For Nation at War, Gates Seeks Smooth Transition

Pentagon Chief Breaks From Past With Leaner Approach

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's efforts showcase his consensus-oriented style.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's efforts showcase his consensus-oriented style. (Pool Photo By Haraz N. Ghanbari Via Getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008; Page A09

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."

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