A Keeper at the Pentagon
Barack Obama would be wise to leave Defense Secretary Robert Gates in place.

Friday, November 28, 2008

IN SELECTING nominees for his Cabinet and a new White House staff, President-elect Barack Obama has so far placed an admirable emphasis on proven competence over personal loyalty or political purity. He's been pragmatic in choosing pragmatists but also bold in his willingness to enlist formidable personalities such as Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff and (reportedly) Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. Now, according to The Post and other media, Mr. Obama is close to settling on another unconventional but supremely practical pick: Robert M. Gates as defense secretary. We hereby join what undoubtedly will be the large chorus that hails this choice.

Mr. Gates has been serving as secretary for nearly two years; he took over the Pentagon after President Bush finally ended the disastrous tenure of Donald H. Rumsfeld. In important ways he has been the antithesis of his predecessor: low-key rather than arrogant and a problem-solver rather than an ideologue. A veteran of Washington who also served in the administration of Mr. Bush's father, Mr. Gates hasn't hesitated to get tough with the Pentagon bureaucracy when necessary. He fired the Army secretary when he failed to respond adequately to the scandalous treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and sent the Air Force secretary packing following egregious lapses in nuclear security. He has pressed the services to adapt to the new wars of the 21st century -- insisting, for example, on more rapid production and deployment of the unmanned aircraft that have been used to devastating effect against insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

Mr. Gates has also demonstrated a readiness to listen to commanders on the ground and to adapt to the shifting circumstances of war. The secretary publicly laid out the goal of reducing U.S. forces in Iraq to 100,000 by the end of this year, but after consulting with Gen. David H. Petraeus, he wisely supported a revision of that timetable in order to sustain the extraordinary success of the "surge." Mr. Gates later pushed for the negotiation of a long-term agreement with Iraq that provides for U.S. forces to remain there until the end of 2011. The pact, approved by the Iraqi parliament yesterday, should provide a foundation for a responsible war policy by the Obama administration, one that would gradually shift U.S troops from Iraq to Afghanistan without abandoning the Iraqi government.

A prime objective of Mr. Gates upon taking office was just such an outcome: a strategy for Iraq that could attract broad support and survive the transition to a new administration. To a degree few could have expected in the dark days of 2006, he has succeeded. That's why a decision by Mr. Obama to leave him in place while that transition is completed would be as appropriate as it would be sensible.

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