Gates Keeper

by digby

David Corn brings up the curious case of Robert Gates, who readers here know I'm not a fan of. He points out that Obama may believe that having a Republican in charge may insulate him from criticism from the right as he prepares to leave Iraq, and then lays out some of the current objections:

I've consulted two former Pentagon officials--who are critics of standard operating procedure at the Pentagon--who decry this move. (Neither wanted to be quoted, for they might now or later be in contention for a job in the Obama administration.) "It's probably the dumbest thing Obama's done," one said.

They identified three possible pitfalls. First, Gates is a lame duck. There has been no indication how long he will stay in the Pentagon's top post, but it seems Gates will remain there on a quasi-temporary basis. Consequently, Pentagon bureaucrats who don't want to see their prerogatives challenged--if Gates wanted to do such a thing--could try to wait him out. Second, Gates is no agent of change when it comes to the Pentagon budget. In the Bush years, the regular military budget has increased by 40 percent in real terms (not counting so-called "emergency" supplemental spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)--partly because of hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns. During the campaign, Obama talked about the need to cut "billions of dollars in wasteful spending" from the military budget. But Gates has yet to demonstrate he is truly interested in reworking the Pentagon's out-of-control budget. Keeping Gates in place sends the signal that Obama, who faces a host of hard jobs, is not eager to take on the Pentagon at the start of his presidency. "There are so many problems at home," says one of the critics, "Obama may not want to do anything fundamental about the Pentagon."

Finally, what about Gates' team? Many of the senior jobs at the Pentagon are still held by Bush/Rumsfeld appointees. If Gates stays in his job, do they stay in theirs? Or will Obama move to replace these assistant secretaries and other officials, thus creating something of a fractured band at the Pentagon of Gates/Rumsfeld people and fresh Obama people? Even if Gates is willing to salute the new president and head in a new policy direction, other holdovers at the Pentagon might not be as eager to follow a new set of orders.

I'm not surprised that Obama doesn't want to take on the pentagon budget. It's difficult to imagine him cutting back on government spending at this point, even if he wanted to. And more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the military industrial complex is one of those third rails of American politics that nobody dares to attempt even in flush and easy times. It's going to kill us one of these days.

But the other two issues are worth contemplating, as well as another one that Corn doesn't mention. The first, that G,ates is a lame duck is something worth worrying a bit about. These bureaucracies can freeze up anything for a period of time and if people want to wait Gates out, I'm pretty sure they can do it.

The final question is even more important. Gates is, by all accounts, surrounded by a bunch of neocons and Bush loyalists, holdovers from the earlier regime. Now I know that Obama will be the decider and all, but it's still not a good idea to have a bunch of Republicans with a stake in the current Iraq strategy of "winning" all over the place.

In addition, although I'm sure they were pleased to hear him echo Bush today with his statement that he would "listen to the commanders on the ground," the military is unlikely to trust this young Democrat and will want to test him. But there is also the question of whether or not they trust Gates either. One wonders if this is a situation where keeping a Republican at the Pentagon might actually be seen by the military as a sign of fecklessness rather than a gesture of bipartisanship and respect. It's not like the Bush administration has been all that good to the military.

I have no respect for Gates going back many years, and his support for the surge, after being part of the Iraq Study Group Report doesn't make him any more of a hero in my eyes. He's got a long history of GOP loyalty and I see no reason to think that the habit of mind of decades has suddenly changed. But, it's done and it's made the political establishment very happy to have an important Bush administration official kept on, validating their own good judgment in supporting Bush all those years. (Being one of those guys implicated in Iran Contra and Iraqgate makes it all the sweeter.)

He may just be a place holder for a reasonable period of time, giving Obama some space to work without (hopefully) having to face down the brass and the pentagon bureaucracy right out of the box, and that may be smart. But the sooner he's replaced with someone who can start to reassure the military and the political establishment that Republicans aren't the only ones capable of running the pentagon and protecting the country, the better. That's some change we need too. Flagwaving, gun toting Republicans haven't exactly covered themselves with glory recently.