Pentagon insiders say that defense secretary Robert Gates has seriously considered departing his present position on two previous occasions, and now is contemplating closing out his public career shortly after this year’s midterm elections. God knows Gates and his staff deserve a rest, and there is a lot to be said for leaving when things are going well. No matter what Mr. Gates achieves during the remainder of his Pentagon tenure, he will always be the defense secretary who averted American defeat in Iraq. That alone assures favorable treatment in history books.
However, Gates is understandably ambivalent about going. His initial laser-like focus on Iraq has gradually given way to a much broader awareness of how the defense system works, and as a result he sees many areas where he could foster improvements beneficial to warfighters and taxpayers. His recent foray into cutting military overhead costs is a case in point. Gates is uniquely well-positioned to implement reforms for three reasons:
1. His success in Iraq has given him unusual political and moral authority.
2. The White House routinely defers to his judgment on military matters.
3. He is not perceived as a partisan burdened by ideological baggage.
That doesn’t mean he will get his way with Congress on every issue, but it does mean that he has the potential to enforce reforms that no successor could reasonably expect to implement. He is both respected and feared, a useful combination when hard choices need to be made. All of these factors suggest that the nation would be well-served if Gates remained in office through the end of President Obama’s first term, providing the administration with the political cover it needs to change how the defense establishment does business.
One of the most difficult aspects of managing the Pentagon is that the time required to implement new strategies and develop new technologies typically is longer than the two- and four-year political cycles that drive life in Washington. Many of the military reform initiatives begun in recent decades were aborted before they could come to fruition by changes in political leadership. But Secretary Gates has now served long enough that he actually controls the defense system, and can get things done. It would be nice to see him use that power for the public good a few more years. Some people say that nothing new gets done after the first year of a new administration, but in the case of Mr. Gates, the opposite may be true: the longer he serves, the more profound his imprint will be on the Department of Defense.
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