While the presidential campaign and President Barack Obama’s initial post-election formal statements have focused heavily on the economy, national security arguably is where the new administration has the greatest independent authority — and faces the most significant challenges, directly involving life and death decisions.
Obama has addressed that dimension right away by issuing executive orders closing the very controversial Guantanamo base prison and banning use of torture. The detention of suspected al Qaeda fighters at the base since the 9/11 attacks has brought sustained intense criticism both abroad and at home. Critics denounce torture for being ineffective as well as immoral. However, now that Guantanamo will be closed and torture banned, rest assured the future will bring Republican attacks on the new administration for alleged "softness” on terror.
In this situation, the importance of maintaining Bush administration Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in office implicitly is confirmed. The conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and in more global terms with al Qaeda provide a vexing, complex challenge, which encompasses both conventional and unconventional warfare.
Gates’ career spans engagement with the uniformed military and also the shadow world of espionage and covert action. So far at least, he has shown himself to be a man for all seasons politically, while proving an exceptionally able executive over a now lengthy career.
In a very partisan time, with intense rancor between Democrats and Republicans, he has been adept at bridging that great divide. Indeed, Gates is the first Pentagon head in history to continue in the position from one administration to the next.
Gates is not a political partisan but did achieve his greatest professional success in government during years when the Republicans were in charge. In his notably candid memoirs "From the Shadows," he is very blunt in criticism of the Carter administration for hostility to the intelligence agencies and general ineffectiveness. Tenure as deputy to Carter’s CIA chief, Admiral Stansfield Turner, was clearly one of the most painful experiences of Gates’ career.
Clearly the new Democratic administration is constructing continuity with the more generally conservative and Republican sectors within Washington and among the wider American population, and that is smart politics as well as good policy. 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 on the part of the public. A representative ABC-Washington Post poll just before the November presidential election showed that by 49% to 43% Republican presidential nominee John McCain was viewed as more likely than Democratic nominee Obama to protect national security.
In the case of Bob Gates, demonstrated top professional competence clearly reinforces 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 his principal mentor, former Pres. G. H.W. Bush.
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 President Dwight D. Eisenhower, expressing frustration near the end of his administration.
Weiner is harshly critical of the CIA overall, but notably positive about Director Robert Gates. Likewise, he provides persuasive evidence the CIA was providing strident warnings about impending terrorist attack to an indifferent Bush White House just before September 11, 2001.
Pres. Obama’s initial dramatic executive orders underscore the wisdom of keeping Bob Gates in place.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)