WASHINGTON — In his first news conference since President-elect Barack Obama asked him to stay on, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he and Obama agree on the U.S. course in Iraq, but he couldn't commit to Obama's pledge of a 16-month withdrawal.
Instead, Gates said the pace of the drawdown would be one of several discussions in which he'll participate during the new administration.
As Gates answered questions on issues such as Iraq and Guantanamo, he walked a fine line between his role in the current and incoming administrations. He defended stands he'd taken during the Bush administration and at the same said he'd embrace some of Obama's proposed changes.
Under the Bush administration, Gates called for a "conditions-based withdrawal" from Iraq. On Tuesday, he said the formula for troop withdrawal would be more complicated in part because under the new status of forces agreement with Iraq, the U.S. has agreed to timelines for withdrawal. The Bush administration has opposed timelines, and before the agreement, so did Gates.
Obama "repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within 16 months," Gates said. "But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown, and he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders. So I think that that's exactly the position a president-elect should be in."
Gates also called the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison "the highest priority."
On Monday, Obama announced that he'd asked Gates to stay on indefinitely at the Pentagon. Gates said that while he is not registered with either party, he considers himself a Republican, helping Obama meet his pledge to build a bipartisan cabinet.
None of the previous 22 secretaries of defense has been asked to stay on through a change in administrations. During his briefing, Gates shared some details of how he and Obama reached their agreement. Gates said he spoke to Obama on Nov. 10 at a fire station at Reagan National Airport, the same day Obama met with President George W. Bush at the White House.
Gates, who used to carry a clock counting the days until the end of the administration, said he didn't seek the job after Bush left office. He said repeatedly during his two-year tenure that he didn't want to stay beyond Jan. 20.
On Tuesday, Gates said the assertions were part of his "own strategic deterrence," saying that he hoped he wouldn't be asked because he knew "what the answer would be."
Although most think that Gates will serve as a transitional defense secretary under Obama, he said: "I have no intention of being a caretaker secretary."
Shortly after he spoke, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England announced that he plans to step down.
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