The first major reshaping of President Barack Obama's national security team, including new chiefs at the Pentagon, CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff, took a full year of planning, with a focus on finding people who could work well together during wartime, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
In his first public remarks on the process, which featured a behind-the-scenes struggle at the Pentagon, Gates said the key consideration was preserving what he called a sense of teamwork among the top national security aides. Some of them, including Gates, are holdovers from the administration of President George W. Bush.
Gates said he wants Obama to continue to benefit from cohesiveness within his war council.
"That has everything to do with relationships," he said, including relations between the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is the primary military adviser to the president and the defense secretary.
Choosing Dempsey over Cartwright
Gates was adamant that news reporting on the process for selecting a successor to Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was flawed.
He singled out reports that Marine Gen. James Cartwright — long considered the leading candidate to take over for Mullen when his term ends Sept. 30 — was damaged by offering independent advice to Obama during a lengthy review of Afghan war policy in late 2009.
"I will tell you that some of the negative things that have been reported as influencing the decision — for example, the Afghan piece — are completely wrong, had nothing to do with it whatsoever," he told reporters traveling with him from Hawaii to Singapore, where he will attend an Asia security conference Friday and Saturday.
Some have said Cartwright also was hurt by reports of an internal Pentagon investigation of his relationship with a female aide. The probe cleared him of wrongdoing. Gates said suggestions that this influenced the selection process were "garbage."
The interview aboard his Air Force plane took place as it was crossing the international dateline Thursday.
As recently as April, Cartwright was believed to be a cinch to get the Joint Chiefs job. Instead, Obama announced Monday that he would nominate Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had just taken over as Army chief of staff on April 11.
Cartwright, currently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is expected to retire when his term ends in August. The quick switch to Dempsey is an indication that Cartwright was derailed suddenly.
Gates declined to say why Cartwright did not get the nomination, and praised the former Marine aviator as "one of the finest officers I've ever worked with." He said he would not discuss publicly his own recommendation to Obama.
The president chose Navy Adm. James Wennefeld, currently commander of U.S. Northern Command, as Cartwright's successor.
Gates is set to retire June 30. His designated successor is CIA director Leon Panetta, and Panetta is to be succeeded at the spy agency by Army Gen. David Petraeus, currently the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. All of the nominations are subject to Senate confirmation. Panetta is expected to have his confirmation hearing next week.
Together, the changes amount to the first major shakeup of Obama's national security team. Gates had made no secret of his desire to leave the Pentagon after serving 4½ years, making him the fourth longest-serving secretary of defense since the post was established in 1947. Only Robert McNamara, Caspar Weinberger and Donald H. Rumsfeld served longer.
China's military expansion
In the interview en route to Singapore on his final overseas trip as Pentagon chief, Gates also discussed China's military expansion. He said he doubts China aims to match U.S. military power but thinks it is tailoring its buildup in ways that will extend its influence in Asia.
"The Chinese have learned a powerful lesson from the Soviet experience," he said, alluding to the economic burden — ultimately unsustainable — that the Soviets bore in trying to keep up with Washington in a Cold War arms race.
"But I think they are intending to build capabilities that give them a considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence," he said, citing as examples anti-ship missiles, cyber weapons and anti-satellite weapons. He did not mention Taiwan by name, but there is a worry in Washington that the Chinese are seeking the means to compel Taiwan to reunite with the mainland — by force if necessary.
Gates said the U.S. is not trying to contain China and accepts that it will remain a global power into the foreseeable future. For that reason it is important that the U.S. remain willing to talk directly with Chinese leaders, he said.
"We are not trying to hold China down," Gates said. "China has been a great power for thousands of years. It is a global power, and it will be a global power."
Gates is scheduled to meet his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, on the sidelines of the Singapore meeting Friday.
It is Gates' seventh trip to Asia in the past 18 months, reflecting his view of the region's importance to U.S. security interests. Liang is the first Chinese minister of defense to attend the annual Singapore conference.