Obama Aide Lauds Defense Secretary

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

A senior adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama praised Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday and said Gates could do "even better" as Pentagon chief in an Obama administration.

Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and Defense Department official who has been part of Obama's core national security team since early last year, said that many of Gates's policies at the Pentagon "are things that Senator Obama agrees with and I agree with." Obama has said that, if elected, he will not limit his cabinet choices to Democrats and will look for the best available candidates.

The Obama campaign yesterday refused to discuss future "personnel" issues. Danzig, who has previously lauded Gates's performance, told reporters he had not discussed with Obama the possibility of Gates remaining in office, adding that "these decisions are for later."

Others close to the campaign, while agreeing that no decisions had been made, said that the comfort level with Gates was high and that there was a recognition of the need for a smooth transition during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Gates, who has served six presidents from both parties -- including a quarter-century as an intelligence official and years in top White House positions -- joined the Bush administration in December 2006 and has said repeatedly that he is looking forward to returning to private life. He often refers to the timepiece he carries in his pocket, a gift from his wife, that counts down the time until the next inauguration. But he has deflected all specific questions about whether he would consider a job in the next administration.

Several others have been mentioned as possible defense chiefs for Obama, including Danzig himself. But the possibility of a Gates announcement before the election could help assuage remaining voter concerns about Obama's readiness to become commander in chief.

Obama and Gates are not of like mind on every issue. Obama has called for a firm timetable for early withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq; Gates shares the view of military commanders -- and President Bush -- that a timetable for final withdrawal would endanger still-fragile security gains.

But the two men agree, Danzig noted, on the need to increase the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan and to expand the Afghan army.

Gates derives enormous benefit from not being Donald H. Rumsfeld, his predecessor who is held responsible by most Democrats -- and many Republicans -- for a great many faults as defense secretary, from the poorly planned Iraq occupation and abuse of military detainees to an abrasive and ineffective management style.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a frequent Obama surrogate, went out of her way to praise Gates's management of the Pentagon during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week. "You have my deepest respect for your public service and for your willingness to make the very tough decisions at the very top," McCaskill said. In particular, she said, Gates had "exceeded my expectations" in holding military and civilian Pentagon officials accountable at the highest levels.

In one of his first acts after taking over the Pentagon, Gates helped revise foundering U.S. policy in Iraq, easing Gen. George W. Casey Jr. out of command there and replacing him with Gen. David H. Petraeus. He moved quickly to fire the top two Air Force officials after reports that the service had mishandled nuclear weapons, and he dismissed the Army secretary and commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center following revelations of substandard treatment for wounded veterans.

When Adm. William J. Fallon, then Central Command chief, clashed with administration policy, Gates accepted his resignation.

Even as he has been aggressive in managing the Defense Department, Gates has been widely congratulated for his transparent and low-key style and willingness to listen, and for restoring both civilian and military morale.

Although Obama has said little about institutional reorganization within the government, his advisers have looked with favor on Gates's campaign to address the resource imbalance between Defense and State departments.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company