01/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Progressive Case for Gates

The appointment of Secretary Gates is sure to irk many progressives - and for good reason. Gates was a part of the Bush administration, he oversaw the implementation of the President's "surge" strategy, and has supported missile defense. While many progressives acknowledge that Gates has said some reasonable things (on Iran and Russia) and has been a positive influence within the Bush administration, many argue that this does not justify keeping someone on who was simply not as bad as the rest - especially when you have an opportunity to bring in someone more progressive.

But in keeping Gates, Obama, is actually indicating that he is very serious about instituting significant reform of the Pentagon.

Gates has advocated some very bold progressive reforms during the last couple of years. He has broken with the Rumsfeld emphasis on military transformation and has repeatedly talked about the need for the Pentagon to move away from procuring unnecessary weapons that are hugely expensive and have little strategic role. He also took on the Air Force's "fighter mafia" by firing two top Air Force officials and appointing Gen. Norton Schwartz - a non fighter pilot - to be Chief of Staff. As Slate's Fred Kaplan argues,

In his nearly two years at the helm of the Pentagon, Gates has delivered a series of speeches on the future direction of military policy. He has urged officers to recognize the shift in the face of warfare from the World War II legacy of titanic armored battles between comparably mighty foes to the modern reality of small shadow wars against terrorists and insurgents. More than that, he has called for systematic adjustments to this new reality: canceling weapons systems that aren't suited to these kinds of wars and building more weapons that are; reforming the promotion boards to reward and advance the creative officers who have proved most adept at this style of warfare; rethinking the roles and missions of the individual branches of the armed services; siphoning some of the military's missions, especially those dealing with "nation building," to civilian agencies.

By keeping him on, Obama is telling Gates to start implementing the reforms that he and progressives have been advocating for years. This is true especially on the defense budget. Since Gates is continuing on as Secretary of Defense he will now be empowered to bust out the scalpel and begin a difficult review process. Many had feared that the Pentagon would attempt to undermine a new Obama administration by dropping a $450 billion request for additional spending on weapons systems in the first months of his administration. This would have put Obama in the politically awkward position of being accused of cutting defense spending as one of his first foreign policy acts and would have set the battle lines over any potential reform of the defense budget. Not the sort of confrontational start that one would want. Gates essentially shields the Obama administration from that charge and hamstrings the elements within the Pentagon that would have sought to play politics to undermine a reform effort. Gates, as a Republican holdover in a Democratic administration, has an aura of bi-partisanship that makes him much more difficult to attack.

The question then that remains then is will Gates actually implement the far-reaching reforms he has talked about? I wrote in October after Gates had called for a massive change in the Pentagon's strategic approach toward weapons systems:

why doesn't Gates actually begin the procurement review process now and submit to the next administration his recommendations for what systems are necessary and what are not. He is after all the Secretary of Defense RIGHT NOW.

But Fred Kaplan, once again, makes a fair point,

From the start, he knew that he wouldn't have time to make a lot of headway in these campaigns--which, within the military, represent fairly radical ideas. His intent was to spell out an agenda, and lay the groundwork, for the next administration. Now it seems he's going to be in the next administration.

It seems fairly clear that Gates was kept on (and has agreed to stay) in order to implement the reforms he had advocated. The New York Times this morning seemed to confirm this, reporting that Gates was "selected in large part because [he has] embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena. The shift, which would come partly out of the military's huge budget."

It is also important to note that Gates' term will also probably be relatively brief, as he will in all likelihood make way for a more progressive leader - like Richard Danzig, a rumored nominee for be Deputy Secretary of Defense - in a year or two. Hopefully by that point Gates will have already done much of the heavy lifting and his successor will inherit a reform process that is already well under way. If that is the case, then Gates will have advanced the progressive vision on military affairs further than just about anyone could have hoped for.