Gates Echoes Obama Call for 'Responsible' Troop Drawdown, Stops Short of Backing Timetable
By Ann Scott Tyson
A day after President-elect Barack Obama announced the decision to keep him on as secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates stopped short of fully endorsing Obama's plan to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, but said he subscribes to his new boss's call for a "responsible" drawdown based on the advice of U.S. commanders.
"Nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved, with so much sacrifice, on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis," Gates said in a Pentagon briefing this afternoon.
Gates emphasized that commanders are already looking at "the potential for accelerating the drawdown" from Iraq. But as he prepares to become the first secretary of defense ever to bridge two different administrations, Gates also made it clear he would not shy from disagreements with his new boss.
"The president-elect has made it pretty clear that he wanted a team of people around him who would tell him what they thought and give him their best advice," said Gates, asked how comfortable he was with Obama's positions on Iraq, Afghanistan and other issues. "I have no intention of being a caretaker secretary," he added.
"Our challenges, from the budget to acquisition and procurement reform, war strategy, care of wounded warriors, meeting the needs of warfighters, decisions on important modernization and capitalization projects and more, all demand the personal attention of the secretary of defense and they will get it," he said.
Gates said he and Obama agreed that his appointment was "open-ended" and joked that he has "thrown away the [countdown] clock" that he used to keep track of his remaining days at the Pentagon "because it was absolutely useless."
Gates revealed that he met with Obama in a vacated fire station at Reagan National Airport on Nov. 10 when the President-elect was in Washington for a White House visit. "I was impressed by several things he said to me ... about the military and his respect for the institution," Gates recalled, also noting appreciatively Obama's outreach to Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Although Gates will stay on indefinitely, he indicated that many political appointees from the Bush administration will not.
"Virtually every political appointee in the Department of Defense before yesterday assumed he or she would be replaced on January 20th or soon thereafter. That assumption remains as valid today as it was before," he said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, Gates' right hand man, announced yesterday that he will be stepping down, although he agreed to stay in his position for "some time" past Jan. 20 "to ensure a smooth transition."
"After almost eight years, it's now time for me to turn over the reins to a successor. Also, it's most appropriate for the new administration to name its own deputy," he said in a written statement.
In a wide-ranging press conference, Gates discussed several other national security topics high on the incoming president's agenda.
Gates said one of the first priorities of the new administration would be "to look at our strategy and approach in Afghanistan" and emphasized the central role of Afghan forces.
"It's very important for us to do everything we can to make sure that the Afghans understand this is their fight and they have to be out front in this fight. That's why I'm such a strong supporter of accelerating the expansion of the Afghan army," he said.
Gates said he agreed that the Guantanamo Bay facility could be closed, although he said that would probably require legislation from Congress.
When it comes to defense spending and major weapons purchases, Gates indicated the new Pentagon team would make "very close scrutiny of the budget," adding that "we need to take a very hard look at the way we go about acquisition and procurement."
Posted at 7:19 PM ET on Dec 2, 2008
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