December 3rd, 2008
11:03 AM ET
9 years ago

Gates has much to navigate in new administration

New administration, old problem for Gates.

New administration, old problem for Gates.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Since 2006, he has garnered an image of fixing problems at the Pentagon - he was the anti-Rumsfeld, and his time was to be short.

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates now faces a host of issues he thought he would be leaving behind as the new administration prepares to move in and he stays on.

At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Gates summed up what he had to look forward to.

"I have no intention of being a caretaker secretary," he said. "Our challenges from the budget to acquisition and procurement reform, war strategy, care of wounded warriors, meeting the needs of war fighters, decisions on important modernization and capitalization projects and more all demand the personal attention of the secretary of defense, and they will get it."

That is heavy lifting for somebody who has said his new time as secretary of defense will be "open-ended."

Troop Movements

Expectedly, all eyes will be on how Gates and President-elect Barack Obama will work together on troop decisions for Iraq.

For months during the presidential campaign, Pentagon officials would scoff at the idea by Democrats of a specifically timed troop withdrawal from Iraq.

After the election, the tone out of Pentagon officials seemed to change as a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government said all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by 2011, putting the Pentagon somewhat in line with the Obama plan.

On Tuesday, Gates seemed to show support, but with a caveat, for the president-elect's plan when questioned by reporters on whether he would be at odds with Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan.

"He (Obama) repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within 16 months. But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown. And he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders. So I think that that's exactly the position the president-elect should be in," Gates said.

Afghanistan, however, will be a different story. During the campaign, Obama accused the Bush administration of forgetting about the war and pledged to put his focus there.

As NATO refuses to add more troops and the Taliban gain more strength militarily and politically around the country, a plan by Gates to rescue that military campaign was put into place - a plan the president-elect will have to review.

"One of the first priorities of the administration will be to look at our strategy and approach in Afghanistan ... but as the president-elect has made clear, it's a very high priority," Gates said Tuesday.

The plan calls for four combat brigades - about 20,000 troops - to flow into the country by the end of 2009, talk between Afghan tribal leaders and reconcilable members of the Taliban - Gates refused to hold talks with al Qaeda members - and better cooperation and support for Pakistan, where many of
the fighters who enter Afghanistan come from.

Budget Woes

For months the Pentagon has been working on the upcoming budget for the tricky transition time. Just days after Obama is sworn in, he has to present his budget to Congress.

Pentagon officials have been working on and planning for everything the new president will need in the defense budget to keep funding levels current.

Pentagon officials told CNN this month the baseline budget request for the Pentagon would be $524 billion, $9 million more than last year, and that does not include the emergency supplemental for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan worth billions more.

In reality, Gates will be facing numerous budget cuts in defense spending as the belt tightens for the Pentagon for the first time in eight years.

With deputies chosen by the new president, Gates could have a hard time keeping strong funding for major programs he backs, such as National Missile Defense, from the budget ax under Obama.

Obama has said he wants to dramatically cut back funding to the program, a major Bush administration focal point that came to life in his tenure.

Fixing the Big Breaks

Gates reputation as a fixer was cemented early in his tenure when he approved the resignation of the Army surgeon general after the fallout of the Walter Reed scandal in March 2007.

Similar moves in influencing the removal of both the Air Force secretary and chief of staff after the service's nuclear weapons program was found to be in disarray proved Gates had no problem cleaning up messes.

His problem now is that he punted some messes to the next administration and now finds himself fielding those punts.

One example is the ongoing saga of the Air Force's replacement tanker program. In September, Gates halted a broken acquisition competition which has delayed the service from getting new refueling aircraft for decades, leaving it for the next administration to handle.

As resources focused on the war on terror over the last eight years, little was done to watch the weapons acquisition programs.

Between 2001 and 2008 the Pentagon was allowed to spend $400 billion on weapons programs where many of the big-ticket items were a bust, according to industry analysts.

The list is long, from the bungled Air Force tanker to the new presidential helicopter program to the Navy's latest high-tech ships. Almost every major acquisition program is plagued by cost overruns, and poor performance, senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre reported this month.

"The key is to figure out a way to make the system work better. And I think that will be a high priority," Gates said Tuesday.

The job might not be as hard as he thinks as tightened spending for the Pentagon's budget over the coming years will play a heavy role in cutting the fat and streamlining new and existing weapons program purchases.

While Gates recognizes his place in history as the only current secretary of defense to be asked to stay by a new administration, he will also have to pay attention to his effectiveness, as he will eventually find himself surrounded by staffers not totally in line with him.

He did not want to stay on, he admits, but could not say no to a man elected by the people to be president.

But with an open-ended time line for his departure, he has gotten rid of enough people to know when it's his own time to go.

Filed under: Obama transition • Robert Gates
soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. David Goldman




    December 3, 2008 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  2. Wisconsin Vet

    I think Gates is a good man. And given a chance under a sound Adminastration he will do the right things for the Def dept. and the U.S.

    December 3, 2008 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  3. C W

    Kudos to Defense Secretary Gates! He knows how to truly put his "Country First."

    December 3, 2008 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  4. james in s.c.

    i think its a good idea to keep gates for little while. its true he's anti- rumsfeld, when Obama takes office on jan. 20th, Gates is going to throw all of rumsfeld supporters out of the pentagon and start a new team that has a resposible idea of how to get out of iraq.

