The promotion of Robert M. Gates as President-elect
Barack Obama's secretary of defense appears to be the key element in a broad
campaign by military officials and their supporters in the political elite and
the news media to pressure Obama into dropping his plan to withdraw US troops
from Iraq in as little as 16 months.
Despite subtle and unsubtle pressures to compromise on his withdrawal plan,
however, Obama is likely to pass over Gates and stand firm on his campaign pledge
on military withdrawal from Iraq, according to a well-informed source close
to the Obama camp.
Within 24 hours of Obama's election, the idea of Gates staying on as defense
secretary in an Obama administration was floated in the New York Times,
which reported that "a case is being made publicly by columnists and commentators,
and quietly by leading Congressional voices of Mr. Obama's own party
that Mr. Gates should be asked to remain as defense secretary, at least for
an interim period in the opening months of the new presidency."
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that two unnamed Obama advisers
had said Obama was "leaning toward" asking Gates stay on, although
the report added that other candidates were also in the running. The Journal
said Gates was strongly opposed to any timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, and
it speculated that a Gates appointment "could mean that Mr. Obama was effectively
shelving his campaign promise to remove most troops from Iraq by mid-2010."
Some Obama advisers have been maneuvering for a Gates nomination for months.
Former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig publicly raised the idea of a Gates reprise
in June and again in early October. Danzig told reporters Oct. 1, however, that
he had not discussed the possibility with Obama.
Obama advisers who support his Iraq withdrawal plan, however, have opposed
a Gates appointment. Having a defense secretary who is not fully supportive
of the 16-month timetable would make it very difficult, if not impossible for
Obama to enforce it on the military.
A source close to the Obama transition team told IPS Tuesday that the chances
that Gates would be nominated by Obama "are now about 10 percent."
The source said that Obama is going to stick with his 16-month withdrawal timeline,
despite the pressures now being brought to bear on him. "There is no doubt
about it," said the source, who refused to elaborate because of the sensitivity
of the matter.
Opposition to Obama's pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq on a 16-month
timetable is wide and deep in the US national security establishment and its
political allies. US military leaders have been unequivocal in rejecting any
such rapid withdrawal from Iraq, and news media coverage of the issue has been
based on the premise that Obama will have to modify his plan to make it acceptable
to the military.
The Washington Post published a story Monday saying that Adm. Michael
Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposes Obama's timeline for
withdrawal as "dangerous," insisting that "reductions must depend
on conditions on the ground." Along with Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the
head of CENTCOM and responsible for the entire Middle East, and Gen. Ray Odierno,
the new commander in Iraq, Mullen was portrayed as part of a phalanx of determined
military opposition to Obama's timeline.
Post reporters Alec MacGillis and Ann Scott Tyson cited "defense experts"
as predicting a "smooth and productive" relationship between Obama
and these military leaders "if Obama takes the pragmatic approach that
his advisers are indicating, allowing each side to adjust at the margins."
But if Obama "presses for the withdrawal of two brigades per month,"
the same analysts predicted, "conflict is inevitable."
The story quoted a former Bush administration National Security Council official,
Peter D. Feaver, who was a strategic planner on the administration's Iraq "surge"
policy, as warning that Obama's timetable would precipitate "a civil-military
crisis" if Obama does not agree to the demands of Mullen, Petraeus and
Odierno for greater flexibility.
Underlying the campaign of pressure is the assumption that Obama's 16-month
timetable is mainly posturing for political purposes during the primary campaign,
and that Obama is not necessarily committed to the withdrawal plan.
Feaver, who has returned to Duke University, said in an interview with IPS
that he did not believe such a crisis was likely, because, "It is unlikely
Obama will come in and do what he said he would do during the campaign."
Obama has given himself "enough wiggle room to change the plan," Feaver
Similarly CNN Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre also reported Nov. 7 that
Obama "gave himself some wiggle room" to respond to military demands
for more flexibility. McIntyre said he had "pledged to consult US commanders
and adjust as necessary."
Obama's website makes no such pledge to "adjust" the timetable. Instead
it says the "removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed
by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi
government." It defends the rate of withdrawal of one or two brigades per
month and offers to leave a "residual force" in Iraq to "train
and support the Iraqi forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political
reconciliation and away from sectarianism."
When Obama met with Petraeus in Baghdad in July, Petraeus presented a detailed
case for a "conditions-based" withdrawal rather than Obama's timetable
and ended with a plea for "maximum flexibility" on a withdrawal schedule,
according to Joe Klein's account in Time Oct. 22.
But Obama refused to back down, according to Klein's account. He told Petraeus,
"Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But
my job as a potential commander in chief is to view your counsel and interests
through the prism of our overall national security." Obama defended his
policy of a fixed date for withdrawal in light of the situation in Afghanistan,
the costs of continued US occupation and the stress on US military forces.
Opponents of Obama's plan outside the Bush administration appear to be unaware
of the fact that the Bush administration has already given up the "conditions-based
withdrawal" that the US military has called for in agreeing to Iraqi
demands for complete US withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Feaver, the former strategic planner for National Security Adviser Stephen
J. Hadley, said he assumes that, "if the US agreed to it, it preserves
the flexibility that Petraeus and Odierno say they've needed all along."
But even the small loophole left in previous versions of the text, allowing
the 2011 deadline to be extended if the pact were revised with the agreement
of the Iraqi parliament, has now been closed in the "final" version
which the Bush administration submitted to the Maliki government last week,
according to a Nov. 10 report by Associated Press, which had obtained a copy
of the text.
(Inter Press Service)