Barack Obama will be getting off on the wrong foot, to put it mildly, if he does what seems likely now: allow Robert Gates to stay on a secretary of defense.
For reasons that are unclear to me, many in Obama’s inner circle seem to believe that it’s important to bring so-called “moderate” Republicans into the president-elect’s national security team. That is an awful idea, for two reasons: first, even though many of the names being floated — such as Gates, Dick Lugar of Indiana, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — come from the traditional wing of the GOP, and they are not neoconservatives, they are almost guaranteed to push for an expansion of the US military budget and a bigger armed forces. And second, by doing so Obama would be conceding many critics’ argument that Democrats are somehow not suited to control the national security apparatus.
Gates has reportedly already been working on the transition to an Obama administration, and he certainly hasn’t done anything to damp down speculation that he is a candidate for the job under Obama.
His thumbmail bio, for those who’ve forgotten: Gates spent decades in the CIA as a Soviet specialist, where he consistently inflated the threat from the USSR to justify a US military buildup, especially under President Reagan; he served as a top CIA official under Reagan and Bush I, who nominated him (twice) to be CIA director. The first time, Gates was shot down in the Senate because of his ties to the Iran-contra scandal of the mid-1980s, but the second time was a charm, and he was CIA director from 1991 to 1993.
During the Bush II years, Gates took part in two commissions that helped him earn some praise as a moderate, serving with Zbigniew Brzezinski on a CFR task force on Iran that called for negotiations with Tehran, and then briefly serving as a member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group in 2006, which called for a phased withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq. (Gates left the ISG to become secretary of defense before its report was issued, so he didn’t sign on to its conclusions, but it seems clear that he supported the thrust of the ISG’s work.) But since then Gates has been closely identified with the post-2006 “surge” in Iraq, and he has been closely involved in planning the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the recent pattern of attacks across the border into Pakistan.
Some top Obama officials, including Richard Danzig — a former secretary of the Navy, who is himself a candidate for secretary of defense — have said on the record that Obama ought to retain Gates at DOD.
At least one newspaper, the Canadian National Post, is reporting that Gates “has apparently said he wants to retire.”