War Stories

Staying On

Keeping Robert Gates as secretary of defense is a great idea.

Robert Gates

If the reports are true that Robert Gates will stay on as President Obama’s defense secretary, the move is a stroke of brilliance—politically and substantively.

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.

Not only that, Gates has cultivated such widespread support and acclaim throughout the Pentagon, and especially on Capitol Hill, that he might be able to push his changes through. (A fresher face would, first, take a year or so discovering what needs changing and then might get thwarted by bureaucratic and congressional resistance.)

The fact that Gates is staying on at the job (again, assuming the press reports are true) may be a sign that Obama has assured him he’ll have support from the White House. Gates came to the Pentagon reluctantly. He’d spent 30 years in Washington, in the CIA (advancing from junior analyst all the way up to director) and the White House (including as deputy national security adviser), serving under every president from Richard Nixon to George H.W. Bush. But he was enjoying his time as president of Texas A&M University when George W. Bush asked him to replace Donald Rumsfeld. He took the job out of a sense of patriotic duty, but he couldn’t wait to leave—to get back to the lakeside house that he and his wife own in the Pacific Northwest.

When I interviewed him for a New York Times Magazine article a year ago, he showed me a “countdown” meter, which he carried with him everywhere, displaying how many days were left in his term of office. I noted that some lawmakers, including Democrats, wished he would stay on in the next administration. He replied, “I am very wary of saying ‘Never.’ ” But, he added, “The circumstances under which I would do that are inconceivable to me.”

Well, the inconceivable, it seems, has now been conceived (as seems to be true of so much about the Obama era so far). And one reason might be that Obama has said that, to a point, he’ll let Gates be Gates.

It would be a mistake to regard Gates as merely a holdover from the Bush administration. Literally, of course, he is. But since coming to the Pentagon in December 2006, he has altered the dynamics of decision-making and, as a result, of policy.

Before Gates, the National Security Council was dysfunctional. Rumsfeld would skip meetings and refuse to let his deputies speak on his behalf. His tag-team partner, Vice President Dick Cheney, would block the NSC from forming a consensus on issues that concerned him; instead he would meet alone with President Bush afterward, a practice that compelled the secretary of state—Colin Powell in the first term, Condoleezza Rice in the second—to go around the process as well.

When Gates came onboard, he demanded high-level meetings, with all the players present, debating their positions all at once before the president, with a decision made at the end. Some officials contend that it is because of Gates that U.S. troops are coming out of Iraq a bit more rapidly than they might have otherwise—and that Bush hasn’t bombed Iran.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to infer from all this that Gates will take his reappointment as a mandate for autonomy—a permission slip to do whatever he wants without political interference. First, if it’s true that retired Gen. Jim Jones will be Obama’s national security adviser, this is going to be a very tightly run NSC. All impulses toward freelancing, from Gates or anybody else (including Hillary Clinton, if she’s secretary of state), will be firmly reined in. (More on Jones later, if he’s announced.)

Second, and more to the point, Gates is not the freelancing type. Though hardly a passive servant, he spent most of his career as a staff officer. Even as secretary of defense, he has constantly been aware—and has emphasized many times, in public and private—that the president is the decider. At age 65, Gates is not so old, but he is very much of the “old school” when it comes to loyalty and lines of authority.

At Obama’s press conference today, a reporter asked him how he reconciled his campaign promise of change and new vision with his appointment of so many Washington insiders. Obama replied: “Understand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost—it comes from me. … My job is to provide a vision of where we are going and to make sure my team is implementing it.” He added that his aides had to be smart enough to advise him on that vision and experienced enough—knowledgeable enough about the way Washington works—to put it into effect.

By that standard, Robert Gates is an excellent choice.