Gates prepared to stay on, but will Obama ask him to?

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 13, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said not long ago that it was inconceivable that he'd remain at his post under a Democratic administration, is likely to remain for a time if President-elect Barack Obama asks him to, defense officials told McClatchy.

Gates and Obama have been communicating through surrogates, and many of Gates' aides expect Obama to ask him to stay. The aides asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly.

On Monday, John Podesta, Obama's transition co-chairman, refused to say whether Gates has been asked to remain at the Pentagon.

Obama "has great respect for Secretary Gates" but before any decision is made, a transition team will be briefed at the Pentagon about "ongoing operations" and Obama will "render judgment as a result of and after those briefings occur and he's had a chance to meet with his key advisers," Podesta said.

It was supposed to be only a 763-day job for Gates, according to the countdown clock he began carrying on the day in December 2006 when he replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld as the secretary of defense.

Gates, who was the president of Texas A&M University, didn't hide his lack of enthusiasm for the job. He hung pictures of his Washington state home in his office, and he made it clear that he'd rather be on Puget Sound than at the Pentagon.

These days, however, he's been silent about the issue, suggesting that he may be open — or resigned — to the idea of staying for a limited time, perhaps six months to a year.

Retaining him would be controversial for many supporters of an administration that's coming to power promising "change we can believe in," and it would put the Pentagon in the hands of leaders from two administrations, one Republican and one Democratic.

However, Gates has earned the respect of the military and of civilians in the Defense Department, and holding him over for a time would signal Obama's desire for a measured transition at a time when American troops are fighting two wars.

"If Gates stays on (Obama's Iraq strategy) will implicitly have Gates' approval," said Bob Bateman, a military historian and professor at Georgetown University's security studies program.

Gates and Obama disagree, however, on one of the biggest issues: drawing down combat troops in Iraq. Obama has called for a 16-month timetable after his inauguration, while Gates has spoken out against timetables.

They agree on a number of things, though. Both have called for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and for a more nuanced approach to Iran. Gates also has called for more funding to enable the State Department to support a broader counterinsurgency strategy.

Moreover, keeping Gates for a time could help Obama focus on economic issues in the crucial early days of his presidency.

However, the notion that Gates would continue to represent the Bush administration "is a big political and psychology issue. It's not a substantive one," said retired Army Brig. Gen. John Johns, a professor at the National Defense University and an early Obama backer. Gates "doesn't have to agree with everything."

If Obama decided to leave Gates in place, he'd probably name a new deputy secretary who'd most likely replace Gates eventually.

Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary who's considered a top contender for defense secretary, publicly praised Gates during the campaign. Another leading contender to succeed Gates is said to be John Hamre, former Clinton administration deputy secretary of defense.

Gates' supporters argue that circumstances require a different approach to national security issues. With 180,000 troops deployed in two war zones, the military needs continuity, they say, and Gates has earned respect throughout the ranks. He's helped to quell violence in Iraq and stabilize a department shaken by Rumsfeld's leadership.

Some historians disagree.

"The Department of Defense is now so huge, so intertwined with a million threads within American domestic and political calculations, that suggesting that one man can change things is effectively like trying to steer the (aircraft carrier) USS Lincoln with an oar from the transom," Bateman said.

Gates, a former CIA director, has served under Republican and Democratic administrations.

Of the 22 U.S. defense secretaries, none has survived a change of administration and party, even during wartime. Clark Clifford, the defense secretary under Lyndon Johnson, departed after Richard Nixon's 1968 victory, even though 600,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Vietnam. President Dwight Eisenhower didn't ask Harry S Truman's defense secretary, Robert Lovett, to stay on in 1953, even though there were 300,000 troops deployed in Korea.

The only comparable career is that of Henry Stimson, who served as the secretary of state under Herbert Hoover and returned as the secretary of war under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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