Robert Gates Stays on to Fight a Few More Battles at the Pentagon

The Pentagon chief is waging the same wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a new boss.

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In the weeks leading up to the inauguration of Barack Obama, life was particularly complicated for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. At times, he was called upon to weigh in at a Bush administration cabinet discussion even as the Obama transition staff was convening across town. "I haven't missed any meeting with the president, let me put it that way," Gates said in mid-December. Leaning casually on the edge of a desk in the conference room of his airplane, the sole cabinet holdover from the Bush years admitted, though, that serving both a president and a president-elect did "create some occasional awkwardness."

Gates was flying over the Atlantic headed to Iraq and Afghanistan for a series of town hall meetings with troops that were originally planned as his farewell tour. "Now I have a better appreciation of what it's like to be stop-lossed," he noted, to the appreciative guffaws of gathered soldiers, upon his arrival. He was referring to the Pentagon's unpopular policy of extending some service members' enlistment time involuntarily.

Gates's job has gotten a bit easier since those transition days when there were competing demands on his time, say sources close to the secretary. But, they add, his second term is likely to offer far more complex challenges than his first. Two difficult wars, combined with the budgetary pressures caused by an economic crisis, will force hard choices on the Pentagon in the months to come. While violence has decreased considerably in Iraq, top U.S. military officials are still watching key hot spots closely and continue to emphasize that progress on the ground is not "irreversible." Gates will have to figure out how to safely draw down troop levels there, while simultaneously doubling strength in Afghanistan with a U.S. military that is tired and overstretched.

On the domestic front, Gates will be at the helm of tough decisions on cuts to big-money weapons systems. These decisions will no doubt prompt some bloody internecine service battles, according to senior Pentagon officials. Gates has repeatedly emphasized that the sorts of significant increases that the defense budget has enjoyed in recent years will soon come to a "screeching halt." And no program, he adds, is immune.

That was clear when the secretary headed to the Capitol last week to meet with lawmakers for the first time since President Obama became his boss. Gates admitted that he was not necessarily looking forward to the next few months, given the hard decisions that await him. "As I focused on the wars these past two years, I ended up punting a number of procurement decisions that I believed would be more appropriately handled by my successor and a new administration," Gates told them. "Well, as luck would have it, I am now the receiver of those punts—and, in this game, there are no fair catches."

While Gates in his first term concentrated on a discrete agenda—getting Iraq back on the rails—he delegated much of the budgetary responsibilities to his current deputy, Gordon England. Those close to Gates often noted that he was in no particular hurry to leave his job as the president of Texas A&M, a job he had held and enjoyed immensely from 2002 until he agreed to become secretary of defense in 2005. "Now that he has a longer tenure here, he will be expanding his agenda considerably," says a senior defense official. "He'll have to concentrate a lot of his time on the budget. It will be a much more ambitious agenda." In juggling these new duties, his previous stint as CIA director, senior defense officials say, will hold him in good stead.

But there are few goals more ambitious, or onerous, than taking on the military-industrial complex. And Gates has no illusions about how difficult the job will be. It has certainly been attempted before, his advisers acknowledge. "He's not naive or Pollyannaish. He recognizes there are hundreds of studies that have looked at this. His desire is to get it back in the right direction," says the senior defense official.