Gates’ Pentagon

GATES’ PENTAGON…. Following up on an item from Wednesday, I’ve been reading a bit about the various perspectives on whether it’s wise for Barack Obama to keep Robert Gates on as the Secretary of Defense. Slate’s Fred Kaplan, whose perspective on military and national security issues I regularly enjoy, described Gates as “an excellent choice” and “a stroke of brilliance.”

In his nearly two years at the helm of the Pentagon, Gates has delivered a series of speeches on the future direction of military policy. He has urged officers to recognize the shift in the face of warfare from the World War II legacy of titanic armored battles between comparably mighty foes to the modern reality of small shadow wars against terrorists and insurgents.

More than that, he has called for systematic adjustments to this new reality: canceling weapons systems that aren’t suited to these kinds of wars and building more weapons that are; reforming the promotion boards to reward and advance the creative officers who have proved most adept at this style of warfare; rethinking the roles and missions of the individual branches of the armed services; siphoning some of the military’s missions, especially those dealing with “nation building,” to civilian agencies.

From the start, he knew that he wouldn’t have time to make a lot of headway in these campaigns — which, within the military, represent fairly radical ideas. His intent was to spell out an agenda, and lay the groundwork, for the next administration.

Now it seems he’s going to be in the next administration. And it’s a good bet that President Barack Obama will be more receptive to Gates’ agenda than President George W. Bush ever was. First, Obama is open to new ideas generally. Second, at his Nov. 25 press conference, Obama said he would direct his new budget director to go over every program, every line item, with an eye toward eliminating those that don’t work or aren’t needed — and he pointedly included the Department of Defense among the agencies to be audited.

In short, Gates might be able to do many of the things that until now he has managed only to advocate.

The takeaway is pretty straightforward — Obama and Gates are on the same page when it comes to systemic reform, and Obama has come to believe that Gates’ presence makes it more likely to see the changes happen. Why? Because, as Kaplan noted, “A fresher face would, first, take a year or so discovering what needs changing and then might get thwarted by bureaucratic and congressional resistance.”