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Gates to remain at Defense at least another year

Some senior officials say he has become Obama's most trusted national security advisor. The decision allows him to participate in the next Afghanistan strategy review and cement his legacy.

January 08, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, appointed by former President George W. Bush, is the first Defense secretary to serve under presidents of two different parties.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, appointed by former President… (Michael Reynolds / European…)

Reporting from Washington — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has committed to remaining in his post for another year, keeping him in office at least through the next crucial Afghanistan strategy review in 2010.

In Pentagon circles, speculation about Gates' intentions were intense. When President Obama first announced that he intended to keep Gates as Defense secretary, some experts predicted he would stay on only for the first year of the Obama administration.

Originally appointed by former President George W. Bush, Gates is the first Defense secretary to serve under presidents of two different parties.

But Gates has diligently remade himself into a trusted advisor of Obama. Some senior administration officials have said Gates has become the White House's most trusted advisor on national security matters.

Late Thursday, Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, announced that Gates met with Obama before Christmas and gave the president his commitment to remain for at least another year.

"They agreed to revisit this issue again later this year, but for all intents and purposes their original agreement still stands: he serves at the pleasure of the president indefinitely and he is honored to do so," Morrell said in a statement.

Morrell added that Gates continues to look forward to "one day" retiring to his home in Washington state.

Gates has made some enemies in the defense establishment. He has quickly dismissed officials who he felt were not taking responsibility for failures and enacting reforms. He has also made enemies thanks to his tough budget stands and successful campaigns to kill off pricey weapons systems such as the F-22.

But Gates appears to have been more successful at changing the culture of the Pentagon than any recent Defense secretary. His willingness to hear dissent and allow the military to debate doctrine and strategy has endeared him to many, especially young officers.

Some high-ranking defense officials also believe Gates wants to stay on to continue his work in transforming the Pentagon budget from a cold war mindset.

Although Gates has suspended and killed some weapons programs, previous Defense secretaries have seen programs they have terminated return after they leave. Remaining another year would allow Gates to cement his reforms.

Yet Afghanistan looms as the largest issue for Gates.

Gates, along with others, helped engineer and oversee the successful turnaround of the Iraq war strategy, driving down violence rates and allowing the withdrawal of U.S. forces to begin.

Although a new strategy is in place, the future of the Afghanistan war remains in doubt. Gates and other administration officials have made it clear that the military command in Kabul has a year to begin to show progress.

Even more than the Iraq surge, Gates had a huge role in developing the new Afghanistan strategy. And defense officials said he feels a responsibility to help put that new strategy into effect.

If violence in Afghanistan were to begin to subside this year, and U.S. forces began to reverse the momentum of the Taliban, Gates could leave in a year's time claiming to have turned around not one war that appeared bleak, but two.

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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