With the intention behind the administration’s drawdown date for Afghanistan becoming increasingly hard to pin down, it’s not unreasonable to theorize that the U.S. could have a significant stake in the nation for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. Bearing this in mind, it would be wise to keep the waters as calm as possible. Getting a new defense secretary will not do this.
Robert Gates is the perfect secretary for the perfect time, simply because of the lack of passion he generates. As the most prominent Republican in Obama’s cabinet, he’s not under any particular scrutiny from those on the right hoping to win political points. Democrats, who still harbor fresh memories of the clown who preceded him, are also generally accepting of the Bush appointee. As a result, Gates is free to oversee the country’s two wars and spearhead massive reform efforts, all with a minimum of partisan white noise.
If Gates stays true to his word and steps down in 2011, it’s unlikely that his replacement will fare so lucky. The nomination and appointment process will bring fresh attention to a role that Gates has filled quietly and could further politicize a war that the U.S. has invested so much blood and treasure in. Even if Obama tries to catch lightening twice by tapping a moderate Republican, and my prediction is that it will be former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel, it’s an unnecessary gamble that could be avoided by just keeping Gates in his place.
Perhaps as important, Gates will endanger his goal of establishing a fiscally conscious Defense Department by leaving the Pentagon. While Gates has said he believes the will to carry out his cost-cutting measures will outlive his tenure as secretary, it’s hard to imagine future defense secretaries equally eager to buck the department’s tradition of unquestioned spending.
Although Gates intends to retire, he surely recognizes that he serves at the pleasure of the president. Donald Rumsfeld offered his letter of resignation several times amid the Abu Ghraib scandal, but stayed on when Bush rejected them. When 2011 comes, Obama should meet Gates with the same response.
Justin Duckham is a Washington correspondent with the Talk Radio News Service. He was a music journalist in California before making the jump to politics. Justin was a member of UC Merced’s founding class and graduated with a degree in History and minors in American Studies and Philosophy.