Why Gates Seems Set on a 2011 Departure

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So Robert Gates is set on retiring from government—for the second time. Or so he says. In an interview with ForeignPolicy.com, he has repeated more firmly than ever his desire to resign as secretary of defense sometime in 2011.

Why would he decide on 2011, and not 2010 or 2012? Strange but true: the arcane workings of the Pentagon budget process are one of the key factors behind his timing. Drawing up the annual defense budget—especially one now totaling $719 billion—is so complex that each exercise actually takes close to two years. Thus, the defense budget for 2012, the last year of President Obama's term in office, is already taking shape. Its unveiling in February of next year will place a capstone on Gates's extraordinary career.

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The first time Gates retired was in 1993, when he stepped down as CIA director. He was called back to service by President George W. Bush at the end of 2006, to rescue an Iraq war on the brink of defeat. He thought he would be in the Pentagon only for the two years remaining in Bush's presidency. To his real surprise, Obama asked Gates to stay on—the first time an incoming president had ever made that request of a defense secretary. Now Gates seems to have decided, in effect, to see Obama through the midterms.

Each defense budget takes so long to prepare that a defense secretary coming into office with a new president finds his hands all but tied: the Pentagon budgets for the next two years have already been laid down by his predecessor. But Gates was, as he sometimes remarks, his own predecessor. His two years under Bush meant that he will be only the second defense secretary—the first was Robert McNamara in the Kennedy/LBJ years—to have shaped all four defense budgets of a presidential term. In the first of his budgets under Obama, Gates took an ax to multiple big-ticket weapons systems; preparing his last, he has announced his intent to hack away at the bloated defense bureaucracies.

That battle—to slim down a defense establishment far bigger than it was during the Cold War —is going to consume every gram of political capital Gates has built up in Congress. Legislators, however much they say they support defense cuts in principle, oppose them when their own constituents are affected. Gates will probably win the coming battles—he's won almost every skirmish so far—but he’ll emerge as damaged goods, and he knows it. For that reason alone, it may be time to let Obama choose a new defense secretary who can smooth ruffled feelings on Capitol Hill, and to prepare for a second term if Obama wins one in 2012. Quitting in 2011 will leave enough time to avoid what would inevitably be savagely partisan confirmation hearings for Gates's successor in the preelection frenzy.  

Policy reasons also argue for a 2011 departure. Next year Obama will be confronted with big decisions on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’ll have to decide whether to begin a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in midyear, as he has pledged to do. He also needs to decide whether to agree to an expected request from Baghdad to keep forces in Iraq beyond the currently agreed-upon deadline of the end of 2011. Having been through multiple reviews of both wars under Bush and Obama, Gates should be forgiven if he decides to leave yet further reviews to someone else. As a firm believer that if America is in a war, then America must win it—a conviction that may argue next year for extended commitments in Afghanistan and perhaps in Iraq—Gates may also wonder whether his views would collide with Obama's political necessities.

Supporters and cynics unite in casting doubt on Gates's determination to quit. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, issued a brisk reminder: "Bob Gates has proven to be a miserable failure at retirement. It remains to be seen whether his sense of responsibility trumps his desires as in the past." Cynics within the Pentagon point out that his coming battles with Congress will need the unflinching support of the White House. How better to ensure that, they ask, than for Gates to play hard to keep—requiring Obama to appeal to him to stay on?  

Certainly, Gates is conscious of tasks yet to be done. He is also mindful of the perils of being a lame duck. The defense establishment pins its hopes on outlasting him, assuming that any successor will back away from his sweeping plans for reform. Gates knows that too. On the other hand, he has given the job his best shot. He has set strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan that give at least a promise of success, begun to set the military on a new course for the challenges of a new century, and seen to the promotion of like-minded officers within the services. He thinks what he has set in train has a good chance of surviving his departure.

Meanwhile, the job is exhausting and emotionally painful. He spends most evenings writing personal notes to the families of those killed in the wars he runs. 

Gates knows the maxim that graveyards are full of indispensable men. He has already had one of the most remarkable careers in the history of American government, a career that began 44 years ago, when he joined the CIA in 1966 as a junior analyst on the Soviet desk. He ended his CIA career at the top, as agency director—and on the way he served a spell as deputy national-security adviser in the White House. That service has now been capped by four years as defense secretary. In that time, he is proud of saying, he's served eight presidents.  

As he relaxes on two weeks' vacation at his home on an island off the coast of Washington state, he may believe he has served enough—and that, at 66, other challenges beckon.   

But who could take his place? Replacing Gates would be hard for Obama, and not merely because of the secretary's unique across-the-aisle appeal as a Republican appointee in a Democratic administration. If there is a suitable candidate within the Defense Department, it's probably Ashton Carter, who as undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics—a vast portfolio —has been an indefatigable point man on many of Gates's initiatives. But Carter lacks a political base, and he would have to relinquish a tenured position at Harvard from which he is currently on leave. That might not be prudent, given Obama's uncertain chances of reelection in 2012.

That uncertainty also likely rules out any candidate from Congress, such as Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), an Army veteran who is on everyone's list as a potential future defense secretary. One or two candidates talked about back in 2008 have already taken themselves out of the running—for example, Richard Danzig, who was Navy secretary under President Clinton.

The likeliest course, or so insiders reckon, is that Obama would choose a veteran Democratic politician who could be relied on to foster good relations with Democrats on the Hill and in the party at large. The name most often mentioned is Leon Panetta. Currently CIA director, where he's reckoned to have done a first-rate job healing the scars of the Bush years, Panetta has perfect political credentials for the Pentagon: he was a 15-year congressman from a California district with significant defense industries; then, as White House chief of staff from 1994 to 1997, he was critical in keeping the Clinton administration on track after Gingrich Republicans won control of the House.    

And Gates's own plans? After he retired the first time he ran Texas A&M University, and also wrote a volume of memoirs, From the Shadows, praised for its nonpartisan observations on successive presidencies. This time, Gates has told friends, he plans two books. The first will be a memoir of his spell as defense secretary. The second will be an instructional volume on a topic he thinks his years at the CIA, Texas A&M, and now the Pentagon have uniquely fitted him to address: how to force change on large organizations.