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By Al Pessin
01 December 2008
President-elect Barack Obama has re-appointed President Bush's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to serve the new administration next year - a move analysts say brings experience, stability and some political diversity to his cabinet. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
It was not that long ago that Monday's announcement seemed highly unlikely. In April, with the major party nominees not yet selected and with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton running campaigns highly critical of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, Secretary Gates was asked whether he might consider staying on if asked.
|Vice President-elect Joe Biden (r) congratulates Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Chicago, 01 Dec 2008|
"The circumstances under which I would do that are inconceivable to me," he said.
The answer got a laugh from reporters in the Pentagon Briefing Room, and he repeated it many times in the following months. But since the election four weeks ago, Secretary Gates has kept a low profile, and on Monday he stood on the stage in Chicago as President-elect Obama made this announcement.
"At a time when we face unprecedented transition amidst two wars, I've asked Secretary Robert Gates to continue as secretary of defense, and I'm pleased he has accepted," he said.
Those inconceivable circumstances had come to pass. Secretary Gates said he decided to stay because he could not shirk his duty while American men and women in uniform are continuing to do theirs in two war zones.
"Serving in this position for nearly two years - and especially the opportunity to lead our brave and dedicated soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Defense civilians - has been the most gratifying experience of my life," said Gates. "I am honored to continue to serve them and our country, and I will be honored to serve President-Elect Obama."
That is a good insight into the personality of the soft-spoken 65-year-old secretary. He is a technocrat, longtime intelligence officer and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and also a former university president who becomes emotional when speaking about U.S. troops who have been killed and injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is a man of considerable experience and strong opinions, including a belief in the need to use more U.S. diplomatic and economic power in the world, and less military power. But he is also known as a pragmatist. He has opposed the establishment of a firm timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but he endorsed the new U.S.-Iraqi agreement which contains just that.
President-elect Obama said he did not check Secretary Gates' political affiliation. Speaking about Gates, and also the nominee for Secretary of State, his former opponent Senator Hillary Clinton, President-elect Obama said Monday he expects members of his cabinet to have strong personalities and strong opinions, but also to implement his policies and to share his view of the world.
"They would not have agreed to join my administration, and I would not have asked them to be part of this administration unless we shared a core vision of what's needed to keep the American people safe and to ensure prosperity here at home and peace abroad," he said.
Mr. Obama also said he is committed to keeping the U.S. military the strongest in the world.
Analyst Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress says the president-elect went for experience and stability at the Pentagon over any desire to insert a loyal Democrat or make dramatic changes at a time of war.
"What it means is that Senator Obama feels comfortable with him in terms of his plan to withdraw from Iraq, his plan to emphasize diplomacy more than the use of military force, and is looking to have continuity in the midst of all of the other crises going on at home and abroad," Korb said.
At the conservative Heritage Foundation, analyst Mackenzie Eaglen says Gates will provide Obama with independent advice, and will help him deal with senior military officers - many of whom are concerned about having a president with no military experience and a plan to re-focus their efforts on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq as quickly as possible.
"He is seen as practical, realistic, a pragmatist," said Eaglen. "He's basically seen as generally non-partisan, not an ideology. And that has built him up some credibility. Given that Secretary Gates can provide some continuity with overseeing these strong uniformed personalities and priorities, [it] could end up being a smart decision."
When he was first appointed defense secretary by President Bush two years ago, Gates said the outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global war on terrorism, would "shape our world for decades to come." President-elect Obama has given him some additional time to help determine how those wars end and what the world looks like afterward.
Some reports had predicted Secretary Gates' renewed tenure would have a specific time limit - a sort of extended transition to a new secretary. But analysts had worried that would weaken him, and nothing was said about it on Monday.
President-elect Obama did say, however, that he will change the Defense Department's mission, not only ordering the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and an increase of troops in Afghanistan, but also treating terrorist safe havens in South Asia as what he called Monday "the single most important threat against the American people." He said he will mobilize resources and focus his administration's attention on defeating the terrorist groups, which are based largely in Pakistan.