As Barack Obama makes his way through the transition to power, he is learning the steps of an old dance. Having promised change, he now surrounds himself with experience. Having poured scorn not only on the Bush administration but at times on the Clinton administration as well, he now welcomes those who served his Democratic predecessor, including the former first lady who ran against him. And having roundly denounced current foreign and military policies, he may very well ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in place.
While Obama displays both confidence and maturity in embracing his former adversaries, he must expect cries of outrage and disappointment from his own supporters. If the prospect of appointing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state irritates the Obama base, what will they make of keeping the man who has executed President Bush’s policies at the Pentagon?
First it is important to recall that the president-elect vowed to bring change to politics as well as policy. The Obama administration would foster bipartisan cooperation wherever possible, he said, especially in matters of foreign policy and national security. If those are his objectives, then retaining Mr. Gates makes considerable sense—at least for the time being.
Of all the possible holdover appointees, the defense secretary has the highest reputation for effectiveness and the lowest potential for conflict with the new president. Unlike the previous occupant, he is respected in Congress and among the military’s general staff. Based on his personal history, Gates seems to have a stronger basis for agreement with Mr. Obama than with his current boss on the salient issues of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
Remember that during the months before President Bush asked him to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, Gates was serving on the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. The study group’s best-selling report, released only weeks after Mr. Gates resigned to accept the Bush appointment, was strongly critical of the president’s failed policies in Iraq.
Contrary to policies favored by President Bush at the time, the report urged immediate diplomatic contacts with all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in an effort to achieve stability, as well as negotiations with the Sunni insurgents that would lead to amnesty. The aim of those efforts was to achieve an orderly withdrawal of American troops from Iraq sooner rather than later. The report expressed deep worry that the Iraq war had diverted military and diplomatic resources away from the conflict in Afghanistan.
The Iraq Study Group’s recommendations and concerns sound familiar because they reflect the views expressed repeatedly by Obama ever since he announced his presidential candidacy. When President Bush largely rejected the ISG findings, his new secretary of defense felt obliged to distance himself from them as well. But according to the panel’s other members, it was Gates who had in fact written much of the report, and he concurred fully with its views.
Upon assuming control of the Pentagon, Gates did his best to subordinate his own opinions to administration policy, working hard to make the best of the troop escalation in Iraq despite personal doubts about the long-term wisdom of the “surge.” But he never echoed the Bush administration’s official hostility to a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq—and in fact at one point praised the debate over timetables in Washington as a means of increasing pressure on the Iraqis to achieve reconciliation and security on their own.
That should sound familiar, too, because it is so close to Obama’s stated policy.
When Gates was first nominated to serve as defense secretary, many unanswered questions lingered from his years at the CIA, and in particular regarding his role in the Iran-Contra affair. But the Democrats have already forfeited their opportunity to revive that scandal. There are many more urgent matters for them to address in the constitutional depredations of the past eight years. Gates is responsible for none of them.
Whether he will be able to come to terms with Obama on conditions for extending his tenure at the Pentagon remains to be seen. The president-elect may balk at permitting him to name his deputies. There could be other obstacles to continuing. But appointments matter less than policies—and Gates seems well suited to carry out the commands of the new commander in chief.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer www.observer.com.
© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.