Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 26, 2008

GATES.... As has been widely reported, Barack Obama will keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his post next year. This is not a surprise -- speculation about Gates staying on was common even before the election -- but it is unprecedented: this will be the "first time a Pentagon chief has been carried over from a president of a different party."

The details of the arrangement, which has not yet been formally confirmed, are still somewhat elusive. The Washington Post reports that Gates' extended tenure will be part of a "'rolling transition,' in which Gates would stay on during a phased changeover of key political appointees at the Pentagon. Others said he could stay in the job indefinitely. Under both scenarios, most of the deputies serving under him would be replaced, the sources said."

So, is this a good move or not? At first blush, it seems more than a little discouraging for Democrats. It's not, for example, "change" if the Defense Secretary under Bush is the same Defense Secretary under Obama. For that matter, the decision doesn't help dispel the notion that Democrats are weak on national security issues if Democratic presidents keep turning to Republicans to lead the Pentagon.

And yet, I'm not at all convinced that Gates is a poor choice. In fact, I've seen ample evidence that Gates is exactly who Obama needs at the Pentagon right now.

Gates may be a leading member of Bush's team, but he represents a complete break from the neo-conservatives who dominated the administration's first term. Gates is considered a non-ideological pragmatist, who's open to competing ideas, and who enjoys broad respect from the brass and lawmakers in both parties. In the midst of two wars, having a competent and qualified Pentagon chief, who has no partisan or ideological axe to grind, will bring a degree of steadiness and consistency that may benefit Obama enormously.

Consider a few perspectives from insightful observers. Spencer Ackerman:

For one thing, the gesture shown to the generals and admirals would be instantly understood and very likely reciprocated. Second, Gates is the sort of public servant who would understand that his duty as secretary is to manage withdrawal, not fight it. Third, bringing a Republican on board with withdrawal is both substantively good for implementing the political consensus that the public tells us already exists; and would make it more complicated for the ultras in the GOP to establish the stab-in-the-back narrative that they'll launch no matter what. And finally, whatever hits the Democratic brand would take by keeping a Republican on board temporarily would be wiped out by the esteem that the Broders of the world would suddenly find for Obama, as well as by the inevitable replacement of Gates by a Democrat.

Scott Horton:

[I]n the annals of the Defense Department, Gates's name will go down as a healer. His quiet professionalism and competence are exactly what is called for right now, and Barack Obama could not find a better secretary of defense.

Our very own Hilzoy:

Basically, I think that there are two main reasons for keeping Gates. The first is that it's very important to get bipartisan cover for the withdrawal from Iraq if we want to avoid some future conservative "if only the Democrats had let us win" story. (Likewise, bipartisan cover would be very useful if Obama decides to cut some weapons systems.) The second is that by all accounts the military have a lot of respect for Gates; keeping him on, therefore, would allow Obama to bypass the need to establish his own credibility and that of his Secretary of Defense with them. (Yes, I know: this shouldn't be necessary. But it is.)

Neither of these reasons would cut any ice with me if Gates had been a bad Secretary of Defense. But he hasn't. He's been very good, under difficult conditions. Moreover, he seems like the sort of person who would either try to implement Obama's policies rather than working to undermine them or turn the job down.

Noah Shachtman:

Obama's defense team certainly has serious beefs with Bush's military and diplomatic decisions -- to launch the war, to take resources from Afghanistan, to refuse serious talks with Iran. But, from my limited discussions with [Obama advisor Richard] Danzig and others, the thing that really pisses them off was the management of the Pentagon during the Bush years. The spiraling budgets, the lack of accountability, the slipped deadlines, the circumventing of the chain of command, the politicization of policy -- to former Defense Department stewards like Danzig, those were the real horror shows.

But since Gates has been brought in, things have started to turn. Budgets have begun to return to reality. People lose their jobs when they can't do them right. Experts in their fields are being heard. Sound policy is often trumping adherence to political orthodoxy. And the Pentagon is slowly, slowly starting to focus on today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's the attraction of Gates.


Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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Comments

It's not, for example, "change" if the Defense Secretary under Bush is the same Defense Secretary under Obama.

I'm not sure one can fairly conclude this just yet. It may be that Gates is quite open to implementing an Obama strategy vastly different from the Bush strategy - indeed, Gates himself may believe the Obama approach is better, but is constrained by working for Bush & Cheney.

