Back when Robert Gates was named the Secretary of Defense, I expressed cynicism on here, noting that the change from Rumsfeld to Gates meant little in the larger scheme of things, unless President Bush changed his view of the world and the role of our military in it. And, indeed, the president did not change his view, or his playbook, so on the larger picture, the change to Gates meant nothing.
At the same time, where he was free to change things, Gates was effective and gained the respect and confidence of the uniformed military. Gates wasn't there for Abu Ghraib or Walter Reed or armor shortages, but he came in during the aftermath and was tasked with not just cleaning up the mess, but making sure those critical errors were not allowed to happen again. Gates moved confidently and swiftly, unencumbered by any doctrinaire view from the president on these "smaller" issues, and proved himself a very adept administrator. It's for this reason that we went from six retired Generals calling for the Secretary of Defense to be fired, to none.
Now, with a new Commander in Chief with a very different view, Gates provides the perfect short-term bridge between the eras of pre-Iraq-redeployment and post-Iraq-redeployment. And, that seems to be what President-Elect Obama sees Gates as -- a civil servant who does the job he's tasked with, and does it well. Politically, it also gives some cover to Obama from the right, to use one of George W. Bush's team to carry out a dramatic change in policy.
For those who worry that Gates will somehow drag President Obama to the right on Iraq, I think that fear is really unfounded. If the first question one must ask is, "Why is Obama picking Gates?" then the second question has to be "Why does Gates want to stay with Obama?"
It's not because Gates wants to preserve some neo-con view in the administration -- after all, Gates is a Bush I guy, a moderate who sees more eye-to-eye with Brent Scowcroft (an opponent of the war) than Paul Wolfowitz. It's not to preserve the current course, because Gates is smart enough to know that with Hillary Clinton, James Jones, and Barack Obama, staying the course will never win out.
The only reasonable answer is that Gates clearly understands that there will be a new course for our military, that includes redeployment from Iraq, and wants to make it work. If he didn't, he had a very nice private sector life that he could have gone to.
There is little time to spare here, as has been made clear by the timelines for redeployment that the Iraqis are calling for. By keeping Gates, the Department of Defense is the one place in government that will be spared the pains of leadership transition. Gates won't have to "hit the ground running," because he's already running. And now -- finally -- with a new mission from the top, Gates is well positioned to help Barack Obama keep the promises he made during his campaign.
Crossposted at www.VetVoice.com