The NY Times is reporting that it’s almost official: Secretary of Defense Bob Gates will stay on at the Pentagon in the Obama adminsitration, although it’s not certain for how long. I think the political optics of what signal this sends regarding Democrats ability to manage national security rightly take a back seat here to the fact that Gates has been very impressive in effecting the institutional changes necessary to support the operational needs of two ongoing wars. But the Pentagon’s final internal armistice lines (COIN vs. conventional and hard vs. soft power in Iran, for instance) have not been ultimately settled, which means maintaining continuity at the top makes sense for the time being.
On the other hand, as Army Times put it, the move “might afford Obama a sort of extended transition, in which criticalmilitary issues are left in trusted hands while Obama focuses mostintensely on the financial crisis.” The danger there is that Gates has effectively functioned as Gen. David Petraeus’ enabler, running point in D.C. to make sure that Petraeus got what Petraeus wanted. Which means Petraeus is likely to have more institutional leverage on the major point of friction between him andObama, namely how fast to carry out the redirect from Iraqto Afghanistan.
Timing issues aside, Petraeus’ soon-to-be-announced Afghanistan strategy will probably overlap with Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric on increasing our commitment of forces to that war. I’m skeptical about our chances for success there, but in all fairness, I was skeptical about the chances for turning Iraq around.