Gates Is In
There are limits to change.


Robert Gates will reportedly stay on at the Pentagon as defense secretary at the start of the Obama administration. Defense experts react.

Keeping Secretary Gates on is a good idea. He’s been a solid performer, including guiding the incredible turn-around of the situation in Iraq. Plus, he seems to have the trust and confidence of both sides of the aisle in Congress — a definite bonus.

On the practical side, with (at least) two wars ongoing, it makes bureaucratic sense for Obama’s ultimate choice for defense secretary to sit sidesaddle with Gates as his deputy for a period so he can get up to speed on the challenges that face the Pentagon and the country. I would expect Gates to be replaced by an Obama appointee within six to nine months — a year on the outside.

On the political side, keeping Gates in office gives Obama some breathing room to develop his own policies, avoiding early mistakes that might come to define his presidency. Or at worst, if things don’t go well for the new administration at the Pentagon or in the wars, Obama could scapegoat Gates as a holdover not only of the Bush administration, but of Bush policy, too.

– Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

President-Elect Obama’s decision to retain Secretary of Defense Robert Gates may be a safe decision in the near term. From another vantage point, it is a missed opportunity for the new administration. In keeping Gates, the Obama team may be unwittingly endorsing a status-quo element within the Pentagon that resisted the post-Cold War defense transformation that began in the late 1990s and was accelerated by President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and the senior military leaders they empowered. You never get a second chance to make a first impression; Obama’s first impression on those who prefer the relative comfort of the status quo to the uncertainty and difficulty of the long overdue change at the Defense Department is: “Don’t worry about me.”

President Bush replaced Rumsfeld with Gates because — notwithstanding Rumsfeld’s work in shaping and executing the transformation agenda — he wanted a fresh set of eyes on the conflict in Iraq. Secretary Gates, together with some new military leadership in key positions, provided those sets of eyes and President Bush’s revised strategy in Iraq has been a success. But the success in Iraq is not without cost — less focus on everything else.

When Gates took office, the national-security apparatus was undergoing the most rapid and profound transformation since the Department of Defense was established in 1947. Rumsfeld was acting at President Bush’s direction to bring the institution into the 21st Century. A partial list of the Bush/Rumsfeld program: the most extensive global military base closure and realignment since World War II; the complete realignment of the global U.S. force posture in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; the expansion and modernization of U.S. special forces; the redesign of the United States Army; the most significant reduction in strategic forces in the nuclear era; the implementation and deployment of a basic system of defense against ballistic missiles; the creation of an entirely new civil-service system for the Department of Defense; the establishment of new military commands for the Homeland, and Africa; the list goes on.

Given what he believed would be a two-year mandate, Gates had little choice but to relegate much of this to the back burner. His first priority was clear: Address the situation in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. Gates’s able deputy Gordon England did his best to sustain the momentum on other issues.

There is no substitute for energy in the executive, though, and the secretary of defense is the Pentagon’s chief executive. The momentum needed to alter the basic direction of a large organization like the Department of Defense is entropic; it breaks down over time in the absence of renewed energy. The secretary of defense, vested with the authority of the president himself, provides it. Without it, there cannot be true change against the naturally centrifugal forces of status quo among defense contractors, members of Congress, and their constituents for whom defense spending is often viewed as a public-works program. Rumsfeld muscled his way through these forces without fear or favor. Gates, given what he believed would be limited time and a limited mandate, mostly avoided them.

Secretary Gates and his key lieutenants carry small digital clocks that count down to January 20, 2009, when their appointments expire. They must now reset those clocks, but it is unlikely they can reset their own focus and energy levels. In retaining Gates, Obama is declaring that he does not intend to use any of his own popularity and influence to sustain the defense-transformation momentum that began a decade ago and which President Bush accelerated and greatly expanded.

– Larry Di Rita served in a variety of assignments at the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2006, including as a chief aide to Secretary Rumsfeld. In 2003, he was policy adviser to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs in Iraq.

The Gates reappointment is welcome news, given that he has provided stable, sober leadership during two wars, and overseen dramatic improvement with the Petraeus surge. Gates’s stellar academic record and years of government service probably make him on paper one of the most qualified government servants in American history. He has proven tough in firing people who were caught in scandal or free-lanced to the media, and has been outspoken when necessary.

Politically it makes sense that, for a year or two, Obama won’t have to worry that a wartime liberal secretary might embarrass an incoming Democratic administration (cf. the ill-starred Les Aspin and controversies over homosexuals in the military, bottom-up-review, no tanks for Somalia, etc., and, then cf., the Clintonian face-saving scramble to find a centrist professional like Perry and then a Republican moderate replacement like Sen. Cohen).


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