    December 3, 2008 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  5. Scott NYC Independent

    I think after a year or so we may just have a new democratic convert

    December 3, 2008 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  6. TJ Johnson

    Secretary Gates will excel at whatever his responsibilites are; however, Obama kept him and Gen Jon – both republicans – only to fire them at some point in the future and try to prove that all republicans are stupid and should never be elected in this country.

    December 3, 2008 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  7. Lynne

    Gates is a very smart man. That is why Obama wants to keep him.

    December 3, 2008 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  8. Dennis

    I think the fact that Gates is staying on means thhat Obama has no intention of pulling out of Iraq. The Liberals will be disappointed with BO before he is even inauguarted.

    December 3, 2008 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  9. Brian

    This man has my confidence for now. He sounds like a pretty thorough, thoughtful individual. Not the kind of ideologue the Bush admin. typically appointed.

    Plus, there's a lot of stuff going on at the Pentagon right now and we're still full tilt in the middle of two wars. It makes better sense to leave the guy in the trenches who at least has a working knowledge instead of bringing in somebody cold.

    Kudos to both Obama and Gates. I wish them the best in sorting out and resolving America's myriad national security issues and international conflicts.

    December 3, 2008 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  10. Chris from San Antonio

    I would prefer Obama not recycle ANYBODY from the Bush administration, but I get the sense that Gates is strive to implement Obama's strategies to the best of his abilities.

    December 3, 2008 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  11. LIP

    So, is this guy a Hawk or a Dove? Will there be more of the same with the US continuing its influence in Iraq, with more focus in Afganistan? Will we be dealing somehow with North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Iran in an unpleasant way? Is it actually going to be more of the same, only worse? What will be his approach to Russia and China and how will his title conflict with policy that Hillary wants to pursue?

    December 3, 2008 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  12. Larry C. Houston, Texas

    Obama should get rid of him,'s no different than putting in McCain.......

    Since "SAXBY" won the election in Georgia, the Dems & Obama will have whatever they try to do, it will be stopped by the "Firewall" as "Saxby" has said he will do, it doesn't matter what it is, the Republicans will NOT vote : yes or present.....

    From here on, they will vote NO, to practically whatever it is, just to make OBAMA look bad, that's the way politics IS....

    Larry C.
    Houston TX

    December 3, 2008 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  13. Robert

    I find it funny that Obama STRONGLY opposses the wars and Gate's point of views and yet he sticks with him.....

    I find it funny that Obama also STRONGLY opposses having direct dialouge with rougue dictators and yet he picks Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State which she has said many times she would NOT sit down with these rougue dictators....

    Do you get the feeling that we'll have a "mad white house" the next four years????
    hahahahaha can't wait!!!!

    December 3, 2008 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  14. Robert

    I meant that Obama WANTS direct talks with rougue dictators......

    December 3, 2008 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  15. Ron of Baltimore

    Obama's luring Dr. Gates to say on for at least a year shows the best of both men and their intentions toward the Middle East muddle and our nation's role in the fiasco.

    Gates is as smart as Obama and Clinton, and certainly seems every bit as hardworking.

    We are blessed, even in this time of high crisis, with having such a deep bench for these leadership positions. Only in America!

    December 3, 2008 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  16. Thelma, MS

    He is an honorable man and I'm sure he'll do fine.

    December 3, 2008 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  17. Dennis

    This is a big Obama Supporter who applauds the President-elect's decision to retain Robert Gates, and who applauds Robert Gates for his unselfish and dedicated service to the country. It would be up-lifting to be a fly on the wall during a President Obama Cabinet meeting watching and listening to the smart, experienced, and independent minded folks Obama is surrounding himself with.

    December 3, 2008 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  18. Ken Sawyer

    Why should we need a Secretary of Defense? Obama promised his voters he is going to negociate his way through his term just as Clinton did when he ignored the first attack on the World Trade Center.

    December 3, 2008 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  19. Farrell, Houston, Tx


    December 3, 2008 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  20. Rick

    Hey Larry C. Maybe now Obama will actually have to make good on his pledge to work across the aisle. With sensible proposals, there are enough moderate Republicans that will back them. Remember, Obama was elected President, not Emperor. With 58-59 Senators, the task is far less than formidable.

    However, there will be hard questions and opposition. Remember, both Obama and Clinton (Hillary) have decreed that the standard to approve judges is 60, not 51. Obama may well have to live by his own standard established when he was a Senator.

    December 3, 2008 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  21. Sweetie

    I Think keeping Gates on is a very good thing!

    Gates is a VERY Smart man and knows the score.

    Obama does not know the score yet-it will take him a year or two to get up to speed.

    Meanwhile America doesn't miss a beat with Gates still in charge!

    December 3, 2008 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  22. Joe in Austin

    Keeping him for a year will be a good transition to the next sec'y of defense. Every appointment is temporary, with the person needing to be suited to the situation at hand. That was the failure of Rumsfeld. When 9/11 happened, the job changed, and he was the wrong guy for it.

    December 3, 2008 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  23. Independent In NY

    It's a proper and shrewd move by Obama. Gates kicked butt after Rummy was fired, and he is much brighter thast the majority of the neo-con knucle draggers who make up the republican party

    December 3, 2008 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  24. Iowa Mom

    I think with what's going on right now with the wars that it's a very smart move to keep Gates on.

    December 3, 2008 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  25. karen-phoenix

    Obama is brilliant!!! What team he is producing!!!!! Just maybe, Obama and his team will beable to get us out of this mess we are in!!!! God Bless them all!!! And this republican supports them all!!!
    All of America better do the same if they want this country to succeed!

    December 3, 2008 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
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