IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama, Gates in sync on many defense issues

For a Democrat whose opposition to the Iraq war was a campaign centerpiece, President-elect Barack Obama is remarkably in sync with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on many core defense issues.
Image: Robert Gates, Barack Obama
Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks at a news conference Dec. 1 after President-elect Barack Obama announced that he had asked Gates to remain in his position.Tannen Maury / EPA file
/ Source: The Associated Press

For a Democrat whose opposition to the Iraq war was a campaign centerpiece, President-elect Barack Obama is remarkably in sync with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on many core defense and national security issues — even Iraq.

The list of similarities suggests the early focus of Obama's Pentagon may not change dramatically from President George W. Bush's.

Given that Obama made the unprecedented decision to keep the incumbent Republican defense secretary, it would seem natural to expect that they see eye to eye on at least some major defense issues. But the extent of their shared priorities is surprising, given Obama's campaign criticisms of Bush's defense policies.

In his first public comments about signing on with the incoming administration, Gates said Tuesday that in his decisive meeting with the president-elect in November, they talked more about how his appointment would be made and how it would work in practice than about substantive policy issues.

The two "share a common view about the importance of integrating all elements of American power to make us more secure and defeat the threats of the 21st century," Brooke Anderson, the Obama transition office's chief national security spokeswoman, said Saturday.

She said Obama "appreciates Secretary Gates' pragmatism and competence and his commitment to a sustainable national security strategy that is built on bipartisan consensus here at home."

Gates lays out strategy
The apparent harmony between Gates and Obama on broad defense and national security aims is on display in a Foreign Affairs magazine article by the defense chief that was released Thursday. Gates lays out a comprehensive agenda based on the Bush administration's new National Defense Strategy. In numerous ways it meshes with the defense priorities that Obama espoused during the campaign. Examples include:

  • better integrating and coordinating military efforts with civilian agencies, including the State Department. This is one of the lessons the Bush administration learned from the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial combat efforts went well, only to fail to avert destabilizing insurgencies.
  • building up the security capacity of partner nations. This is central to a belief, advocated by Gates and shared by Obama, that the fight against Islamic extremism — what the Bush administration calls the war on terror — cannot succeed in the long run without help from allies and partners.
  • not overlooking the possibility of future threats from conventional military powers, even while continuing to focus on prevailing in the counterinsurgency campaigns where conventional firepower plays a lesser role.

There also are points of potential differences between Obama and Gates: closing the prison for suspected terrorists at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and expanding the U.S. missile defense system into Eastern Europe.

Gates advocates both, but on Guantanamo he lost the argument in Bush administration councils.

Obama has been unequivocal that he will close the prison. On missile defense, he has indicated support in general while emphasizing it must not divert resources from other priorities "until we are positive the technology will protect the American people." That condition could lead to delays in the Europe project, although the Pentagon managed a successful test intercept of a target missile over the Pacific on Friday.

Withdrawing troops in Iraq
But even on Iraq, Gates said that he considers Obama's focus on troop withdrawals to be an "agreeable approach," given that Obama has said he would listen to his commanders on how to proceed. Reminded that he previously had opposed setting a firm timetable for withdrawal, Gates said the situation changed when the Bush administration accepted Iraq's demand for an agreement in writing to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by next June and to withdraw entirely by Dec. 31, 2011.

"So we will confront or have a different kind of situation in Iraq at the end of June 2009 than we would have thought perhaps in June of 2008," Gates said. "And I think that the commanders are already looking at what the implications of that are, in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown."

Obama has said he believes a full withdrawal of combat troops can be accomplished within 16 months of his swearing in on Jan. 20. But he also has said the withdrawal should be done responsibly. This appears in line with indications that in a meeting last July in Baghdad with Gen. David Petraeus — then the top U.S. commander in Iraq and now the overseer of U.S. military operations across the Middle East — Obama gave hints, if not outright assurances, that he could be flexible on a pullout timetable.

Both Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, who will remain as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after Obama takes office, have stressed their eagerness to shift resources, including troops, from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the insurgency has grown in intensity. That, too, is in line with Obama's agenda.

Obama has pledged to continue the expansion of the Army and the Marine Corps that Gates started. They are on the same page, too, with regard to overhauling the Pentagon's procurement system.

Also, both emphasize a need to improve the government's ability to address concerns of military families who are under strain from repeated, lengthy and frequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.