According to insiders, Barack Obama’s campaign is debating how long it can leave ambiguous the notion of “residual forces” in Iraq after a presumed Obama-ordered withdrawal of combat troops begins in January 2009. But there are worrying signs, perhaps the ugliest being the rumor that Obama might recruit Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to his campaign. (Yes, that’s President Bush’s secretary of defense.) The Times of London reports this stunner, even quoting Richard Danzig, Obama’s top military adviser and a former secretary of the Navy in the Clinton Administration, saying:

“My personal position is Gates is a very good secretary of defence and would be an even better one in an Obama administration.”

Adds the paper:

Obama’s top foreign policy and national security advisers are pressing the case for keeping Robert Gates at the Pentagon after he won widespread praise for his performance. The move would be in keeping with Obama’s desire to appoint a cabinet of all the talents.

Meanwhile, conservatives and cautious centrists in the Democratic party want to soft-pedal Obama’s commitment to end the war in Iraq.

Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution scholar who supported President Bush’s so-called surge in January, 2007, is one of those. He told the Moonie-owned Washington Times this week:

“Three or four of his Iraq advisers are hinting of greater flexibility, though speaking for themselves, not for him. That indicates the potential for some change in his previous position or at least some flexibility.”

O’Hanlon’s role as a Hillary Clinton adviser crashed and burned last year after he emerged as a strong advocate for continuing the war in Iraq, and he’s not an Obama adviser.

The Post reports rather ominously today:

Some advisers acknowledge privately that Obama is now emphasizing the need to be “responsible” in handling Iraq — rather than emphasizing urgency in getting troops out — to appear more centrist, a substantial adjustment of his original antiwar stance.

But the Post quotes Obama’s key foreign policy adviser, Denis McDonough saying that Obama is not changing anything. Still, according to insiders, the word “responsible” has been affixed with superglue to Obama’s Iraq position by the campaign’s more centrist advisers, who are trying to pull the candidate to the right.

The same Post article goes on to note that the Obama-Clinton merger is likely to add somewhat more hawkish advisers to the Obama camp:

There is another factor that could potentially come into play as Obama deepens his Iraq policy: his newfound alliance with Clinton and his move to incorporate her foreign policy advisers into his team. In trying to unite the party, Obama has described his differences with Clinton as negligible.

“If you look at my positions and Senator Clinton’s, there’s not a lot of difference, which is why it’s so easy for advisers, senior advisers of Senator Clinton, to support my candidacy,” Obama said at a meeting of his new working group on national security earlier this month.

Not a lot of difference, perhaps–but enough to make progressives worry. Hopefully, the addition of Madeleine Albright, William Perry, et al. to Obama’s “team” is just window dressing, and he will keep those discredited hawks at arm’s length. But it’s important to note that Robert Gates recently appointed William Perry, Clinton’s defense secretary, to the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board.

Obama has announced plans to visit Israel, Jordan and (on a separate trip, or perhaps a still-unannounced part of that trip) Iraq and Afghanistan. What he says on that trip (especially in Iraq) and who he takes with him will be crucial. Hopefully, he won’t take Gates with him. Gates, you’ll remember, was an early participant in the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group that came up with a plan for Iraq that seems very much like Obama’s, and one of Obama’s top campaign staffers helped write the ISG report.