GATES…. As has been widely reported, Barack Obama will keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his post next year. This is not a surprise — speculation about Gates staying on was common even before the election — but it is unprecedented: this will be the “first time a Pentagon chief has been carried over from a president of a different party.”
The details of the arrangement, which has not yet been formally confirmed, are still somewhat elusive. The Washington Post reports that Gates’ extended tenure will be part of a “‘rolling transition,’ in which Gates would stay on during a phased changeover of key political appointees at the Pentagon. Others said he could stay in the job indefinitely. Under both scenarios, most of the deputies serving under him would be replaced, the sources said.”
So, is this a good move or not? At first blush, it seems more than a little discouraging for Democrats. It’s not, for example, “change” if the Defense Secretary under Bush is the same Defense Secretary under Obama. For that matter, the decision doesn’t help dispel the notion that Democrats are weak on national security issues if Democratic presidents keep turning to Republicans to lead the Pentagon.
And yet, I’m not at all convinced that Gates is a poor choice. In fact, I’ve seen ample evidence that Gates is exactly who Obama needs at the Pentagon right now.
Gates may be a leading member of Bush’s team, but he represents a complete break from the neo-conservatives who dominated the administration’s first term. Gates is considered a non-ideological pragmatist, who’s open to competing ideas, and who enjoys broad respect from the brass and lawmakers in both parties. In the midst of two wars, having a competent and qualified Pentagon chief, who has no partisan or ideological axe to grind, will bring a degree of steadiness and consistency that may benefit Obama enormously.
Consider a few perspectives from insightful observers. Spencer Ackerman:
For one thing, the gesture shown to the generals and admirals would be instantly understood and very likely reciprocated. Second, Gates is the sort of public servant who would understand that his duty as secretary is to manage withdrawal, not fight it. Third, bringing a Republican on board with withdrawal is both substantively good for implementing the political consensus that the public tells us already exists; and would make it more complicated for the ultras in the GOP to establish the stab-in-the-back narrative that they’ll launch no matter what. And finally, whatever hits the Democratic brand would take by keeping a Republican on board temporarily would be wiped out by the esteem that the Broders of the world would suddenly find for Obama, as well as by the inevitable replacement of Gates by a Democrat.
[I]n the annals of the Defense Department, Gates’s name will go down as a healer. His quiet professionalism and competence are exactly what is called for right now, and Barack Obama could not find a better secretary of defense.
Our very own Hilzoy:
Basically, I think that there are two main reasons for keeping Gates. The first is that it’s very important to get bipartisan cover for the withdrawal from Iraq if we want to avoid some future conservative “if only the Democrats had let us win” story. (Likewise, bipartisan cover would be very useful if Obama decides to cut some weapons systems.) The second is that by all accounts the military have a lot of respect for Gates; keeping him on, therefore, would allow Obama to bypass the need to establish his own credibility and that of his Secretary of Defense with them. (Yes, I know: this shouldn’t be necessary. But it is.)
Neither of these reasons would cut any ice with me if Gates had been a bad Secretary of Defense. But he hasn’t. He’s been very good, under difficult conditions. Moreover, he seems like the sort of person who would either try to implement Obama’s policies rather than working to undermine them or turn the job down.
Obama’s defense team certainly has serious beefs with Bush’s military and diplomatic decisions — to launch the war, to take resources from Afghanistan, to refuse serious talks with Iran. But, from my limited discussions with [Obama advisor Richard] Danzig and others, the thing that really pisses them off was the management of the Pentagon during the Bush years. The spiraling budgets, the lack of accountability, the slipped deadlines, the circumventing of the chain of command, the politicization of policy — to former Defense Department stewards like Danzig, those were the real horror shows.
But since Gates has been brought in, things have started to turn. Budgets have begun to return to reality. People lose their jobs when they can’t do them right. Experts in their fields are being heard. Sound policy is often trumping adherence to political orthodoxy. And the Pentagon is slowly, slowly starting to focus on today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s the attraction of Gates.