President-elect Barack Obama is leaning toward asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in his position for at least a year, according to two Obama advisers. A senior Pentagon official said Mr. Gates would likely accept the offer if it is made.
This would really pay dividends for Obama. Substantively, Gates has been to Donald Rumsfeld what Obama hopes to be to George W. Bush: both an agent and a symbol of positive change. The respect he’s merited from the Pentagon and from his commanders — particularly Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno — is both commensurate with the steps he’s taken to visibly support them, and the result of being a reality-based man in a fantasy-based administration. His speeches over the last year, particularly about the need for negotiations with adversaries and pressing NATO to pick up more of the Afghanistan burden, sounded a lot of the same notes as Obama’s own foreign policy speeches.
Politically, it’s a masterstroke, for reasons I hope I’ve outlined earlier. Many in the military are looking to see how the Obama administration will accomodate them or offend them. There are a lot of men with stars on their shoulders who oppose Obama’s plans for withdrawal from Iraq, and many of them will be ready to plant the narrative in the press that Obama is another Bush — shunting aside his best military advice in favor of his ideologically-driven schemes.
Asking Gates to stay demolishes that. For one thing, Gates is a skeptic about withdrawing from Iraq on a timetable, so he’ll give Obama a thoughtful dose of caution to better craft the strategy. But he’ll also transition from being the secretary of defense behind the surge to being the secretary of defense behind withdrawal. And he’ll do that as a Republican.
For another, Obama will be telling the tens of millions of McCain voters that they’ll have a place in the administration on an issue that matters massively to them: national security. He’ll go a long way toward actually building consensus for a progressive agenda — not for a haphazard mush of over-centrism. And by making the pick temporary, he’ll allow his next Democratic secretary of defense time to get his or her bearings and establish crucial relationships with the uniformed services to hit the ground running.
Come to think of it, this is good counterinsurgency strategy put into practice: Obama would be co-opting Gates, a Republican "reconcilable," so he can give the GOP faithful a good-faith opportunity to cooperate — and to steamroll the dead-enders.
Now to see if Gates accepts.
Crossposted to The Streak.