Gates' testimony )
Gates, who served in the administration of the first President Bush as CIA director and deputy national security adviser, gave no timeline for ending the conflict in Iraq.
But he repeatedly referenced "the next year or two" when discussing U.S. options in the war-torn nation.
"Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk and possible reality of a regional conflagration," he said.
Developments in Iraq during that time will "greatly influence global geopolitics for many years to come," he said.
Also affecting regional stability, Gates said, is how the United States handles its acrimonious relationships with Iran and Syria.
Gates has previously said the United States should include both countries in efforts to stabilize Iraq, an opinion Bush does not share.
Though neither country is well-equipped militarily to exact harm on the United States, both pose threats to the region and U.S. interests, Gates said during the hearing.
Iran concerns Gates because "their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror -- in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country -- is very real," he said.
But, the nominee said, while the Islamic republic is working against U.S. interests, "I think they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq."
Attacking Iran would be an "absolute last resort" if diplomatic efforts to dissuade the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions fail, he said.
Syria poses even less of a threat to the U.S., and any U.S. military attack on Syria would have grave consequences for the region, said the former CIA director.
"I think that it would give rise to significantly greater anti-Americanism than we have seen to date. I think it would immensely complicate our relationships with virtually every country in the region," Gates said.
Iraq tops priorities
But the handling of Iraq -- which Gates said would be his priority -- is the most essential element to importing stability to the region. (Watch how Gates will tackle his "highest priority" )
"My greatest worry, if we mishandle the next year or two and if we leave Iraq in chaos, is that a variety of regional powers will become involved in Iraq, and we will have a regional conflict on our hands," Gates said.
Iran and Syria, said the nominee, are integral to the "long-term stability" of Iraq and the United States should consider "incentives or disincentives to bring them to be constructive."
Gates also said he is "very sympathetic" toward the idea of deploying extra troops in Afghanistan but that U.S. allies may need to reconsider restrictions that limit their troops' roles in the nation.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who will chair the Senate Armed Services Committee when the new Congress convenes in January, asked Gates if he thought the U.S. was winning the war, to which the nominee succinctly replied, "No, sir."
Later, he clarified his remark, saying the United States wasn't losing either and that his comment pertained to Iraq as a whole, not just as a military endeavor.
"Our military forces win the battles that they fight. Our soldiers have done an incredible job in Iraq, and I'm not aware of a single battle that they have lost," he said.
"The situation is clearly much more complex than just the military action. The areas we are having our challenges, frankly, are principally in the areas of stabilization and political development and so on."
As recently as October, Bush said the United States was winning the war.
Gates also told Republcian Sen. John McCain of Arizona the "status quo isn't acceptable" and that the United States invaded Iraq without enough troops.
The nominee said he suspects that in hindsight the Bush administration would have handled some decisions differently, "and I think one of those is that there clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country."
The nominee also told the committee that he was "open to new ideas" regarding policy in Iraq and that "all options are on the table." (Watch Gates explain how the U.S. must maintain "some presence in Iraq for a long time" )
"I am under no illusion why I am sitting before you today: the war in Iraq," Gates told the committee. "I welcome the many alternative strategies and tactics proposed by members of Congress and others."
The nominee said he would pursue a bipartisan agreement to answer questions not only about the military concerns in Iraq, but also the political ones.
Among the questions that must be answered are: How will the Iraqis deal with sectarian violence? How do they approach national reconciliation? How do they fairly distribute oil revenues? And how are they going to ensure that Iraq's religious and ethnic groups live together peacefully?
The only way to answer these questions, Gates told Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, is via a "broad, bipartisan agreement."
"It probably wouldn't include everybody; that's too difficult," Gates said, adding that bipartisanship is crucial so terrorists and insurgents "don't think we're going to walk away from this war on terrorism and so that they don't think it's going to be easy to start attacking us here at home because we're not willing to take them on abroad."
Gates said that, if confirmed, he would quickly consult military commanders in the field and politicians back home to determine the best course of action in Iraq, but "I will give most serious consideration to the views of those who lead our men and women in uniform."
Gates conceded his position allows him only so much authority in the matter and that "it is the president who will decide what, if any, changes are made in our approach."
As the hearing began, Warner warned President Bush and Gates to consult with Democrats before changing Iraq policy.
Warner said consultations should come after Bush reviews reports on Iraq being prepared by the nonpartisan Iraq Study Group, the Pentagon and other agencies involved in the war.
Gates was recently a member of the study group, whose members will testify before the Senate committee Thursday morning, Warner said.
In closing, Warner told Gates "to be fearless -- I repeat -- fearless" in giving advice to the president.
Levin added that Gates faces "the monumental challenge of picking up the pieces from broken policies and mistaken priorities in the past few years."
Before heading to Capitol Hill, Gates met with Bush at the White House for breakfast. In a brief statement, Bush said, "I hope for speedy confirmation so he can get sworn in and get to work."
Bush announced Gates' nomination the day after Democrats snared the necessary seats to take control of both houses of the new Congress when it convenes in January.
GOP and Democratic leaders on the committee agreed to proceed with Gates' confirmation this year, rather than wait until the Senate changes guard in January. Rumsfeld will continue in the post until the Senate approves his successor.
Gates has shown signs that he is willing to voice unpopular opinions to the administration. In addition to his criticism of the Iraq war's handling, Gates also has pledged to improve the Pentagon's postwar planning.
No significant opposition to Gates' nomination has surfaced. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Gates would be confirmed unless something "untoward" turns up during the hearings. (Watch why Gates is expected to be approved )
In 1987, Gates was forced to withdraw his nomination as CIA director after he was dogged by questions surrounding his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, in which the United States sold arms to Iran in exchange for U.S. prisoners in Iran.
Some of the proceeds from those sales were diverted to the military operation of Nicaragua's Contra rebels.
Gates was renominated and confirmed as CIA director in 1991, serving until President George H.W. Bush left office in 1993.
CNN's Ed Henry and Liz Flynn contributed to this report.
Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to be defense secretary, said at his confirmation hearing Iran is also a concern in the Mideast.
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