Geopolitical Diary: Obama Asks Robert Gates To Stay On
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
On Tuesday, the media began reporting leaks from U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, saying that Robert Gates has been asked to stay on as secretary of defense and that he agreed to do so. While not yet official, the leaks are now part of a consistent pattern in the Obama transition — major appointments are systematically leaked at least a day before their official announcement. Such leaks actually make a great deal of sense: By preparing the public for potentially controversial appointments, they force pre-announcement criticism, leaving the day of the announcement with little negative news. It's good practice. It is a practice well employed in this case, since the retention of President George W. Bush's secretary of defense — and the person who oversaw the surge strategy — is going to trouble many among the left wing of Obama's supporters. But in fact, it is good policymaking. As we have argued for quite a while, the perception of Obama's Iraq policy and the reality of what he was saying were quite separate. Obama and John McCain did not disagree in fundamental details during the presidential campaign. Obama wanted to withdraw forces from Iraq by the summer of 2010, unless circumstances dictated otherwise. This was clearly spelled out in position papers that few people read. McCain's position was that he would withdraw forces as soon as possible, but would not provide a deadline. In truth, Obama had not actually provided a deadline, but merely a goal, and McCain had not said that he wanted to keep troops in Iraq if circumstances permitted withdrawal. Each candidate's supporters were convinced that there was a major disagreement, but there just wasn't. Gates does not represent Bush's initial Iraq policy, the one crafted by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. He was part of the Iraq Study Group that Bush convened to examine Iraq policy in 2006. That group drew up a set of proposals, some of which were made public and the rest kept secret. After the Republican battering in 2006, Bush replaced Rumsfeld with Gates, who oversaw the implementation of the new policy. This policy partly involved sending about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq, both to increase U.S. power there and to shift the region's psychology, which was convinced that the United States would withdraw from the region. Having convinced everyone that the United States was not withdrawing, Gates and Gen. David Petraeus entered into a series of complex negotiations with the enemy — the Sunni insurgents. They created a coalition with the Sunnis and used that to convince elements of the Shia that they had better deal with the Americans as well. The end result is the Status of Forces Agreement, which commits the United States to a withdrawal no later than 2011 — a year later than Obama had wanted, but perfectly reasonable from his point of view. Obama said during the campaign that he wanted to turn to Afghanistan after Iraq. The model that Gates and Petraeus laid out is appropriate for Afghanistan. It involves sending more troops to Afghanistan (a move Obama supports), followed by negotiations with the enemy — the Taliban. Petraeus has already said that he has an interest in doing that, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he would talk to Mullah Omar, and the Saudis have said they would provide asylum for Omar if he wished to talk with the Americans or Karzai. In essence, Gates' and Petraeus' strategy for Afghanistan is a repeat of the surge (though there are obviously very real and significant differences to take into account). Obama wants to wind down operations in Afghanistan, and he has no problem with the Iraq model, regardless of what he said during the campaign. It makes perfect sense to keep the team that executed the Iraq strategy — Gates and Petraeus — in place to repeat the process in Afghanistan. Obama knows he will take heat from the left wing of the Democrat party, but he also knows they have nowhere else to go and that he will pick up support among dubious McCain backers. He also knows something much more important: A president who is successful can get away with a lot more than a president who isn't. Obama knows that if he can facilitate an end to the Afghan war, no one will care how he did it or who he used. And Gates not only comforts the right, he also carried out a successful policy in Iraq that at the end of the day, Obama will get credit for, since the withdrawals will take place on his watch. A success in Afghanistan similarly would strengthen Obama. And though Obama would suffer a loss if Gates fails, he could always fire a Republican secretary of defense to whom he reached out, but who failed to do his job.