By Richard Sisk
Daily News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday he'll retire next year to spare President Obama the political headache of replacing him while running for reelection.
"Sometime in 2011 sounds pretty good," said Gates, who has frequently joked about stepping down, but insisted this time he's serious. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About Robert Gates.]
"It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," Gates told Foreign Policy magazine, because it would put Obama on the spot in filling a major post during his run for a second term.
"I just think this is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of a presidential election," said Gates, a Bush administration holdover and the only defense secretary to be kept on by a newly elected President.
Before going back to his home in Washington State, Gates, who will be 67 next month, faces two major decisions in December that will provide fodder for the national security debate in the 2012 election.
Gates will preside at a major strategic review in December on the Afghan war and Obama's decision to begin a withdrawal in July 2011.
Also in December, the Pentagon will decide how to implement President Obama's policy to let gays serve openly in the military.
Gates, a former CIA director, took over at the Pentagon in December 2006 and has been widely credited with restoring direction to a military that was reeling under the heavy-handed leadership of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The list of possible successors includes Michele Flournoy, a product of the think tanks and the current undersecretary of Defense for Policy, as well as former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.