As with the Clinton alums among Obama's picks, I am willing to withhold judgment until they actully have a chance to work with and for Obama, and as a team with one another, and see what they actually do before saying these appointments inherently preclude the kinds of Change We Need.

Posted by: zeitgeist on November 26, 2008 at 8:16 AM | PERMALINK

I, too, would probably prefer someone else, but I'm thinking Obama may be two steps ahead of everybody and perhaps has made a very shrewd decision.

By keeping Gates, he gives himself political cover in negotiating the cesspool of Republicans in the Defense Department. The monkey is then on Gates' back in finding a way to implement Obama's decisions.

Posted by: hancock on November 26, 2008 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

if we want to avoid some future conservative "if only the Democrats had let us win" story. Hilzoy

Not that it stopped "some future conservative" from making the same argument about Viet Nam (e.g. John McCain). And yet it was two Republican presidents (Nixon & Ford) who withdrew. I don't recall the Dem Congress having much to do with it, but certainly most of the people around the country who opposed the war were Dems. My point is that Republicans don't need facts to match their arguments. They merely use what they can find.

Posted by: Danp on November 26, 2008 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

It's a miracle that Gates managed to get appointed by Bushco. From what I've seen and heard of him he seems competent, pragmatic and non-ideological. If he has the respect of the brass then it makes perfect sense for Obama to keep him on, at least for a while. There are other, bigger fires to be put out, keeping Defense running smoothly with the incumbent Secretary will allow the administration to focus on them.

Posted by: Dennis-SGMM on November 26, 2008 at 8:34 AM | PERMALINK

Can't say I am happy about keeping anyone from the current sadministration. However, if there is one to keep on, maybe Gates is it--I have a hard time believing that Obama would keep him on if Gates is not committed to being a team player, and if he is, that would help with withdrawal messaging. Also, any chance that this is a short term fix until someone like Wesley Clark is eligible for the post--2010?

Posted by: bubba on November 26, 2008 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with zeitgeist above.

Instead of looking at Gates as a continuation of Bush policies, it seems to me that we should consider the appointment of Gates to replace the clearly incompetent Rumsfeld as one of the first moves to clean out all the trash from the Bush administration. It wasn't clear at that time what direction the final replacement of the Bush administration was going, but Bob Gates has clearly demonstrated that he is a very competent technocrat. He was and remains a transitional figure. His immediate replacement is certainly not urgent.

Posted by: Rick B on November 26, 2008 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

I'm with Zeitgeist, too. Moreover, I think it's a good sign that our new administration is being thoughtful and pragmatic. [And not socialist, radical or elitist.]

Posted by: chrenson on November 26, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

As long as Gates is dancing to the tune Obama calls, I'm OK with it. A smooth transition is desirable, and the policy differences between Obama and Bush would have made this uneven.

Posted by: CN on November 26, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

For that matter, the decision doesn't help dispel the notion that Democrats are weak on national security issues if Democratic presidents keep turning to Republicans to lead the Pentagon.

That's what I don't like, but I don't have any particular problem with Gates--I heard that he wasn't actually a registered Republican.
Does this also fit in with Obama consulting Scowcroft, another Bush 41 person?
Would Obama's new deputy secretary be the likely successor? So many questions..

Posted by: Allan Snyder on November 26, 2008 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

It's a relief that most of his (BushCo neocon) deputies would be replaced. So that's something.

Posted by: FearItself on November 26, 2008 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

Every time I hear Mr. Obama speak , addressing the nation in a clear calm concise manner, I am instilled with confidence that he is making the right decisions and actually putting "country first' as opposed to those who shall remain nameless. We don't need any drama to get this country back on track.

Posted by: John R on November 26, 2008 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

My brother, the Fox News Republican, called me last night to tell me that Obama's keeping Gates proves he was wrong and I was right. Obama is a pragmatic centrist by inclination. Keeping Gates is pitch perfect.

So far my only concern about Obama is that he is too good to be true. He glides along serenely self assured. So far no false moves. He must be paddling like hell under the surface.

Posted by: Ron Byers on November 26, 2008 at 9:09 AM | PERMALINK

He glides along serenely self assured. So far no false moves. He must be paddling like hell under the surface.

