The Curious Retention of Robert Gates

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Barack Obama’s national security team–at this early stage–presents more questions than answers. His selection of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state has been a much-chewed-over topic of pundit puzzlement. And with the Monday morning unveiling of his senior defense and foreign policy aides, Obama made official another curious decision: his retention of Robert Gates as secretary of defense.

There’s an obvious reason for Obama to keep Gates at the Pentagon. Having a George W. Bush appointee in charge will give Obama political cover as he proceeds with his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. But there are several potential problems with this move. I’ve consulted two former Pentagon officials–who are critics of standard operating procedure at the Pentagon–who decry this move. (Neither wanted to be quoted, for they might now or later be in contention for a job in the Obama administration.) “It’s probably the dumbest thing Obama’s done,” one said.

They identified three possible pitfalls. First, Gates is a lame duck. There has been no indication how long he will stay in the Pentagon’s top post, but it seems Gates will remain there on a quasi-temporary basis. Consequently, Pentagon bureaucrats who don’t want to see their prerogatives challenged–if Gates wanted to do such a thing–could try to wait him out. Second, Gates is no agent of change when it comes to the Pentagon budget. In the Bush years, the regular military budget has increased by 40 percent in real terms (not counting so-called “emergency” supplemental spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)–partly because of hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns. During the campaign, Obama talked about the need to cut “billions of dollars in wasteful spending” from the military budget. But Gates has yet to demonstrate he is truly interested in reworking the Pentagon’s out-of-control budget. Keeping Gates in place sends the signal that Obama, who faces a host of hard jobs, is not eager to take on the Pentagon at the start of his presidency. “There are so many problems at home,” says one of the critics, “Obama may not want to do anything fundamental about the Pentagon.”

Finally, what about Gates’ team? Many of the senior jobs at the Pentagon are still held by Bush/Rumsfeld appointees. If Gates stays in his job, do they stay in theirs? Or will Obama move to replace these assistant secretaries and other officials, thus creating something of a fractured band at the Pentagon of Gates/Rumsfeld people and fresh Obama people? Even if Gates is willing to salute the new president and head in a new policy direction, other holdovers at the Pentagon might not be as eager to follow a new set of orders.

With two wars under way, it might be tempting to have the secretary of defense hang around. But after President Richard Nixon was elected in 1969, while the Vietnam War was continuing, he did not retain President Johnson’s man at the Pentagon, Clark Clifford. Instead, Nixon brought in a new defense secretary: a Republican member of Congress named Melvin Laird. And Laird didn’t do a bad job. He cut–yes, cut–the military budget. During his years at the Pentagon, the number of US troops in Vietnam declined dramatically, and Laird ended the draft.

Retaining Gates is convenient for Obama. Now a Bush official who supported the surge and who maintains good relations with General David Petraeus will be handed the assignment of pulling US forces from Iraq and ending–or winding down–the war there. That may help Obama avoid a political battle over his Iraq policy. But in his two years as George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Gates, who does appear to be a competent and nonideological official, has not accomplished much in Afghanistan–a war that Obama increasingly cites as a top priority. Nor has he done anything to rein in the wild budgetary ways of the Pentagon. By sticking with Gates, Obama is ducking a fight or two–but to bring change to the Pentagon, one or more fights might be necessary.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that many of Gates’ top deputies at the Pentagon are expected to leave their jobs.


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