Newly re-appointed Defense Secretary Bob Gates took questions from the press on Tuesday, outlining some agenda items that the Obama administration is likely to pursue, dismissing suggestions that not being able to appoint his own staff might hinder the Pentagon's work, and heaping praise on the president-elect who just renewed his job. Gates also rejected the notion that he would be a "caretaker secretary" in the next administration.
"It really didn't [feel strange]" being a Republican Defense Secretary appointed by a Democrat, said Gates. "The president-elect will be the eight president I have worked for. And all I can say is I look forward to it."
"I have been very impressed by several things," he said of his soon-to-be-boss. "First of all the things he said to me and on the campaign trail about the military and his respect for the institution; I was impressed by his reaching out to Admiral Mullen, and he has made clear he wants to have a regular dialogue with the chairman, the chiefs and the commanders. I have also been very impressed by Michelle Obama's desire to work on behalf of military families. All these things send very positive signals to the men and women in uniform."
Gates revealed the details of the secret meeting with Obama to discuss his role in the next administration: "We did meet the day he came to Washington to meet with the President. We met when he went back to the airport. We actually met in the fire station at National Airport and they pulled the trucks out so that our cars could go in."
Obama announced Monday that Gates would continue to serve as Defense Secretary during the early stages of his presidency, at the very least. The move was hailed as a gesture towards national security bipartisanship, but also as a shrewd move to give Obama the cover he needs to pursue different foreign policy proposals.
On Tuesday, Gates was quizzed on several of those areas, telling reporters that he would like to slow down the stop-loss program, whereby veterans are called back into service (though this, he said, would be driven by the winding down of the Iraq war), close Guantanamo (through legislation), and bolster the nation's foreign service corps.
"The dollars required significant to enhance our capabilities in that area, are relatively speaking, small, compared to a new weapons system," he said. "The personnel required to plus up the capabilities of the national security arena... are relatively small."
Gates also discussed the need to be pragmatic in revising our approach to Afghanistan, arguing that an addition of three brigades into that theater would be helpful if it was accompanied by "enablers" who could help deliver on U.S. policy.
One reporter questioned whether the debate over Iraq withdrawal was, with the signing of a Status of Forces Agreement, a moot point -- U.S. forces will be pulled out whether due to deadline or accomplishment.
"I still think the pacing needs to be seen in the context of what's going on, both in terms of the deadlines we've agreed to and in terms of the situation on the ground," Gates responded. "The new factor is we have agreed to some deadlines that change the nature of the mission in considerable ways."
Finally, Gates was asked about the staffing of Defense under his leadership. The president-elect will choose the high-ranking figures to serve in the bureaucracy, the Secretary said, but that did not portend major conflicts. In fact, Gates came into the job without his own people in place.
"When I came here two years ago, every single position was filled by somebody who was appointed by somebody else," he noted. "I think it has worked out okay."