Haha, good way to describe it. I do get the impression that he is really working there in Chicago, as opposed to sitting around half coherent as a bunch of other people tell him what to do. I like knowing that the president is actually the one calling the shots, even if I don't always agree.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on November 26, 2008 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

"Every time I hear Mr. Obama speak , addressing the nation in a clear calm concise manner, I am instilled with confidence that he is making the right decisions and actually putting "country first'."

Right on. And I recall being impressed during Gates's confirmation hearings by the same quality. He's a very capable man with a sincere desire to serve his country. I'd guess that Obama sees him the same way, and that's why he is reappointing him.

Posted by: davidp on November 26, 2008 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

A friend of mine, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Affairs (so he actually knows what he's talking about) has a theory that makes a huge amount of sense. Obama isn't being non-partisan, he says, but ruthlessly partisan. He is literally picking through the wreckage of the Republican Party, salvaging what's savable. The fact is, there is simply no place for competent, thoughtful people like Gates in today's Republican Party. Obama is sending a strong signal to the old-fashioned "Main Street" Republicans that they can have a political life with him, which is much more than the party of Sarah Palin and James Dobson can offer. Obama may look like he is extending a hand to the Republicans, but it's got a very well concealed knife in it.

Boy, it's going to be great to have a President who understands policy and politics.

Posted by: Aigin on November 26, 2008 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

Keeping gates is a sign that a competent adult is in charge. It won't stop the neocons and the ideologues from attacking Obama at every turn, but the Pentagon brass have been shown respect, and that ultimately works greatly to Obama's, and the country's, benefit.

Contrast Obama's approach with Clinton's in 1993: Alienating the Pentagon with an early decree calling for allowing openly gays in the military was about as daft a move at that point as a new president could make. Obama knows what he's about. Clinton clearly didn't.

Posted by: rich on November 26, 2008 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

I have yet to find a bipartisan argument that is at all compelling. Please, any party that continues to assure us that Obama is a terrorist born in another country is not going to give Democrats credit for anything. Where are the republican emails saying give the president-elect a chance? Gates should not keep his job unless there is a major house cleaning below him and all republican political appointees are removed. Keeping Gates means keeping alive an ideology that includes invading countries and torturing their citizens. If Gates is willing to be part of the team that rids the Pentagon of Rumsfeld's minions then it is an okay appointment. Otherwise there are other people to do the job.

The public is going to care about the end result and not how we got there.

Posted by: Kropotkin on November 26, 2008 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

The public is going to care about the end result and not how we got there.

Precisely. And while in some areas the best result may come from dramatic turnover from the top on down, in other areas the best result comes from consistency and an orderly extended transition. Sure there are Dems who can go what Gates does. But it likely will go more smoothly to leave him in place since he seems able to work well with all relevant players and gradually replace his deputies and ultimately Gates himself. "Change" - at least in a good governing sense - will not be cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all in its best implementation.


Posted by: zeitgeist on November 26, 2008 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

My biggest criticism of Gates is also why I am not that worried. He is brilliant, and he is a waterboy. He has always done what his superiors asked him to. He will do the same for Obama.

Posted by: Catfish on November 26, 2008 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

Neither of these reasons would cut any ice with me if Gates had been a bad Secretary of Defense. But he hasn't. He's been very good, under difficult conditions. Moreover, he seems like the sort of person who would either try to implement Obama's policies rather than working to undermine them or turn the job down.

Gates is good, I'm glad he's staying. He gets it. It will be interesting to see who follows him, and how long until he's replaced. Will it be one of his undersecretaries, to avoid lame duck status? How come I never hear Jim Webb's name any more in this regard?

But I know there are shrieks of dispair in certain corners of ProgLand that progressives aren't getting top slots in the cabinet portfolio.

Posted by: SJRSM on November 26, 2008 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

What might have been the implications of the Bush administration keeping Richard Clarke in HIS counterterrorism position? The driving factors should always be if the individual is doing a good job, and is not ideologically enslaved to the outgoing administration. I instinctively distrust anyone who was placed in their position under Bush, but Gates seems to be motivated by other than doglike loyalty to the ideological leadership.

