Wall Street Journal
November 11, 2008
By Yochi J. Dreazen
WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama is leaning toward asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in his position for at least a year, according to two Obama advisers. A senior Pentagon official said Mr. Gates would likely accept the offer if it is made.
No final decision has been made, and Obama aides said other people are also under serious consideration for the defense post, one of the most highly coveted in any new cabinet. Several prominent Democrats, including former Clinton Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and former Clinton Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, are also being considered.
The decision on retaining Mr. Gates will be the clearest indication to date of the incoming administration's thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the president-elect, Mr. Gates supports deploying more troops to Afghanistan. But the defense secretary strongly opposes a firm timetable for withdrawing American forces from Iraq, and his appointment could mean that Mr. Obama was effectively shelving his campaign promise to remove most troops from Iraq by mid-2010.
Several aides to Mr. Gates said that the defense chief often talks publicly about leaving the Pentagon in January and returning to his remote lakeside home in Washington state. They also noted that Mr. Gates carries around an electronic keychain whose display shows the number of days until the end of the Bush administration.
Still, speculation that Mr. Gates would remain in the job increased over the weekend when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) endorsed the idea in a CNN interview. "Why wouldn't we want to keep him?" Sen. Reid said. "He's never been a registered Republican."
Mr. Gates has always said his preference "is to retire once again," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "But he has also never shut the door on the possibility that he would be willing to serve for some period beyond the expiration of this term."
Mr. Gates took over the Pentagon in late 2006 after President George W. Bush ousted then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over his management of the Iraq war. U.S. commanders in Iraq had been unable to prevent the country from slipping into civil war, and American and Iraqi casualties were soaring. Relations between Mr. Rumsfeld and many powerful lawmakers had grown toxic.
The new defense chief worked to repair the Pentagon's frayed ties with Capitol Hill. In his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Gates was asked if the U.S. was winning in Iraq. "No, sir," he replied.
The blunt reply won praise from many Democrats. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, then the committee's ranking Democrat and now its chairman, called it a "refreshing breath of reality."
Once in his position, Mr. Gates set about reshaping the U.S. war effort in Iraq, appointing Gen. David Petraeus to lead the military campaign and overseeing the deployment of 30,000 additional combat troops as part of a shift to a new counterinsurgency approach there.
Advocates of retaining Mr. Gates say it would provide for continuity at the Pentagon when the nation is mired in two wars and improve the new administration's ability to respond to any terror attack or international crisis that might occur during the months-long transition process.
The proponents also argue that it would show the new administration was serious about reaching out to pragmatic, experienced Republicans.
"He's not ideological, he's not partisan, and you could trust him to manage the wars in a competent manner while a new administration gets up to speed," said Nancy Soderberg, a Democrat and onetime U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "It would allow the Obama administration to hit the ground running."