The secretary of defense position was always going to be a hard one to fill for Barack Obama. If he wanted he could bring in his own guy, someone who shares his views on Iraq and Afghanistan completely and who has a similar foreign policy mind, and there’d be a totally new course on the table for the US. Or his other option is to not shake things up just yet – leave the current secretary in place and use him as both a symbol of bipartisanship and proper judgement in not throwing out the generals in a time of war. Obama’s gone with the latter, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has his job for at least another year.
This Preisdent Bush appointment almost never came. If there wasn’t such a backlash against the sitting government in the 2006 midterms (where Democrats won everything available – House and Senate control), then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) would have kept his job and, well, the situation may have just got worse and worse. Instead, Rumsfeld was paraded out and made the lamb going to the people’s slaughter. Not long after, Bush got Gates confirmed by the Senate, and we’ve actually had a better situation in both countries (relatively speaking) than previous. Of course, Bush has maintained overall authority over the situation, and the search for Bin Laden and focus on Afghanistan has been neglected.
Gates, further, never really wanted the job. He only accepted it after much begging and pleading by the Bush administration. And he never had any intentions of going beyond the end of Bush’s final term. He isn’t a spring-chicken – he’s 65, and has a long political history that he could happily retire on. Joined the CIA in 66, the air-force from 1967-69, then left the CIA in 1974 to join President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, returned to the CIA in 1979, Deputy Director for Intelligence in 1982, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence from 1986-89, left the CIA again and became Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs to President Ronald Reagan, then Deputy National Security Adviser to Reagan as well, then was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to Director of Central Intelligence, and was confirmed by the Senate.
Even with the US hunkering down in Iraq, Gates, since 2006, has managed to overseas a drastic improvement in the situation on the ground. Last year, during a slip-up with nuclear materials and weapons on US soil, Gates proved that he wasn’t some Bush lackey – he fired both the chief of the air force and his own chief of staff. He wasn’t going to allow under-performing subordinates. It caused a stir through the administration, but it helped to boost up a severely demoralised department that Rumsfeld had created.
To further prove the fact that he’s no die-hard Bush-er (or even a tow-the-line Republican), during his Senate confirmation he was asked if America was winning the war in Iraq. His answer: ‘No, sir’. If you were going to carry over anyone from the current administration, Gates is about the only one you would want. Thankfully he has said yes.
Important for the rest of the world is that Obama and Gates share a common ground on Iran – engaging with dialogue. Obama has repeatedly called for talks, and while saying military options are the final option, there should always be efforts made to resolve the hostilities between the two countries through talks. Ignoring, for a moment, the argument about preconditions and what-not, that is the proper and responsible approach. Gates shares this view.
The only problem that some people are starting to see with Gates is how the rest of the security team is shaping up. Gates truly believes that war comes last, but he has shown that he isn’t against using serious force. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, too, is much more tougher (in rhetoric – we’ll see in action) than Obama. It seems that the security Cabinet Obama is assembling is more hawkish than the platform Obama campaigned on. Having different ideas at the table, all under the sway of Obama, will probably make for the best foreign policy decisions. But some on the left are a little worried about how the national security team is shaping up.
The record is there to be written as to Obama’s legacy. I suspect that with Gates, it will be a good record. I do, however, think Gates will only serve the first half of Obama’s first term – the next two years. Beyond that, Obama will say that he’s done his job, we’ve made progress, and it’s time for a new direction. But for the first two years, I suspect to see real progress and good advances with Gates heading defense.