Posted by: Mark on November 26, 2008 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

Bottom line is that this is just one more step in legitimizing the Cheney-Bush administration by Democrats. Democrats took impeachment off the table. Democrats bent acceded to Cheney-Bush wishes on escalating the occupation of Iraq, telecom immunity, the Patriot Act, FISA, full authority to the Treasury on the $700B bailout, Guantanamo, limp-wristed hearings on Justic Dept politicization, off-shore drilling, etc. Now Gates is a-ok.

No wonder Democrats feel like they can't pursue impeachment, criminal investigations, etc against the Cheney-Bush administration, when they've been so busy perpetuating the notion among the public that this is all politics as usual.

How much of these zealous efforts at post-partisanism will result in the institutionalization of Cheney-Bush affronts to the Constitution and the Republic?

Posted by: garnash on November 26, 2008 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Many Afghani and Pakistani civilians will be murdered by the US military during the first year of the Obama administration.

Posted by: Brojo on November 26, 2008 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

Someone on Maddow's show made a good point last night, that history will not look kindly on an American public who, through their elected representatives, allow the constitutional and human rights violations of the Bush Administration to go without consequence.
It isn't the sort of thing where you can just let bygones be bygones, I don't care if you intend to be postpartisan or not.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on November 26, 2008 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Scott Horton at Harper's blog has a reassuring post about Gates from Nov. 20th:

Grading Gates

Posted by: David W. on November 26, 2008 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Link again:

Grading Gates

Posted by: David W. on November 26, 2008 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

In the next election cycle the Repugs will claim that President Clinton and President Obama agree that Democrats are not qualified to run the Defense Department. Gate seems to be a competent fellow but wasn't he in charge of the CIA when they failed to predict the collapse of the USSR? Gate seems to be an honorable man but didn't he help to facilitate the torture of prisoners in the Bush administration? Do I have these facts wrong?

Posted by: Demo on November 26, 2008 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

How come I never hear Jim Webb's name any more in this regard? -- SJRSM, @10:23

You leave my Jim Webb alone, now; hear? If you think it had been easy to turn Virginia entirely blue (both Senators are now Dems, where both had been Repub scant 2 yrs ago), you can think again. Give us some time to get used to it, to strengthen the blue tint, and *then*, once we have someone good to replace Jim in the Senate, you can have him for administration. But not before.

Anyway... Jim's a bit of a loose cannon. No telling how well he'd get trough the confirmation hearings. And no guarantee that he'd be *one whit* more progressive than Gates. Possibly less so.

Posted by: exlibra on November 26, 2008 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

this will be the "first time a Pentagon chief has been carried over from a president of a different party."

True, but note the qualifiers, "Pentagon Chief" and "carried over." Before the Pentagon was built, Edwin Stanton was Secretary of War for both Lincoln(R) and his successor Andrew Johnson(D). And Henry Stimson, Secretary of War for Taft (R), was brought back to serve in the same position in the adminstrations of F. D. Roosvelt (D) and Truman (D)

Posted by: rea on November 26, 2008 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

To piggyback on Demo's comment - Gates is the guy who started the politicization of the CIA under Reagan. See Robert Parry's article on consortiumnews.com.

Posted by: VaLiberal on November 26, 2008 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

I think that it's a very sensible move. If there is one place where you do not want to have chaos during the transition between administrations, it's at the Pentagon. Let's not forget that 9/11 came just eight months into Bush's first term.

Posted by: mfw13 on November 26, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Where is Gates at on DADT? Will the DoD have change there?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 26, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

How come I never hear Jim Webb's name any more in this regard?

Because nobody wants to fight for another Democratic Sen spot in VA. And Webb himself seems better suited to being a Senator than a bureaucrat.

Posted by: TW Andrews on November 26, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

This is a good choice. Obama is making a declaration: he doesn't care about the letter next to your name as much as he does competency. Gates is the best SefDec we've had in a while--I'm glad he's keeping him on.

Posted by: Johhny on November 26, 2008 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

Where's Kucinich and the Department of Peace?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 26, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Gates is considered a non-ideological pragmatist, who's open to competing ideas,

The man was president of Texas A&M, for crying out loud. You don't get to that position by being a centrist. It may well be that he is pragmatic. We have had some very decent people as president, Frank Vandiver comes to mind, but we have also had some real nut cases, think Jarvis Miller. Don't expect Gates to be willing to go with some sort of policy that isn't basically rightwing, not necessarily neocon, though.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on November 26, 2008 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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