Should Gates Stay On?

Joe Klein fleshes out an idea I’ve sort of been mulling over since Andrew Sullivan floated it a few weeks ago, that Robert Gates should stay on as Secretary of Defence in an Obama administration. The core of the argument is really pretty simple; Gates has done a pretty fantastic job as Secretary of Defense thus far:

He has demanded accountability. He fired the Secretary of the Army after the Walter Reed hospital scandal and the Secretary of the Air Force for lax stewardship of the nuclear arsenal. Early on, Gates encouraged the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq; he has been one of the few Bush officials open to negotiations with Iran. He has called for a larger budget for diplomacy — “which makes him far more popular than SecDefs usually are around here,” a State Department official told me. He has clearly sided with the Army reformers against the Old Guard, and even called David Petraeus back to Washington to preside over a promotion board when it became clear that Petraeus-style officers — the bold and creative proponents of counterinsurgency strategy — were being blocked.

Beyond that, “he’s been willing to face down the plutocrats of the defense industry – the thugs in $3,000 suits who’ve robbed our military for decades, stealing your tax dollars.”

Reactions have been mixed. Noam Schiber loves it:

No question that there would be some irate liberals if Obama went this route. But it would send a powerful message at the outset of his administration. In particular, it would buy him some real political cover for withdrawing from Iraq, however he decided to execute that.

While Matt Yglesias hates it:

The problem with retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is the same as the problem with the idea of appointing Chuck Hagel or when Bill Clinton about William Cohen — these guys are Republicans. It’s desperately important for the Democratic Party’s leaders to avoid re-enforcing the idea that Democrats can’t run national security. If you find a moderate Republican with sound views on key environmental issues and make him or her head of the EPA, that says “climate change is an important issue and there’s bipartisan support for taking action.” If you put a Republican in charge of the Pentagon it says “Obama likes diplomacy, but even he knows that when the going gets tough you need to call in the GOP.”

I’ve long been very sympathetic to Yglesias’ point. Democrats have long been considered, and considered themselves, weak on national security. When Bill Clinton appointed Cohen it was basically saying, “here, there’s a Republican in charge now, I don’t want to think about defense policy.” Clinton had meandered through his first term with no well defined ideas on foreign or defense policy, lacking any sort of coherent response to the end of the Cold War, the genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda or to the rising importance of non-state actors. He got a little better, though not much, in his second term, when he committed to the Kosovo intervention began to take a real, sustained interest in foreign policy. But initially, appointing a Republican was essentially a cop-out that allowed him to not pay attention to defense policy because a Republican was in charge.

Obama would be different. The nature of Yglesias’ objection to Gates staying on is that it would say that Democrats can’t run defense policy. But the precondition for Gates staying would obviously be him agreeing to administer a massive change of policy on Iraq. Obama would very clearly be running the show, especially on the one defense policy issue the general public, which is the only group that the perception problem even exists with, is paying attention to. Furthermore, as Scheiber gets at, it would allow Obama to sieze the center of the foreign and defense policy universe, despite the fact that Obama is advocating a pretty big break with past foreign policy practice.

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