The Pros and Cons of Keeping Robert Gates

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Conventional wisdom in Washington holds that President-elect Barack Obama will soon invite current Defense Secretary Robert Gates to extend his stay in the Pentagon. Conventional it may be, but not necessarily wise, says Lawrence Korb, who served as a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan Administration and is currently a defense expert at the Center for American Progress. "It has more minuses than pluses," says Korb about the idea to keep Gates in place. "If President Obama wants to make any dramatic changes in the Pentagon, he's going to have to do them in his first year — and if he's got the same Secretary, how can Obama do it?" (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)

But Michael O'Hanlon, a defense scholar at the Brookings Institution, disagrees. He says "it's a great idea" for Obama to tap Gates to hang around. "It suggests an awareness of the importance of continuity at a time of war," O'Hanlon argues, "plus a healthy respect for Gates."

To keep or cashier Gates may be the Capital's latest guessing game, because there are good reasons for Obama to consider both options:

  • Keeping Gates would make for a smoother transition amid two wars. (But that's why the uniformed military leaders who are actually running the wars, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, don't change when a new Administration takes over.)

  • Keeping Gates as the Defense Secretary would allow him to continue his push to focus the military's efforts on insurgencies of the type it's facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than on the hypothetical conventional wars for which it would prefer to plan — and for which it continues to order up costly weapons. (But continuity would also keep Pentagon spending, already at World War II levels, climbing into the stratosphere on autopilot.)

  • Keeping Gates would allow Obama to demonstrate bipartisanship in national security, an area particularly dear to Republicans. (But it might also be taken as a sign that the Democratic bench on military matters is so weak the party has to rely on a holdover from a GOP Administration.)

  • Keeping Gates in place would demonstrate Obama's self-confidence in the presidency by entrusting a key post in his cabinet post to a GOP appointee. (But if Obama slows his planned pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, as some in the military want him to do, he could be seen as deferring to President Bush's Defense Secretary.)

    Gates associates have made it clear that he is likely to stay if asked to by Obama, so long as he can keep some trusted aides. Gates, a career CIA man who served as president of Texas A&M University before coming to the Pentagon in December 2006, isn't even a registered Republican, according to Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada. (Gates' spokesman said Thursday he didn't know his boss's political registration.) Still, antiwar activists are growing concerned at the prospect of an increasingly hawkish Obama Cabinet featuring Gates as Defense chief and Senator Hillary Clinton (who supported invading Iraq) as Secretary of State. But Gates has won praise on Capitol Hill for arguing that U.S. foreign policy is too militarized and for firing senior officers and officials he deemed to have failed the nation's wounded vets and to have been derelict in ensuring the security of America's nuclear weapons. (See the Top 10 Secret Service code names.)

    After the bruising it took from Gates' predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, the uniformed military also appears keen to retain the incumbent. At the highest levels, officials praise Gates' calm demeanor and interest in their opinions. "He still comes to the tank every week to hear them out," a Pentagon official says of Gates' regular meeting in the Joint Chiefs' secure conference room.

    "Gates is a great choice because of the respect he has gained from all quarters after the fiasco that went before," says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine who once headed the U.S. Central Command. "He would also provide continuity at a critical time." The key to Gates' sticking around, Zinni suggests, is how many Pentagon political appointees Obama would let Gates keep if he stays, which would deny Democrats those crucial national security positions. "I think he won't stay without his team," Zinni says of Gates, "and the [Obama] Administration can't let him keep them." Then, uncharacteristically for this particular parlor game, Zinni adds, "But what do I know?"

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