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A successor to Gates is a quandary for Obama

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On five occasions over the past three weeks, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has tried to nail down his departure from the Pentagon by telling members of Congress in budget hearings and military cadets in speeches at West Point and the Air Force Academy that this would be his final appearance before them in his present role.

President Obama and other senior officials have privately been pressing Gates to stay on - at least through the end of the first term - because no one else can guarantee implementation of the budget cuts and institutional changes that the defense secretary has set in motion.

Gates, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been working and traveling at an extraordinary pace. "He is tired," a longtime Gates friend told me recently. In addition, he does not want to be an issue in next year's presidential campaign. Though he is regularly referred to as one of two Republicans in the Obama Cabinet, he is a political independent, having spent most of his life as a career government employee, serving in the White House under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Finding a successor who could quickly be confirmed and easily pick up the reins will be a problem for the president, more so because no one comes easily to mind with Gates's national security experience and stature.

His farewell lectures have hammered at several themes, all of them captured in last week's speech at the Air Force Academy.

His past actions, Gates acknowledged, "at various times brushed up against the traditional preferences and bureaucratic sacred cows of all the services." With the Air Force it was pushing to get needed unmanned aircraft built to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. He compared that process to "pulling teeth."

He complained to the cadets that his messages to the services were "being distorted by some, and misunderstood by others."

He suspected his remarks about the Air Force last week "will be construed as an attack on bombers and tac-air [tactical fighter aircraft]." But he pointed out he has committed to producing "the most advanced and expensive tactical fighter program in history, the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter," and also funding "long-range strike systems, including a new optionally manned nuclear-capable penetrating Air Force bomber."

Though he wanted the Navy to think again about carriers he has approved, he also called for "more attack submarines, a new ballistic-missile submarine and more guided-missile destroyers."

His controversial quote at West Point that a future defense secretary who recommends sending large armies into conflicts abroad "should have his head examined" was "interpreted as my questioning the need for the Army, or at least one its present size." Instead, Gates said, "we will invest billions modernizing armored vehicles, tactical communications and other ground combat systems. "

The Marines' multibillion-dollar amphibious expeditionary fighting vehicle is to be canceled, but he said that "the existing amphibious assault capabilities will be upgraded and new systems funded for the ship-to-shore mission."

Looking to the post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan future, Gates warned, "It's easier to be joint [cohesive] and talk joint when there's money to go around and a war to be won."

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