Agreement Near for Gates to Stay On as Defense Secretary

President-elect Barack Obama is said to have asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in office for the beginning of Obama's presidential term. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is close to finalizing an agreement to remain at the Pentagon for at least the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, providing the new commander in chief with a Republican in his Cabinet and continuity for a military waging two wars, according to Democrats familiar with the negotiations.

Some sources described a "rolling transition," in which Gates would stay on during a phased changeover of key political appointees at the Pentagon. Others said he could stay in the job indefinitely. Under both scenarios, most of the deputies serving under him would be replaced, the sources said.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell did not confirm yesterday whether Gates had agreed to stay but reiterated that he had never ruled out the option. "He has deliberately never precluded the possibility of continuing to serve if needed," Morrell said. "It would be out of character to do so now."

Obama plans to announce members of his national security team early next week, bringing together a bipartisan group that is almost certain to include Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of state and retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser.

Obama aides declined to comment on Gates yesterday, but the transition team first circulated Gates's name in the summer, when former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, an Obama national security adviser, praised the defense secretary and former CIA director, saying Gates could do "even better" in the new administration. Obama has also said he expects to have at least one Republican in his Cabinet.

Gates is well respected on Capitol Hill and within the military as a non-ideological, decisive leader willing to consider alternative views. He is credited with putting the Defense Department back on an even keel after the turbulent years under Donald H. Rumsfeld and with helping revise the Bush administration's failing policy in Iraq. Gates served for a time on the Iraq Study Group, which issued recommendations in fall 2006 on how to revise the U.S. war strategy, including a call to explore "constructive engagement" with Iran and Syria.

"If this is true, it would be a pretty remarkable national security team," a senior Pentagon official said yesterday. Clinton is seen by the military as a moderate on defense issues who worked hard to educate herself on national security matters as a member of the Armed Services Committee, while Jones has served as Marine commandant and NATO commander.

But the combination would probably disappoint some on the left of the Democratic Party, who would prefer a clear and sharp break with Bush-era policies. During the presidential campaign, Gates publicly disagreed with Obama's avowed commitment to a 16-month timetable for withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.

Even as Obama has reiterated, since the election, his pledge to retask the military toward planning an early withdrawal from Iraq, he has tried to project an atmosphere of calm during the wartime transition. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen traveled to Chicago for a private meeting with the president-elect that Pentagon officials said lasted 45 minutes.

In a news conference in Chicago yesterday, Obama pledged to push for new spending to stimulate the economy upon taking office in January and said he would offset the spending with cuts to the federal budget. He also named Peter R. Orszag, head of the Congressional Budget Office, as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Rob Nabors, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, as deputy director of the OMB.

Other names that had surfaced as possible defense secretaries include Danzig, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and former Pentagon official John J. Hamre, who serves as chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and was an informal campaign adviser to Obama.

The top candidates to lead other parts of the national security establishment remain in flux. The contenders for director of national intelligence include retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, while Obama adviser Susan E. Rice was said to be a front-runner for ambassador to the United Nations.

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