By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is approaching the presidential transition unlike any of his predecessors.
He has ordered hundreds of political appointees at the Pentagon canvassed to see whether they wish to stay on in the new administration, has streamlined policy briefings and has set up suites for President-elect Barack Obama's transition team just down the hall from his own E-ring office.
Gates's efforts to ensure a smooth changeover during the first wartime presidential transition in 40 years mark a consensus-oriented style that has won him strong support inside and outside the Pentagon.
"In the past, we'd provide enormous amounts of information, issue papers and books; it was almost choking," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "So we've tried to streamline that and give what is important."
Gates's transition staff, led by special assistant Robert Rangel, has also mapped out key events for the first 90 days of the new administration -- such as NATO meetings and budget submissions, as well as decisions on deployments and the F-22A Raptor fighter jet.
In his nearly two years as Pentagon chief, Gates has repaired ties -- deeply strained under his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld -- with key constituencies such as U.S. military commanders, Congress, the State Department and other agencies. And his latest effort has generated calls for him to stay on for several months under Obama to bridge the administrations.
Under one often-mentioned scenario, Gates would stay on for an initial period in the new administration while Richard J. Danzig, an Obama adviser and former Navy secretary, prepares to take over as the new defense secretary.
"Danzig is extraordinarily capable and looks to be the front-runner," said Jim Miller, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security.
Others mentioned as candidates for the top Pentagon job include Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.); and John J. Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior defense official under President Bill Clinton.
But whoever takes charge of the Pentagon will face serious institutional challenges that extend far beyond the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vast budgetary, personnel and organizational problems await the new chief -- problems that Gates has done only so much to tackle.
With nearly 2 million civilian employees and an annual base budget exceeding $500 billion, deciding on the fiscal 2010 defense budget will be an early challenge, experts say.
The Pentagon's planning and budget process is "broken internally" as well as in the eyes of Congress, said Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has assessed reforms at the Pentagon from 2001 to 2008. "There is no faith on the Hill that the DoD is linking what it is supposed to achieve in the world with what it is buying and doing."
The budget is inadequately scrutinized, she said, particularly the emergency war funding "supplementals," which have amounted to scores of billions annually in recent years. Costs for military personnel, health care and equipment are mounting, with the Army and Marine Corps to add 92,000 permanent active-duty troops by 2011. Those services estimate the cost of replacing old equipment at more than $15 billion a year. A recent Government Accountability Office report on the 95 largest defense acquisition programs, worth $1.6 trillion, identified nearly $300 billion in cost overruns.
Rumsfeld had attempted to discipline the Pentagon's unwieldy bureaucracy by reasserting civilian control, but his leadership style proved an obstacle, experts said. "In the end, you didn't see a lot of emphasis on execution," Hicks said, pointing to Rumsfeld's issuing flurries of queries, known as "snowflakes," to his staff members. "You had a lot of people running around answering snowflakes, without really following up on what was done."
In contrast, Gates "did all the things Rumsfeld didn't in terms of accountability," Hicks said. Gates initiated high-profile firings and bypassed the Pentagon's slow procurement system to speed the delivery of mine-resistant vehicles to troops. But while focusing on select problems, Gates left much of the job of running the Pentagon to his deputy, Gordon England. "The whole system of governing the department is off the rails," Hicks said.
Officials and experts said keeping Gates is not essential to the continuity of wartime operations. Gates himself took over from Rumsfeld in a hasty turnover, and several key civilian and military officials have switched out during the wars -- including the Army secretary, the Air Force secretary and the Air Force chief of staff -- all essentially fired by Gates, they said.
Military leaders such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, the service chiefs, and commanders such as Gen. David H. Petraeus, who runs the U.S. Central Command, and Gens. Raymond Odierno and David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, are in place to oversee the wars, officials and experts say.
"Who's running the war? Petraeus? Or is it Petraeus?" jibed one former senior official who served under Gates.
Nevertheless, congressional Democrats and Republicans alike have recently sung Gates's praises. "I want to extend our sincere gratitude to you for your cooperation, for your open-minded attitude and your thoughtful approach," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And Gates has steered away from Rumsfeld's bureaucratic turf wars with the State Department and intelligence agencies, instead calling for a dramatic increase in non-Pentagon budgets for diplomacy and foreign assistance.
"We'd like him to stay," said one senior military officer from the Army, a service that fought bitterly with Rumsfeld.
Gates, who earlier said that staying on would be "inconceivable," has lately been mum about his plans, simply noting that he is getting "a lot of career advice." Still, some officials and experts say political drawbacks are emerging over keeping Gates in place for any significant period. "The shine is off" the idea of retaining Gates, said one outside expert close to the Obama transition team.
Because Gates arrived at the Pentagon essentially alone after the abrupt resignation of Rumsfeld a day after the November 2006 midterm elections, many of the senior political appointees around him are holdovers from the Rumsfeld era. Even members of Gates's inner circle were inherited from Rumsfeld, including Rangel, who was a longtime staff director for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), and chief secretary Delonnie Henry.
"Once you start peeling back the layers, where do you make the cut?" said one Pentagon official, noting that the Obama team would probably not keep Rangel, who is Gates's point man for the Defense Department transition. "Do you have Gates stay and no one else?" asked the official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
"If they keep Gates, does he get to pick the assistant secretaries, and to what degree do you debate that?" a senior defense official asked. "Your campaign is change, so you come in and say 'except for the Pentagon?' I think they should clear the place out."
Eric S. Edelman, who holds the key post of undersecretary of defense for policy, has said he will leave Jan. 20. Michèle A. Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security and co-leader of the Obama transition team's Pentagon review effort, has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace him. William J. Lynn, a former Pentagon comptroller, is a possibility for the job of deputy defense secretary.
Others worry that keeping Gates could give rise to clashes on key policy issues such as troop withdrawals from Iraq -- and send a dubious message about the caliber of Democratic contenders for the job. "What does it say about Democrats if we can't put up our own team?" asked the expert close to the Obama team.