Shall He Stay, Or Shall He Go?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 16, 2010


That is the question of the moment concerning the fate of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has stated that he wants to leave in 2011–check out this story by Fred Kaplan, along with this interview, both of which served to start up this story–but whose retirement may be in the process of being walked back:

. . . don’t hold your breath that Gates will permanently move back to his home in Washington state anytime soon. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, tried Monday to tamp down speculation that the Pentagon chief is close to calling it quits.

“Bob Gates has proven to be a miserable failure at retirement,” Morrell said, referring to how President George W. Bush persuaded Gates, 66, to return to public service as defense secretary in December 2006. “It remains to be seen whether his sense of responsibility trumps his desires, as in the past.”

[. . .]

. . . Gates has been dropping hints that he could stick around even longer. At a news conference Aug. 9, reporters pressed the secretary on his plans.

“As far as I’m concerned, all I will say is that I’m going to be here longer than either I or others thought,” he said.

Anything can happen, but my guess is that Gates will likely leave before President Obama’s first term is up. He obviously craves the action, but he appears to crave retirement as well, and he is conscious of the need to make sure that he doesn’t stick around too long, lest he tarnish or ruin part or all of his legacy at the Pentagon. As things stand, Gates has earned a reputation as a throwback to an era of statesmanship when politics stopped at the water’s edge, and when the United States benefited from a more bipartisan, unified approach to foreign, national security, and defense policy. I imagine that Secretary Gates is even now working to make it difficult for his successor to undo the Secretary’s efforts at establishing and implementing a more bipartisan defense policy. Here’s hoping that such a policy becomes Secretary Gates’s most lasting legacy; the American national security community could certainly use a more clear-eyed approach to preserving America’s interests, instead of allowing the implementation of American national security policy to be held hostage to narrow partisan interests.

I don’t know who might possibly succeed Secretary Gates, who has certainly cast a long, and powerful shadow over the Pentagon. Maybe Michèle Fluornoy. Maybe Hillary Clinton will move from State to Defense. But at the end of the day, the best we can likely hope for them, or perhaps for anyone who is appointed to succeed Bob Gates is that they will first do no harm, and that they will, correspondingly, leave Secretary Gates’s legacy alone, and untroubled.

And of course, the worry is that this may be asking too much of any successor under the Obama Administration.

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