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August 16, 2010

Robert Gates To Retire As Secretary Of Defense In 2011

This morning the big news was an interview Gates did where he talked about what everyone has been wondering... When will he go? Lots of folks jumped on it as if it were an imminent thing but later Gates' spokesman played down the Secretary's words.

Still, when Gates leaves is a major source of speculation and one which will impact the Defense Department moving forward.

Gates, who turns 67 in September, says he wants to leave the job and retire, this time for good, sometime in 2011. "I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he said. It might be hard to find a good person to take the job so late, with just one year to go in the president's current term. And, he added, "This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."

He pointed out that he's the 22nd U.S. defense secretary since the position was created in 1947. "If I stay until January 2011," he said, "I will have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors. And those four are Robert McNamara, Don Rumsfeld, Cap Weinberger, and Charles E. Wilson." He laughed. All four are famous for having stayed long past their welcome. Two of them, McNamara and Rumsfeld, started out energetic and celebrated before tumbling into the traps of ill-considered wars.

Then again, Gates said much the same thing about not wanting to stick around after 2008. Is his new countdown ticker, set to go off in 2011, another "covert action," as he put it, to discourage Obama from asking him to stay? He certainly doesn't say so. But if the president does ask, Robert Gates has always been the type to say, "Yes."

That retirement bit comes at the end of a longish but interesting profile of Gates, the issues he dealt with at Defense and how he became a central player in the Obama administration.

I know a lot of folks around here are down on Gates and I am as well on a number of issues but let's be honest, his staying on is probably one of the main reasons we still have anything approaching a chance to succeed in Afghanistan. Whatever faults we may all have with him, he's likely the best we're going to see out of Obama.

Obviously there's a lot that can be said about Gates pro and con but one thing you can't say is he was just killing time in the job. Part of that reflects the fact that he's spent almost 6 years managing two wars but beyond that, he's set the Pentagon on a path very different from the one it was on when he took the job. Major weapons systems were cut or eliminated, budget constraints have recently led to calls from Gates for cuts in support personnel to free up money for war fighters and he has shaken up the top ranks of the services.

For good or ill, the Pentagon is going to be living with the results of Gates' thinking for years to come.

My biggest concern with Gates is his seeming preoccupations with the size of America's military compared to other countries. That's a great talking point but it tends to ignore the huge demand on American troops, even without a war in Afghanistan and an on going mission in Iraq. I mean, when an earthquake rocks Hatti, no one says, "Hey, better get China's People Liberation Army Navy on the line ASAP!". Even if you don't like soft power missions, think about what the US military, especially the Navy, has to do even if peace broke out in Afghanistan tomorrow.

Something else that worries me about Gates is his betting that we won't be facing a military like China anytime soon. I hope he's right but hope ain't a strategy. I also think there's something to the idea that a strong force helps to ensure you don't have to use it. It's a tough sell in a budget fight but it's not as if there's not historical precedent for the idea.

So when will Gates go and who will replace him?

He says he will step down in '11 but wants to leave early enough so that his successor can have a meaningful tenure. That would argue for earlier in '11 or right after the midterms. The factor that argues for him staying longer is the pending Afghan strategy review scheduled for the end of this year. How much will the outcome of that impact his decision? Will he be willing to go before the July 2011 decision/off ramp/not all that important after all date?

As for who will replace him? John Noonan, who covers defense issues for the Weekly Standard, seems to think Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy is a likely candidate. I've seen others suggest Hillary Clinton but I think she's going to replace Biden on the ticket next year.

Either way, it's most likely going to be a Democrat who is a big believer in cutting the budget. For all his faults, I think most conservatives will miss Gates when he's gone. Whenever that is.

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posted by DrewM. at 07:00 PM

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