Friday, November 28, 2008

Retaining Gates

The decision by Barack Obama to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is being met with mixed reviews. As reported in the NY Times:

President-elect Barack Obama has decided to keep Defense Secretary Robert M.Gates in his post, a show of bipartisan continuity in a time of war that will be the first time a Pentagon chief has been carried over from a president of a different party, Democrats close to the transition said Tuesday. …The move will give the new president a defense secretary with support on both sides of the aisle in Congress, as well as experience with foreign leaders around the world and respect among the senior military officer corps. But two years after President Bush picked him to lead the armed forces, Mr. Gates will now have to pivot from serving the commander in chief who started the Iraq war to serving one who has promised to end it.

In deciding to ask Mr. Gates to stay, Mr. Obama put aside concerns that he would send a jarring signal after a political campaign in which he made opposition to the war his signature issue in the early days. Some Democrats who have advised his campaign quietly complained that he was undercutting his own message and risked alienating war critics who formed his initial base of support, especially after tapping his primary rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, for secretary of state.

But advisers argued that Mr. Gates was a practical public servant who was also interested in drawing down troops in Iraq when conditions allow. “From our point of view, it looks pretty damn good because of continuity and stability,” said an Obama adviser, who insisted on anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations. “And I don’t think there are any ideological problems.” Associates said Mr. Gates was torn between a desire to retire to a home in Washington State and a sense of duty as the military faces the daunting challenges of reducing forces in Iraq and increasing them in Afghanistan.

… Mr. Gates, who served as C.I.A. director under the first President Bush, would not have to be reconfirmed by the Senate. The prospect of retaining him generated praise from the military establishment and Capitol Hill, where he is viewed as a pragmatist who turned the Pentagon around after the tumultuous tenure of Donald H. Rumsfeld.

…The developments came as Mr. Obama prepared to begin unveiling his national security team after the long Thanksgiving weekend. Besides formally announcing his nomination of Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state, Mr. Obama was expected to appoint Gen. James L. Jones, a retired Marine commandant and NATO supreme commander, as his national security adviser. …The team is shaping up as one of experience more than change, figures with long résumés but at times conflicting backgrounds. Nothing reflects that more than keeping a Republican-appointed defense secretary. Although Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford made no change at the top of the Pentagon when they took office, no president has kept a defense secretary from a predecessor in another party, Donald Ritchie, a Senate historian, said.
Some Democrats have viewed the selection of Gates with more skepticism -- arguing that it lends further credence to the faulty assertion that Democrats are weak on defense and tend to rely upon Republicans as Secretary of Defense. As noted on Kos, “if Gates stays the full four years, it would mean that from 1953-2013, a Republican will have held the SecDef post for 5.5 of 60 years. A list of Secretaries of Defense and party affiliation beginning with the Eisenhower years:

Charles E. Wilson - Republican (1953-57)
Neil H. McElroy - Republican (1953-59)
Thomas S. Gates - Republican (1959-61)
Robert S. McNamara - Republican (1961-1968)
Clark M. Clifford - Democrat (1968-1969)
Melvin R. Laird - Republican (1969-1973)
Elliot L. Richardson - Republican (1973)
James R. Schlesinger - Republican (1973-1975)
Donald H. Rumsfeld - Republican (1975-1977)
Harold Brown - Democrat (1977-1981)
Caspar W. Weinberger - Republican (1981-1987)
Frank C. Carlucci - Republican (1987-1989)
Richard B. Cheney - Republican (1989-1993)
Les Aspin - Democrat (1993-1994)
William J. Perry - Democrat (1994-1997)
William S. Cohen - Republican (1997-2001)
Donald H. Rumsfeld - Republican (2001-2006)
Robert Gates - Republican (2006-Present)-
And as reported, not everyone in the Obama camp is thrilled about the choice.

The speculation over Gates' tenure has been most intense inside the Obama transition team. The team received a request from Gates that, were he to stay, he would want to retain some of his top civilian assistants. The request led to concerns among the Obama transition staff: "Gates is not a neo-con or even a hardcore Republican," a person close to the process noted, "but the people around him sure as hell are." A former Bill Clinton administration official who has been deployed by Obama to conduct a series of "meet and greets" with top officials at the Pentagon scoffed at the notion of a continuation of Gates' tenure: "The [presidential] election was a clean sweep," he says, "and that includes Bob Gates. It's called a change in government."

But others inside Obama's close-knit group of advisors think that a continuation of Gates' tenure can provide Obama with a bridge to the nation's military leadership - essential, they say, because of US troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. These advisors point out that Richard Danzig, a former secretary of the navy and reputed front runner for the Pentagon post ("always the smartest man in the room", as retired four-star US Marine Corps General Joe Hoar describes him), supports a continuation in Gates' tenure. Then too, Gates is apparently admired by Obama himself, who has been in close touch with a number of Gates' former colleagues (dubbed "graybacks"), like Brent Scowcroft, from the first George W. Bush administration. "The graybacks have weighed in, and they're all for Bob," a defense official says.

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