[Overseas view]A wise choice in Gates

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[Overseas view]A wise choice in Gates

Robert Gates, the current secretary of defense in the outgoing Bush administration who has been asked, and agreed, to remain in the position by President-elect Barack Obama, may prove particularly influential in the new administration. So far at least, he has shown himself to be a man for all seasons, politically speaking.

In a very partisan time, with particularly intense rancor between Democrats and Republicans, he has proven quite adept at bridging the great divide.

Indeed, Gates will be the first Pentagon head in history to continue in the position from one administration to the next.

Political calculation on the part of Obama and his advisers doubtless is at play, as with his other Cabinet appointments, which reflect a veritable rainbow coalition of women, African-Americans and Latino-Americans, and also ranging quite widely in age. Gates is not a political partisan but did achieve his greatest professional success in government during years when the Republicans were in charge. His principal and most important mentor was former president George H.W. Bush.

The Iraq War understandably is emphasized in a good deal of media commentary about important continuity in policy, but Korea is also involved. The negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear facilities are proving extremely difficult and complicated. Currently, the North’s very rigid and secretive regime balks at letting inspectors take samples of nuclear material away for testing. New negotiations began in Beijing on Dec. 8 involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. - the so-called six-party talks. A major breakthrough is very unlikely during the few weeks remaining of the Bush administration but may occur once Obama is inaugurated, and Gates provides a practical bridge at the top.

Gates is an advocate of negotiating from strength. In his notably candid memoir, “From the Shadows,” Gates is blunt in his criticism of the Carter administration for its hostility to the intelligence agencies and general ineffectiveness. His tenure as deputy to Carter’s CIA chief, Admiral Stansfield Turner, was clearly one of the most painful experiences of Gates’ working life.

Gates includes Carter’s public effort to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea in a relatively long, specific list of decisions that communicated weakness in the context of Soviet strategic military expansion during the height of the Cold War.

Therefore in subtle ways, the new Democratic administration, which emphasizes change and breaks with the past, is constructing continuity with the more generally conservative and Republican sectors of Washington and the wider American population.

While Democrats have just won a sweeping national election victory, and now hold both Houses of Congress as well as the White House, national security remains an area of perceived weakness of the party in the eyes of the public.

Polls indicate that the Democratic Party leads the Republican Party in ability to handle the economy overall, education, health care, challenges facing the poor and senior citizens, national disasters - but not national defense. A representative ABC?Washington Post poll just before the November presidential election showed that by 49 percent to 43 percent, Republican presidential nominee John McCain was viewed as more likely than Democratic nominee Obama to protect national security.

In the case of Gates, his demonstrated top professional competence clearly reinforces the political calculation.

He is one of very few CIA career professionals to rise to the top of the agency. He was both director of Central Intelligence and deputy national security adviser to the elder President Bush, who generally receives high marks in foreign and defense policies.

One of the most important of many recent books on United States national intelligence is “Legacy of Ashes” by Tim Weiner. The book’s title derives from remarks by Dwight D. Eisenhower, expressing frustration near the end of his administration about the inherently vexing field of intelligence.

Weiner is harshly critical of the CIA overall, but notably positive about Director Robert Gates. He provides persuasive evidence that the CIA was providing strident warnings about an impending terrorist attack to an indifferent Bush White House just before 9/11. Gates played an influential role in shaping that contemporary agency.

Obama has announced his economic officials first, in three successive press conferences over as many days; only during the following week were defense, foreign policy and national security appointments announced.

That clearly reflects public priorities, as seen in nonstop media commentary on financial market turmoil.

Yet arguably the president’s responsibilities and power are both greatest in the life-and-death arena of national security. Political calculation and policy responsibility both underscore the wisdom of keeping Robert Gates in place.

*The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

by Arthur I. Cyr
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