Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he accepted President-elect Barack Obama’s approach to scheduled troop reductions in Iraq, arguing Tuesday that the hotly debated subject of timelines for withdrawal largely had been settled by a new U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
“That bridge has been crossed,” Gates said a day after he formally agreed to remain as Obama’s Defense secretary. “And so the question is: How do we do this in a responsible way?”
The security agreement, approved last week by Iraqi officials, requires U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities and towns by June 30 and to withdraw completely by the end of 2011. Obama wants combat troops out within 16 months, but has indicated he would take security considerations and advice from commanders into account.
By staying, Gates becomes the first U.S. Pentagon chief to be carried over from one administration to the next. In a Gallup poll released Tuesday, 80% of Americans surveyed supported Obama’s decision to keep Gates.
But Gates will have to manage a sharp change in policy, shifting from working for a president who has supported a high number of troops in Iraq to one who has repeatedly said he intends to quickly withdraw combat troops.
Saying that his tenure would be “open-ended,” Gates promised during a Pentagon news conference that he would not be merely a caretaker as secretary. He hinted that he planned to put some muscle behind his rhetorical critique of Pentagon spending priorities and to overhaul the way the military buys weapons.
He also said that closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be a high priority, but could require new legislation, such as a measure preventing former detainees from seeking asylum in the United States.
And Gates said that the next request for emergency war funding, an estimated $83 billion, would be delivered to Congress in a matter of weeks. If approved, it would bring the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to about $947 billion.
Obama assembled an experienced team of strong-willed national security experts, and Gates said that he expected there would be differences of opinion. But he emphasized that Obama would make the big strategic decisions.
“The president-elect has made it pretty clear that he wanted a team of people around him who would tell him what they thought and give him their best advice,” Gates said. “There will no doubt be differences among the team, and it will be up to the president to make the decisions.”
Although he is remaining in his job, Gates has told other political appointees that they should expect to be replaced as the Obama transition team moves to install its own team in the Pentagon.
“The truth of the matter is, when I came here two years ago every single position was filled by somebody who had been appointed by somebody else,” Gates said. “And I think it’s worked out OK.”
After the news conference, Gordon R. England, the deputy Defense secretary, announced that he would leave his post. Transition team members have said that Richard Danzig, a close Obama advisor, is the leading candidate to replace England.
In Washington, there had been debate over whether Gates, who was not registered in a political party, would fulfill Obama’s promise of placing a Republican in his Cabinet. Gates, who worked at the CIA from 1966 to 1993, said he had not registered as a member of a political party because he believed that politics should not color the job of an intelligence analyst.
But he added that before now, his senior appointments in government had been under Republican administrations, and that he considered himself a Republican.
Gates first spoke with Obama about remaining on the job at a secret meeting inside the firehouse at Reagan National Airport, shortly after the president-elect met with President Bush last month at the White House. Aides to Obama never revealed that the airport meeting involved Gates.
“They pulled the trucks out so that our cars could go in,” Gates said.
For months, advisors to Obama, including Danzig, had raised the possibility of keeping Gates on. Publicly, Gates had said that remaining in his post was “inconceivable,” and he repeatedly referred to a clock he kept to count down the days to the end of the Bush administration.
On Tuesday, Gates said he had “thrown away the clock.”
The question of troop withdrawal timetables has been deeply divisive. Many Republicans and military officers have bitterly opposed Obama’s stance. Now, however, with the U.S.-Iraq agreement in place, Gates said he could subscribe to Obama’s view. He noted that the president-elect had indicated a willingness to be flexible.
“He did talk about the 16 months in terms of combat forces,” Gates said. “But he also talked about a responsible drawdown and that he was willing to listen to the commanders.”
Gates also faces internal battles over Pentagon spending. He has long criticized the Pentagon, saying it favors complex and costly cutting-edge weapons at the expense of cheaper systems that could be produced quickly and sent to the field.
With the Bush administration’s time in office limited, Gates has deferred a string of important decisions dealing with the future of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jets and refueling tankers.
He reiterated his support for building up American “soft power” by investing more in the State Department.
Gates said that the new administration would need to discuss how to improve those capabilities, how to work with Congress to find more funding, and where that money should come from.
“That’s all still out in front of us,” Gates said.