Who will be America’s next defense secretary? Question of Robert Gates replacement unresolved

Amanda Carey Contributor
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Last month, Robert Gates spoke — granted, without revealing much — about his plans to step down as secretary of defense later this year: “I’m going to be around for a number of months. And I will be around through all the [budget] hearings, through the debate, and so on,” he told reporters during a trip to Ottawa, Canada.

Still, Washington insiders are rampantly speculating on who could replace him.

Early musings centered on current Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.“Politically, no Democrat is better positioned,” wrote Leslie Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “She’d give him [Obama] more political protection for tough decisions on Afghanistan, for example, than would any other Democrat.”

More than six months later, Gelb told The Daily Caller he’s sticking to his position.

“It’s kind of the easiest fit for the White House,” said Gelb. “The military likes her a lot … she takes positions they can subscribe to. Politically, it would work out fine.”

Gelb conceded that he doesn’t think Clinton “wants to leave State at all,” but “politically, it would be easy” for President Obama to nominate her to fill the vacancy left by Gates.

Another option, said Gelb, is Jack Reed, who reportedly turned down the job in 2008. Reed is a Democratic senator from Rhode Island and a retired army major. According to Gelb, Reed would have “no trouble being confirmed.”

“There are two different ways to go,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former national security analyst for the Congressional Budget Office.

“One is to try and guess, and guess right like you’re playing a betting game,” O’Hanlon told TheDC. “The other way is not to … Remember, this is president’s choice.”

That said, O’Hanlon said he sees a host of options for the president for a Gates replacement. Among them are John Spratt, a former Democratic representative from South Carolina; Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut; Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.

He threw in Sen. John McCain for good measure, calling the former Obama rival an “interesting choice.”

“Most people don’t think of [Spratt] as being a close associate of Obama’s … but his qualifications are very strong,” said O’Hanlon. Of Sens. Graham and Lieberman, he said, “collectively, they’re not favorites of the Democratic Party, but Obama has other issues and considerations.”

The only thing that seems certain is that the nomination will not be a politically charged one.

“It’s not someone who will come in and do big changes,” James Carafano, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “My guess is it’ll be a Democrat, but Republicans are not going to go after him just because it’s a Democrat.”

“This is one of the few areas where Republicans don’t have big issues with the administration,” Carafano added. “I just don’t see this as being a controversial thing.”

The biggest question remains one of just when Gates would step down.

“If you asked me a year ago, I had heard he’d be stepping down right around now,” Gelb told TheDC. “Then that all faded. We’d hear he’d stay on most of 2011, and now rumors have started again about an earlier departure.”

O’Hanlon agreed: “Everyone loves Gates,” he said. “And he always seems to stay longer than he promises.”

According to O’Hanlon, the timing of Gates’s departure is complicated by General David Petraeus’s role and a new incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this summer. “At a time of all this change at the Pentagon, there’s a real argument that Gates should not leave — to preserve continuity.”