Staying With Robert Gates


President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to keep Robert Gates at the helm of the U.S. Department of Defense is an excellent choice.  As a successor to the highly controversial (almost “radioactive”) Donald Rumsfeld, Gates brought a refreshing sense of professionalism and calculated detachment and distance from George W. Bush’s controversial defense policies.  That was difficult, but he pulled it off. 


President Bush was forced to accept Gates’ detached professionalism–something that his administration detested in any subordinates–since he needed a man of his caliber at the Defense Department after the drubbing that the Republican Party received during the Congressional election of 2006.  Indeed, during that election, American voters gave Bush a failing grade for his handling of the Iraq war.


For Barack Obama, one of Gates’ greatest assets is that he was part of the controversial, but highly realistic, Iraq Study Group, which, in the Fall of 2006, recommended cutting America’s losses and getting out of Iraq.  As a consistent opponent to that war, Obama did not forget Gates’ positive role in that study group. 


Secondly, Obama appears grateful that Gates pursued “a strategy for Iraq that could attract broad support and survive the transition to a new administration.” 

Thirdly, Gates is likely to provide a great deal of credibility to the new administration in the area of defense when Obama will be making a number of bold decisions. 


Fourthly, Gates will also be quite effective in bringing about a new focus in America’s continued (or even renewed) involvement in Afghanistan, in dealings with Iran, and in reformulating U.S.-Russia strategic ties.


President-elect Obama’s promise of change is seen guardedly in the realm of America’s national security affairs.  Even though the phrase “the global war on terrorism” describes a highly abused and equally maligned policy–and must be abandoned–there is no disagreement that an alternative has to be found for conducting America’s future foreign policy.  Gates will play a crucial role in Obama’s attempts to significantly revamp Bush’s dealings with global terrorism.  


Assuming that the United States will pull out of Iraq within the next two years, the gains made in the past year or so must be institutionalized.   The foremost precondition for that institutionalization is the uninterrupted evolution of Iraq’s military as the best professional force, which is also liberated from ethnic rift and hatred.  Iraq has not yet achieved a point of irreversibility in terms of lowered violence and political stability.  The American military can ensure that the Iraqi security forces continue their intense training programs without interruption.   For that reason alone, the continued presence of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is quite necessary.  Obama is also fully aware of Gates’ role in the treaty regarding the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2011 that the parliament of that country recently ratified.


More important than Iraq are the dynamics of America’s strategic presence in the Middle East in the coming years.  As U.S. prestige suffered from its Iraqi quagmire, other great powers–especially the People’s Republic of China (PRC)–have been escalating strategic presence and influence.  The Obama administration has to reconfigure ways of making noteworthy gains in the United States’ presence and prestige.


Obama as President needs a variety of bold defense and foreign policy moves.  Even though the Cold War with Russia is by no means on, harsh rhetorical exchanges and policy differences between Moscow and Washington were escalating during the second term of the Bush presidency.  NATO’s expansion was one reason for that reality. 


The Bush administration’s decision to postpone further expansion of NATO will make Obama’s task considerably simpler in the sense that, as he tackles the issue of finding solutions to American and global economic problems as president, he will have one less taxing issue to worry about.  He can take his own time in revisiting NATO expansion at a later date. 


Robert Gates also has the longest experience in dealing with Russia and its predecessor, the former Soviet Union.  He is perfectly suited to offer a lot of confidential advice to the president who is a novice on that issue.


The Obama administration will be in need of a calculated and calm approach regarding Iran.  Past American experience has proven that threatening Iran with statements like, “all options are on the table,” will not scare it into abandoning its nuclear research program. 


Hopes are high that a comprehensive dialogue between Washington and Tehran will start as soon as Obama takes office.  Gates’ quiet and confident presence is needed for the new president in negotiating with Iran.  Obama’s approach does not necessarily involve taking “other options,” off the table, but ensuring it is not dangled over the heads of Iran’s leaders as a Damocles’ sword.  


Above all, Gates will provide a period of continuity in the defense arena as Obama initiates the task of revamping America’s image that has been badly tarnished in the past eight years.