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Robert Gates’ Likely Re-Appointment at the Pentagon Stirs Debate

November 26, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama will likely ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain as Pentagon Chief when his administration takes over. A retired brigadier general and a former Bush administration official debate the pros and cons of keeping Gates at the helm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The transition that may not be a change at the Pentagon. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Gates says he’s been counting the days until he gives up the job of secretary of defense. At least for now, he will have to stop counting.

The man named by President Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld two years ago will, by all accounts, be reappointed Pentagon chief by President-elect Obama.

But the Gates choice has not been greeted with unanimous acclaim, especially among those who backed Mr. Obama’s call for a quick exit from Iraq.

We get two views now of the impending Gates appointment. Retired Brigadier General David McGinnis campaigned for Mr. Obama. He had a 29-year career in the Army and National Guard and served as director of strategic plans and analysis for reserve affairs at the Pentagon.

Peter Feaver served on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration. He’s now a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University and is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

General McGinnis, what’s the message President-elect Obama is sending by asking Secretary of Defense Gates to stay on in his cabinet?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS (Ret.), U.S. Army National Guard: I think there’s a message he intends to send, which is stability within the defense organization and in dealing with the operational issues overseas.

However, the other message he’s sending, which concerns me, is he’s agreeing with a myth that has been around for a long time that Republicans are strong on defense and Democrats are not strong on defense. This myth has been around since the decision to put a Republican in the Clinton administration, with Senator Cohen back in 1997.

And I think it sends a bad message, because we do have capable individuals in the national security arena who can do that job. And the American people voted for change, and they voted for change across government.

So the issue is one of management versus perception and stability within the national security arena. And my main concern is about management.

Keeping Gates sends message

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Feaver, you heard two messages identified. What's your read on both of them?

PETER FEAVER, Former National Security Council Staff: I think it's a shrewd move on President-elect Obama's part. Most people -- I think virtually everyone in Washington believes that Secretary Gates has done an excellent job as secretary of defense in a very difficult time period, and keeping him on is acknowledging that he's done well.

And this is a very difficult time to be secretary of defense. There's a need for continuity. We're in the midst of two wars. And I think that appointing Gates or reappointing Gates sends a calming message.

Now, General McGinnis is right that Americans tend to trust Republicans more than they trust Democrats on national security, and this appointment may be a nod in that direction.

But I also agree with General McGinnis that there's competent people on the Democratic bench, and I'm confident that the people underneath Gates -- the appointed positions underneath Gates -- will be filled by a number of those people -- the Kurt Campbells, the Michele Flournoys, John Hamres of the world. Those are very capable people, and they'll serve in lower-level positions in the Defense Department.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's talk about what happens when you keep on a secretary as a bridge between two administrations. Who stays and who goes at the lower levels? What kind of jobs are we talking about at the Pentagon?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: Well, first of all, that's going to be a discussion between the secretary and President-elect Obama. And it's a comfort issue. But to create change in the Pentagon while you're still managing the war, you're going to have to change a number of positions in the Pentagon.

My colleague just said that Secretary Gates did a great job, and he has done a great job orchestrating the elements of power and using military power overseas.

But we have serious problems in our military services, especially the Army, Navy, and Air Force, serious readiness problems in the area of personnel, equipment, and we have a tremendous fiscal problem in the Department of Defense, which the GAO has reported on, other people have reported on, and these issues have to be addressed, as well.

And so, from my perspective, if we're going to keep the secretary and allow the secretary to play in major issues of strategy, that's fine. But people under him, including his deputy who managed the building, I think are going to have to change.

And I think we're going to have to be fairly, fairly dramatic in those changes, from the I.G. to the comptroller to the policy position and probably, most important to me -- and, as you know, I do a lot of work with veterans -- the undersecretary of personnel and readiness.

Questions about staff turnover

RAY SUAREZ: But you heard Professor Feaver acknowledge that there is that confidence problem that Democrats have out in the country about managing national security. But then he said, well, but you should keep in mind that all these other positions will be filled by people of President-elect Obama's choosing who have been advising him along, and they are capable people.

Well, does that make this a symbolic more than a mechanical matter?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: It is. It is a symbolic matter, and it's an important symbolic matter, appears to be, at least because of the fact that it's under discussion. It's got to be -- it's got to be.

However, I'm not really sure that the decision's been made yet. And some of the information that I'm hearing -- not from the campaign, but from other sources who have talked to people who are allegedly close to the campaign -- that there's still a lot of serious discussion about which positions are going to be filled and which aren't, and that's what concerns me.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Professor, you heard the general suggest that Secretary Gates may say, "Look, if I'm going to stay, I need these other people to stay, too," and, really, it won't be just the stability at the top, but stability up and down the flow chart of the Pentagon.

PETER FEAVER: No, I expect that most of the people underneath him will move on. Now, I think a number of them are extremely capable and could serve very well in an Obama administration.

I think the assistant secretary, Mike Vickers, is very capable, and he would be able to serve in either administration, but there's plenty of other slots that will be filled by the Democratic team. And I don't think the Obama team needs to worry on that score.

I do agree that there's a symbolism in this move that hasn't been stressed yet that needs to be, and that is he's -- President-elect Obama may be signaling that the change that is coming is course corrections rather than abrupt about-faces, that he's not going to make the mistake that many people thought Bush made, arriving with an anything-but-Clinton, ABC, mentality.

Obama is saying he's not going to arrive with an ABB mentality, anything-but-Bush, where he'll throw babies out with the bathwater.

Some defense policies continue

RAY SUAREZ: But, Professor, didn't President-elect Obama run very hard against the Bush record, particularly in this area of national defense?

PETER FEAVER: He did. During the campaign, during a partisan season, he leveled a very partisan critique that perhaps was exaggerated, and maybe part of what you're hearing now in the trial balloons that are being surfaced, and, indeed, the reports that Secretary Gates would say, that perhaps that critique was overdone, and perhaps Obama meant it when he also said on the campaign that, once elected, he would review the situation and pursue a responsible national security policy.

Look, this has been a time of bitter critique about Bush national security policy. But in my view, we've actually had a bipartisan national security policy; we just haven't had bipartisanship in support of it.

You look down the line at a number of Bush's policies, a number of the ones that Gates has implemented. They're likely to be continued in the next administration.

Gates may negotiate terms of stay

RAY SUAREZ: General, are you talking to people who are having a "What's wrong with this picture?" moment, as the new president selects the man selected by his predecessor to run a war that he said from the beginning was a mistake?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: I think it's not just the war in Iraq. It's also -- he's also looking for him to help manage through Afghanistan, if he stays. And that's important.

And I do know that President-elect Obama is concerned and is going to give a lot of time to making the right decision on who leads the Pentagon.

But more so, he's concerned about those who serve, both civilians and military in uniform, who are affected by the Pentagon. And that is going to be, I think, the crux of the decision that he makes, ultimately, when this is all aired out.

I don't think it's made yet. And I think that we are -- part of this dialogue right here is part of the debate that they're expecting to occur by floating these names out.

RAY SUAREZ: Very, very quickly, Professor, before we go. Does Secretary Gates have a lot of negotiating power in the terms under which he stays, do you feel?

PETER FEAVER: I think he does. I think, if Obama were not to nominate Gates at this point, it would become a real crisis in what has otherwise been a smooth and even brilliant transition.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Feaver, General McGinnis, gentlemen, thank you both.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: You're welcome, Ray.

PETER FEAVER: Thank you.