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Gates to remain at Defense

Bush's Pentagon chief is expected to serve a year under Obama.

November 26, 2008|Julian E. Barnes, Paul Richter and Christi Parsons | Barnes, Richter and Parsons are writers in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has agreed to serve in President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet, advisors said Tuesday, setting up the unusual situation in which a wartime Pentagon chief remains to work under a president who has condemned the previous administration's policies.

An official close to the Obama transition team said it was likely that Gates would be named Defense secretary when the president-elect begins to unveil his national security team in announcements expected next week.

A former government official who has advised the Obama transition said it was "99% certain" that Gates would remain as Defense secretary for about a year in the Obama administration.

"Nothing is definitive," said the former official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing transition plans. "But Gates did agree to stay on."

Advisors also said that Obama appeared poised to name Gen. James L. Jones, a former Marine commandant and onetime supreme allied commander of NATO, as his national security advisor.

In both men, Obama apparently has settled on respected defense leaders who have worked well with ranking officials of both major political parties and would have been welcomed in either a Democratic or Republican White House.

In two years as Defense secretary, Gates has stepped off a considerable distance from the approach and policies of his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and projected an image of independence from President Bush, including over the nation's ongoing wars.

As early as his Senate confirmation hearing, Gates shunned the administration's insistence that it was winning the war in Iraq, and he has represented a potent check against White House troop strategies.

But along with his nonpartisan appeal, Gates is valued as a careful steward whose execution of White House policy is marked by caution and an aversion to acting precipitously. For Obama, who wants to remove U.S. combat brigades quickly, support from Gates would provide considerable credibility for the new administration's policies.

Talk of a possible partnership between Obama and Gates has circulated since early this year. But for much of that time, military officials have voiced concern over Obama's proposed timetable for withdrawal.

However, a recent accord between U.S. and Iraqi officials sets a withdrawal timeline similar to Obama's proposal, narrowing differences between the two sides in the debate and easing military resistance to Obama.

Not all details of Gates' renomination have been worked out, those familiar with some of the talks said.

The former government official said some difficult issues may be unresolved, including questions about which deputies Gates will be allowed to keep and which Pentagon jobs Obama's transition team will fill.

"The real issue is: Who does Gates keep, and does Obama have a say in what team is there?" the official said.

Gates may want Gordon R. England to remain as deputy Defense secretary, the official said. But some Obama transition officials have indicated they want that job to go to Richard Danzig, a top foreign policy advisor to Obama. Danzig then could be nominated for the secretary's position when Gates leaves.

Negotiations over such details could prompt Gates to change his mind, but that possibility was probably remote, the former official said.

Senior advisors to Gates remained tight-lipped Tuesday, and military officials said they did not know what Gates had decided to do. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, said he didn't know whether Gates would stay on but said he hoped he would.

"If the president-elect has prevailed on the secretary to stay, I think that would be a healthy thing, a good thing," Schwartz said. "For stability and continuity, it is a good thing."

Since joining the Bush administration, Gates has insisted he planned to leave government service and retire to his home in Washington state when a new president arrived. But he also has criticized military commanders for what he has seen as a failure to adequately equip and protect rank-and-file troops, leading some who know him to suspect that he would remain in the job if possible.

A chief motivation for him staying on for a period of about a year would be to provide a smooth transition. Obama's defense transition team began meeting with leaders of the military services this week, receiving unclassified briefings on priorities and needs.

Gates also was seen as a likely pick for Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who differed sharply with Obama on the wisdom of invading Iraq and proposals for getting out.

Obama is expected to broaden his administration's military depth next week by naming Jones, 64, as his national security advisor, advisors said.

Jones is known as a nonpartisan, centrist figure who is respected by Congress and the military.

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