Will Robert Gates Remain as Defense Secretary?

By: Lindsay Straub

President-elect Barack Obama is considering asking President Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, to extend his stay in the Pentagon, leading some to question the future of American troops in Iraq and other warring countries.

In a Time Magazine article, former Pentagon official in the Regan administration and current defense expert at the Center for American Progress, Lawrence Korb, said that keeping Gates in office has “more minuses than pluses.”

“If President Obama wants to make any dramatic changes in the Pentagon, he’s going to have to do them in his first year—and if he’s got the same secretary, how can Obama do it,” said Korb.

Similarly, The Los Angeles Times reported that some Obama advisors said the president-elect’s strong stance on Iraq would make it all the more important to have a defense secretary whose personal views are in sync with the new administration.

According to CNN, Obama is not backing away from his campaign promise to bring all U.S. combat troops home from Iraq by late spring 2010.

Gates, however, raised doubts in a summer interview with The New York Times about the idea promoted by Democrats that the United States could withdraw many troops and put the rest outside urban areas, allowing them to focus on pursuing Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, rather than protecting Iraqi civilians.

“The successes in many respects against Al Qaeda have come by going in and making neighborhoods secure so that the locals provide us with information,” said Gates. “Well, if you are not in the neighborhoods, where are you going to get the tips?”

Dr. Mark Van Dyke, associate professor of communication and former public affairs specialist for the U.S. Navy, said Gates has earned great respect among Democrats and Republicans for the job he has done as secretary of defense and would play an important role in the transition between administrations should he remain in office.

“Transitions between U.S. presidents are often considered periods of vulnerability to the security of our nation,” said Van Dyke. “Having an incumbent defense secretary remaining in the president’s cabinet would help provide some measure of security during the transition.”

Agreeing with Van Dyke is Michael O’Hanlon, a defense scholar at the Brookings Institution.

“It’s a great idea for Obama to tap Gates to hang around,” said Hanlon to Time Magazine. “It suggests an awareness of the importance of continuity at a time of war plus a healthy respect for Gates.”

Several of Obama’s transition team members said that they believe the new administration will have no time for a learning curve. With the country facing chaos in Pakistan and a worsening war in Afghanistan, “there’s going to be no time for experimentation,” a member of the Obama foreign policy team said in a New York Times article.

Gates has experience in presidential transitions as he was a key player in the effort to assure a smooth transition of power from the Bush presidency to former President Clinton. Serving as director of central intelligence through Bill Clinton’s Inauguration Day, Gates traveled to Little Rock to deliver a global intelligence briefing to Clinton during the presidential campaign.

World War II veteran Thomas Devlin said that Gates has done a great job in office and will continue that job even if his views are not completely uniform with that of Obama’s.

“Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t,” said Devlin. “If he decides not to keep Gates, he risks national security and lack of knowledge for the current situation, and if he decides to keep Gates, he may have to compromise his campaign promises on foreign policy and the war in Iraq.”

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