WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled a willingness Tuesday to forge ahead with two key priorities for the incoming Obama administration: accelerating the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
As the only Republican Cabinet member asked to stay on by President-elect Barack Obama, Gates told reporters that military commanders are looking at ways to more quickly pull troops out of Iraq in light of the 16-month timetable that was a centerpiece of the Democrat's campaign.
He also said it will be a high priority to work with the new Congress on legislation that will enable the U.S. to close the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, where about 250 terrorism suspects are still being held.
No way to say no
In a blunt and occasionally personal briefing, Gates acknowledged his unique position in the new Democratic administration — a job he said he did not want or seek but felt he could not turn down.
"I guess I would say that I was engaged in my own form of strategic deterrence," said Gates, who for the past two years has talked only of his desire to return home to Washington state. "It was my hope that if I made enough noise about how much I did not want to stay here and how much I wanted to go back to the Northwest that I wouldn't have to worry about the question ever being asked."
But Obama asked, and Gates said there was no way he could say no. And while there has been much speculation that his tenure might be somewhat short, in an effort to ease the transition during wartime, Gates said his agreement to stay on at the Pentagon is "open-ended" and that there is no timeline for his departure.
"I have no intention of being a caretaker secretary," Gates said.
Gates, who oversaw the buildup of forces in Iraq in 2006-2007, made it clear that he is comfortable and even impressed with Obama's commitment to the military and said he is "less concerned" about the 16-month Iraq withdrawal timetable. Although he has repeatedly insisted that any drawdown in Iraq must be based on security conditions there, Gates noted that Obama has said he will listen to his commanders and pull forces out responsibly.
"I was impressed by his reaching out to Adm. Mullen to come sit down and talk with him," said Gates, referring to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "And he has made clear that he wants to have a regular dialogue with the chairman and the chiefs and the commanders."
The situation in Iraq has changed, he said, pointing to the new security agreement with the Iraqis that calls for U.S. troops to be out of the cities by next June 30 and out of the country by Jan. 1, 2012.
"Commanders are already looking at what the implications of that are in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis," Gates said. "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 at this point."
Details about his recruitment
Gates also provided a glimpse into his recruitment to join the Obama administration, saying he and the president-elect met when the Democrat came to Washington after the election to meet with President Bush.
In a clandestine move, reminiscent of Gates' former job as director of the CIA, the two men met at the fire station at Reagan National Airport. "They pulled the trucks out so that our cars could go in," he quipped.
Gates also cleared up confusion about his political affiliation.
During his tenure at the CIA, he said, he thought he should be apolitical so he did not register with a political party. But, he added, "I consider myself a Republican."
Still, did it feel a bit strange to be standing alongside Obama and his intended secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton?
"It really didn't," said Gates. "You know, the president-elect will be the eighth president I've worked for. And all I can say is I look forward to it.
On Guantanamo, Gates said it will take a joint effort with Congress to shut it down. He did not provide details of any suggested legislation but said it would prohibit detainees from seeking asylum in the U.S. if they are released from the detention facility.
In other comments, Gates said that while he is staying on, he still expects that the bulk of the political appointees at the Pentagon to leave as is traditional during a change of administration. One of those, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, said Tuesday that he will be leaving.
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