Obama’s Pentagon

OBAMA’S PENTAGON…. When word first leaked that Robert Gates was likely to stay on as Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary, one of the principal concerns on the left was over Gates’ deputies — Gates may be sensible, but deputies will have considerable influence on Pentagon decision-making, and they’re not as inclined towards pragmatism as their boss.

It was a relief to many, then, that the Pentagon’s deputy secretaries would be replaced by Obama’s team. This week, however, this story took a turn when Bill Gertz at the Washington Times, an unabashed far-right newspaper, reported that Obama wants the “Bush war team” to stay in place after the inauguration.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is asking many of the Bush administration’s 250 Pentagon political appointees to remain on the job until the incoming Obama administration finds replacements — a move designed to prevent a leadership vacuum with U.S. troops engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The unusual request by Mr. Gates, whom President-elect Barack Obama has asked to continue in his Cabinet post, ensures that key policy positions will not be left to “acting” subordinates as typically occurs when political appointees are directed to resign during a presidential transition.

The Washington Times treated this as some kind of major news story, and I saw some on the left expressing real concerns about this, but I think there’s less here than meets the eye.

As John Cole put it, “Unless someone can explain to me how it is responsible for us to run two wars while hundreds of key personnel positions remain vacant, I am going to say this is a responsible thing to do, and will not partake in this round of the vapors.”

Indeed, the vapors are unnecessary. While the Washington Times emphasized how “unusual” the move is, it’s really actually fairly routine. Spencer Ackerman noted, for example, that Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Ned Walker, was a very forceful critic of neoconservatism, but nevertheless stayed at his post for eight months into Bush’s presidency — not because of some bipartisan outreach, but because it took some time for the new administration to find a suitable replacement. No big deal.

The key to remember here is timing. If we’d learned that Obama and Gates expected to keep Bush’s Pentagon political appointees on the job indefinitely, that would be cause for concern. But while the Washington Times glosses over the timeline, we’re talking about a short-term process — Obama and his team will replace these appointees gradually over the course of the year.

I know it’s easy to look for evidence that somehow Obama is betraying the Democratic Party and failing to deliver “change,” and I don’t doubt the Washington Times wants to exacerbate these feelings as much as possible. But this “revelation” isn’t evidence of much.

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