Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Gates of the Pentagon

Barack Obama hasn’t even raised his hand to take the oath of office — right now he’s still the Pre-President of the United States — but already some elements of the anti-war, left-leaning Democratic base are said to have their sustainable bamboo knickers in a twist over Obama’s plan to keep Robert Gates at his post as the Secretary of Defense, for at least a year.

They’re likely even more upset by the fact that, according to NBC News’ Jim Miklazsewski, the plan to keep Gates as SecDef has been “a done deal for some time.” Apparently, Team Obama didn’t even entertain the usual parade of possibles that attend a high-level vacancy at the Pentagon.

There’s much to arouse the suspicions of the loyal base. Gates was the enforcer of the Bush doctrine vis-à-vis the Iraq war; in more than one briefing since he was confirmed in December 2006, Gates seemed to dutifully champion the Bushies’ talking points and, for the most part, just as dutifully executed the policy that preceded him.

For the ardent lefties — a vast percentage of whom voted for Obama three weeks ago today — they feel that they voted for a new government, a shift that in their minds is most clearly symbolized by a turnover of the people running the government they voted to Change.

They’re not rolling the tumbrels up to the Rose Garden yet — can’t do that until at least Jan. 20. But if they pause for a moment, they’re likely to change their minds after getting a glimpse of the grander design that just might be in the mind of the 44th President of the United States.

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There’s a matter of perception. Gates comes across as infinitely more level-headed and pragmatic than his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, whose hawk-in-chief pronouncements were all of a piece for the wounded, angry early years after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001.

Where over time Rumsfeld seemed to go out of his way to court animosity, Gates has communicated a sense of open-minded practicality at odds with the bellicose Bush neocons. “Gates has been in many ways the anti-Rumsfeld,” said Newsweek’s Howard Fineman tonight on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

“Gates has been widely viewed as a very successful follow-on to the disasters of Rumsfeld in terms of management, in terms of outlook and so forth," Fineman said. "Successful" could be interpreted as someone who (a la Scott Fitzgerald in "The Crack-Up") has the kind of first-rate intellect that lets him keep two opposing ideas in his hand at the same time and still maintain the ability to function.

About what you'd expect from a Vietnam veteran, a former member of the Iraq Study Group, published author and former president of Texas A&M University with a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history.

Still, there’s that boilerplate question from the boiling left: How does holding Gates over in that position dovetail with Obama’s meme of change?

Maybe the books on Barack’s night-time reading stand would be instructive. We already know he’s big on Lincoln biographies and Reinhold Niebuhr. There just may be something in that pile from Sun Tze, “The Art of War,” expressing the brilliant Zen aspect of the idea that sometimes the most provocative change you can make is no change at all.

Obama no doubt understands that — contrary to the Republican philosophy — personality is not the driver of policy in a properly functioning administration. Policy is. The policy for the widely reviled Iraq war isn’t dictated by the Secretary of Defense, it comes from the administration. Just because Gates remains at his post at the Pentagon doesn’t throw that over as a new administration arrives.

Consider. Gates, who moved over to Defense from Central Intelligence, has had almost two years’ experience in managing the Iraq war, as well as an ominously expanding conflict in Afghanistan. He’s been in country several times; he’s widely respected in Washington as a capable, hard-nosed administrator; and with experience at CIA, he’s surely cognizant of the ways in which national security in the military sense dances with security as a matter of intelligence. He’s the right man for the job right now. Just one more of the crazy-smart people that Barack Obama likes to have around him at any given time.

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And therein may lie the kernel of Obama’s strategy. Throughout the campaign, more times than we could count, Obama made the pledge of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq “in 16 months” of taking office.

You can make the case, and Pre-President Obama almost certainly will, that with Robert Gates in place at the Pentagon, the ability to keep that campaign pledge of Out in 16 Months becomes considerably more doable, more achievable, by making no change in that pivotal position.

A new Secretary of Defense (and the office wing of staff people he brings with him) necessarily requires time to ramp up to the needs of the moment, to get up to speed on the latest developments from the singular perspective of SecDef. Gates doesn’t have to get up to speed. He’s already there. He knows the players — hell, he’s one of the players. No break-in period required.

This is all chin-pulling and surmise, of course. The particulars of the Obama exit strategy are known but to him, his closest advisers, and probably Michelle (who knows everything anyway). But the diehards in the Democratic base should chill for a bit, and let the man they’ve elected do what’s needed — hire or retain who’s needed — in order to get things accomplished.

The Gates at the Pentagon will stay there, for a year or so. But it all seems to be part of the wider plan (and God knows we haven’t had one of those in a while). Continuity trumps chaos, but ironically, continuity isn’t incompatible with change. Order is preferable to intrigue. And isn’t order what we voted for?
Image credit: Gates top: Public domain. Gates #2: Ed Schipul, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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