Also published at my web magazine, The Public Record.
Barack Obama’s Pentagon transition team is sitting down with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a move that some Beltway observers believe signals that the President-elect does plan to keep Gates on despite protests from Iraq War opponents.
Another sign that Obama may be close to retaining Gates has been the lack of chatter from transition officials about alternative candidates – beyond cursory references to names like former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed.
It was Danzig, chief of the Navy under President Bill Clinton and a senior Obama adviser, who prominently praised Gates during the campaign. He said Gates “is a very good Secretary of Defense and would be an even better one in an Obama administration.”
In citing reasons for keeping Gates, Danzig noted that Gates’s desire to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan was in line with Obama’s campaign statements, but Danzig brushed past Gates’s opposition to Obama’s call for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution fellow and another foreign policy adviser to Obama, echoed Danzig’s pro-Gates comments, calling Gates “one of the best Defense secretaries we have had in a long time and it makes a lot of sense to keep him.”
Besides Danzig and Daalder, another Gates promoter inside Obama’s camp is former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who worked with Gates on the Iraq Study Group before Gates stepped down to become George W. Bush’s new Defense Secretary in late 2006, replacing the controversial Donald Rumsfeld.
Because of Rumsfeld’s unpopularity with Congress, Gates – a career CIA bureaucrat and former CIA director – got an easy ride through his confirmation hearing on Dec. 5, 2006. At the time, there also was a widespread belief that Gates was a “realist” who would persuade Bush to wind down the Iraq War.
Instead, Gates emerged as Bush’s personable front man for increasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq, the so-called “surge” of some 30,000 more soldiers. Gates then benefited from the conventional wisdom in Washington that the “surge” quelled the violence in Iraq.
Many military experts dispute the claim of the “successful surge,” citing other more important factors in reducing violence, such as the pre-surge decision by Sunni tribal leaders to stop their insurgency and the unilateral cease-fire by Shiite radical Moqtada al-Sadr. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Rising Cost of the Iraq Surge.”]
In his new book, The War Within, Bob Woodward talked to military sources who also credited new classified programs for identifying and killing Iraqi insurgent leaders. Nevertheless, as Woodward writes, “In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked.”
Gates now stands as possibly the greatest beneficiary of that conventional wisdom, if Obama decides to reappoint him as Defense Secretary.
Dismayed Obama Backers
Beyond keeping Gates, Obama appears headed toward staffing much of his foreign policy team with people tied to the Clinton administration, including many who were strong supporters of the Iraq War, most notably Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. [See Jeremy Scahill’s “This Is Change?”]
That trend has raised concerns among Obama supporters who had hoped Obama meant what he said when he declared during the campaign that “I don’t want to just end the [Iraq] war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place."
"Obama ran his campaign around the idea the war was not legitimate, but it sends a very different message when you bring in people who supported the war from the beginning," said Kelly Dougherty, executive director of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
But the prospect of keeping Gates has raised the strongest doubts about Obama’s commitment to real change. Even some of Gates’s former CIA colleagues have spoken up against the opportunism that has defined Gates’s career. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Robert Gates: As Bad as Rumsfeld?” and “The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates.”]