Gates retiring? Don't bet on it.
For a man who came into his post reluctantly and as a purported short-timer, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is turning into more and more of a fixture at the Pentagon.
In an interview with ForeignPolicy.com that was published Monday, Gates indicated once again that his tenure would be coming to an end in the near term, saying he would step down in 2011. "I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he said, noting that he didn't want to force President Obama to find a successor in the spring of a presidential election year.
But don't hold your breath that Gates will permanently move back to his home in Washington state anytime soon. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, tried Monday to tamp down speculation that the Pentagon chief was close to calling it quits.
"Bob Gates has proven to be a miserable failure at retirement," Morrell said, referring to how President George W. Bush persuaded Gates, 66, to return to public service as defense secretary in December 2006. "It remains to be seen whether his sense of responsibility trumps his desires as in the past."
Gates has shown no sign of scaling back his ambitions for the department in recent months. Last week, he announced he would shut a major military command, part of a broader campaign to cut overhead and personnel costs to free up $100 billion for weapons systems and other purposes in the next five years.
"This is a guy who just bit off a huge bite," Morrell said. "This is a guy musing about when it makes sense for him to retire. This is not a guy announcing his retirement."
The defense secretary also faces a spate of major decisions in 2011. Several major military positions, including the top Army job and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are slated to get replacements. It's likely that Gates would want to play a role in advising Obama on who should fill those jobs instead of leaving it to a new replacement. There will also be a major decision next summer on Afghan troop levels.
A former director of the CIA and president of Texas A&M University, Gates had previously committed to Obama that he would stay at least until the end of 2010. So his remarks to FP, made in July, were not a departure.
At the same time, Gates has been dropping hints that he could stick around even longer. At a press conference Aug. 9, reporters pressed the secretary on his plans. "As far as I'm concerned, all I will say is that I'm going to be here longer than either I or others thought," he said.
Gates has long cultivated an inscrutable mystique about his intentions, calling to mind lessons learned during his previous career as a Kremlinologist at the CIA and National Security Council. On one hand, he doesn't want Pentagon bureaucrats to think his departure is imminent, which could encourage them to resist policy changes that they oppose. On the other, he knows that it's easier to succeed and survive in Washington if the perception is that you are serving out of a sense of public obligation instead of personal ambition.
When he makes public appearances across the country, Gates routinely tells the same old jokes that make fun of the insular culture of Washington and tries to sound like he couldn't wait to get out of town.
"It's a pleasure to be with you in San Francisco, but then I have to confess, it's a pleasure to be anywhere but Washington, D.C. -- a place where so many people are lost in thought because it's such unfamiliar territory," he told the Marines' Memorial Association on Thursday. "Where people say, 'I'll double cross that bridge when I get to it.' The only place in the world you can see a prominent person walking down Lover's Lane holding his own hand."
This is a man, of course, whose official bio notes has served under eight different presidents, including a 27-year career at the CIA and nearly four years -- and counting -- as defense secretary.
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