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

Gates has much to navigate in new administration

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="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. Terry, Lakeland Florida

    so that makes one good and smart decision by Obama.....hope to see a few more though I'm not holding my breath.

    December 3, 2008 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  2. pam Eugene OR

    I am sure we will find many problems the Bush administration has left for others to solve. Bush made a awful mess of this country and we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg now. Just wait a few months and we will see how inept Bush really was.
    Obama is a very smart man and he was so right in asking Gates to stay on. It says a lot about Gates that he is willing to stay and help.
    Obama has made some brilliant choices (except the Hill & Bill show) to help him try to rebuild America. The task at hand is mind boggling and I pray every day he will be able to bring this country back to its greatness.
    Is it Jan 20th yet? Bush should begin his years in prison for crimes against America Jan 21st!

    December 3, 2008 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  3. cool onlooker

    How big a heart Obama has! And how genuinely Gates is serving the country!

    December 3, 2008 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  4. Mari

    I AGREE with David Goldman! Gates IS brilliant, and I believe this once again proves to us, that President-elect Obama is brilliant! A wise man will surround himself with wise people, even if the people do not always agree with them!

    We have had eight long years of neo-cons, its time for some SMART in D.C.

    And yeah........ talking to our enemies, will help keep America safe!

    December 3, 2008 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  5. Tulsa

    People, please!
    It seems to me that President elect Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do. Establishing a Cabinet of the best people who all have the best interest of OUR COUNTRY in mind. From National Security Advisor to his economic team, these are all people with experience and respect both in Washington and around the world.
    No, he will never please everyone. There will always be those far left or far right who will scream and fuss like the little children they are. Truth is, the majority of Americans are not that far apart in their views. We want honest, open government with justice applied equally regardless of income level, religious persuasion, gender or age. Keep us safe, economically sound and able to speak our minds and we'll be happy.
    Let's give the man a chance to make good on his vision before we either make him a diety or a devil.

    December 3, 2008 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  6. Texas Teacher

    I think Gates is NOT the typical Bush administration lackey.

    They brought him in because they had to do something to look a little bit more credible. And that was the only reason.

    December 3, 2008 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  7. Peter (CA)

    Gates knows he is a transitional pick to keep some continuity in this time of crisis.
    In a year or so, I think Obama will pick his own guy for the job. I would love to see Sen. Lugar. Show a little more bipartisanship and put in a smart, accomplished guy.

    December 3, 2008 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  8. chuck

    He must do as he's told. This is not George Bush at the controls drinking and driving.

    December 3, 2008 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  9. Jaye

    Long as Gates follows Obama's orders he will do well.
    We want out of that Iraq war soon as if's and's or but's about it.

    December 3, 2008 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    I am sure this guy is loving all the media attention he's getting. BTW, he never ever got as much in the past and I am sure he is delighted.

    December 3, 2008 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  11. Lee in Ohio

    A very good move by the president-elect. Gates is smart, hard-working, thoughtful, strong, and is not an idealgue. Also, thanks to Karen in Phoenix, a republican, for her gracious comments. Maybe we really CAN all do this "pulling together" thing.

    December 3, 2008 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  12. Cindy

    Gates sounds like a man who knows what he's doing,
    and under Obama adminastration he will be good.

    December 3, 2008 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  13. Cynt

    I wish he could get rid of gates right now but under the circumstances I think the move to keep him for a little while was a good move. I don't trust gates, but you better believe Obama will not be hoodwinked by him. He has this attitude to me that he is really not on the same team as all of the other cabinet selections. I will be glad when he is cut loose and Obama can choose someone else.

    December 3, 2008 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  14. proudliberal

    barack should have put wes clark in gates position.

    December 3, 2008 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  15. RealityKing

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss...

    December 3, 2008 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  16. Tracy M.

    Larry C.: <>

    This is where WE come in, Larry. Pressure from constituents really does work - remember the bail-out and all the e-mails sent by the people? With Obama's more transparent leadership, we have no excuse not to engage and determine the direction of our country. They will ignore us at their peril - because we CAN read and we CAN think - that's why we voted Obama!

    December 3, 2008 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  17. Helen

    Terry in Lakeland,

    Obama has made some brilliant moves since he won the election. He has chosen highly qualified individuals for the top posts. But as usual, you Republicans are always so negative and have nothing nice to say. Why don't you just sit down and shut up for the next eight years.

    December 3, 2008 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  18. Precious Coker, NY

    If he wants to keep his job long enough, he must do as he is directed, right?

    December 3, 2008 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  19. AnneFla

    Ken Sawyer December 3rd, 2008 12:06 pm ET

    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.

    If Clinton had not ignored the attack on the World Trade Center and many other warnings there may not have been a 9-11 and the course of history would not have taken us to the terrible place we are now!

    December 3, 2008 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  20. FreeNLovIt

    It is going to be different. I'm sure that accountability is a word in our dictionary and not a myth.

    December 3, 2008 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  21. FreeNLovIt

    Politicians can say whatever they want during the campaign, but once it's over, they'll have to look at the real facts and go with REALITY to secure peace.

    December 3, 2008 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  22. Matthew, Houston, TX

    I worked for one of the companies that was bidding on the Presidential helicopter replacement program. Our team was an all American team that had the safest helicopter already designed, built and proven. The other team had to design from the ground up and was lead by a foriegn manufacturer. Their 'ace in the hole'? A Texas company was doing the interior decorations for the helicopter.

    Time to take politics out of the equation.

    December 3, 2008 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  23. JuanM

    YAWN....I guess even Democrats agree-Dems can't run the military.

    December 3, 2008 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  24. NY Republican

    "he is much brighter thast the majority of the neo-con knucle draggers who make up the republican party" This is from Independent from NY.
    Please learn to spell BEFORE you accuse others of being stupid, dumb, ignorant, or the like. "Thast" What's that supposed to be. "Knuckle" has 2 k's. So I guess that makes Gates smarter than some NY Independents, too.

    December 3, 2008 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
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