Continuity in wartime behind Obama’s decision on Gates

Keeping the Defense secretary allows Obama's team to move quickly on a foreign-policy challenges.

An incoming administration rarely retains cabinet members of the outgoing administration, but President-elect Obama's apparent decision to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates may reflect the extraordinary issues confronting the new president.

Mr. Obama is expected to announce early next week that he will keep Mr. Gates on for as long as a year, in part to maintain continuity during the first wartime transition in 40 years. Any drawbacks in keeping Gates are more than countered by the pluses, say experts.

Keeping Gates would be the best course of action, says William Fallon, who oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until retiring as head of US Central Command this spring. Having served in top military positions during transitions of both President Bush and President Clinton, Mr. Fallon says it can take "many months" for a new administration to get up to speed.

Obama doesn't have that luxury. Thus, keeping Gates would allow his team to move quickly to address the myriad military challenges confronting the new administration.

Gates also appears willing to offer cuts to weapons programs to support Obama's stated goal to trim government spending.

"It's a very good move for a lot of reasons," says Fallon, who resigned abruptly in April after a media report that positioned him at odds with the White House over Iran.

"Gates would likely offer a pragmatic view and a balanced approach to demands on people, the budget, and operational priorities," Fallon says. "His current knowledge and experience would be immensely helpful in bridging the transition and the period of time when, typically, business grinds to a halt during a turnover of administrations."

The big question will be how many deputies and other political appointees will stay on at the Pentagon, where policy is defined as much by the personalities as anything else. Many senior officials have expressed a desire to leave. But many more are willing to stay for at least awhile, says the senior policy official at the Pentagon.

"Some folks have particular family or other needs or obligations," Eric Edelman, undersecretary of Defense for policy, said recently. "A very high percentage of people have said, without going into specific names, that if asked they would be willing to stay. I think that's very encouraging."

Mr. Edelman himself indicated he would leave come Jan. 20.

Some worry that Obama's stated position on drawdown in Iraq – that it should be achieved in 16 months – will be a problem for Gates. Gates seems to agree on the need to accelerate the drawdown of 150,000 American service members from Iraq but wants to do it on the basis of conditions on the ground. That is a surmountable problem, however. Obama can still show the American public he is reducing troops in Iraq even if it takes longer, as many in and outside of the military believe it will.

Keeping Gates signals that Obama recognizes the length of time it will take to get out of Iraq, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. He says he fretted over whether Obama would adhere to his pledge to leave Iraq in 16 months but sees the choice of Gates as a sign he will take a more realistic approach.

"I don't see any downsides," says Mr. O'Hanlon. "I'm a fan of the decision."

But the military challenges confronting the new administration continue to mount. Gates will have to manage the drawdown in Iraq as well as preside over a new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The strains on the force will require a care that some believe was not given under Mr. Bush. Also, piracy along the East African coast will not dominate the new agenda but will require Gates's attention.

"We still have great powers who [are] at a crossroads, like China, like Russia," says Edelman. "We have potential nuclear powers in northeast Asia and the Middle East that could create enormous complications to the regional balances there.... We have [NATO] that has been in crisis for 50 years and now is going through the latest paroxysm."

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