The Cable

Gates to leave in 2011

In an exclusive interview published Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Foreign Policy that he plans to leave office some time in 2011, once President Obama's Afghanistan's strategy review is completed.

"I think that by next year I'll be in a position where -- you know, we're going to know whether the strategy is working in Afghanistan," he told national-security writer Fred Kaplan. "We'll have completed the surge. We'll have done the assessment in December. And it seems like somewhere there in 2011 is a logical opportunity to hand off," he said.

Gates also said "it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012" to leave his post, because it might be difficult to get a good candidate to take the job, knowing that the administration might be voted out later that year.

"I just think this is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of a presidential election. So I think sometime in 2011 sounds pretty good."

The speculation over who might replace Gates is a popular parlor game in Washington. The rumored candidates include current officials, think tank leaders, and even some names left over from the last time the job was open.

Top candidates include Michèle Flournoy, the current under secretary of defense for policy, John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. The oft-mooted move of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the Pentagon is less likely. (Gates's people say trying to figure out the short list is premature.)

Gates looked back as much as he looked forward in Kaplan's wide ranging interview, revealing for the first time that in 2008 he started a "covert campaign" to prevent himself from being asked to stay on as defense secretary, no matter who won the election.

"It was to try and build a wall of clarity that I did not want to stay high enough that nobody would ever ask me. I was very consistent for a long period there in saying that, because I really didn't want to be asked, knowing that if I were asked I would say yes," Gates said.

The article paints a picture of a man who is savvy enough to think strategically about his own exit from public life but even more loyal to the military and the president, any president, while wars are raging and his service is being sought.

Gates also spoke at length about his drive to reform the Pentagon bureaucracy, show the uniformed leadership that they could be fired, and cut dozens of programs he felt were misguided in the face of stiff congressional resistance.

In one section of the interview, Gates himself struggles with his vision for a military that can't afford and therefore shouldn't pursue hugely expensive platforms, like $3 billion destroyers and $2 billion bombers. He even quotes Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who said "Quantity has a quality of its own."

The future of the 11 aircraft carrier groups currently in service is the perfect example of this tension.

"I'm not going to cut any aircraft carriers," Gates told Kaplan. "But the reality is, if Chinese highly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles can keep our aircraft carriers behind the second island chain in the Pacific, you've got to think differently about how you're going to use aircraft carriers."

When Kaplan pressed Gates on why he won't cut carriers, despite his contention they are made somewhat obsolete by 21st-century warfare, Gates acknowledged that even one of the most powerful defense secretaries of the modern era has limits.

"Well, as I said when it came to military retirement, I may be bold but I'm not crazy."

Gates also said he would be open to reassessing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan if more progress is not evident by the December review.

"If we're not making any headway, then I think we have to look at making adjustments," he said.

Gates wouldn't speculate on what those adjustments might be, but he did express confidence that the president's surge of forces to Afghanistan, which he supports, stands a good chance of providing the Afghan government the time needed to gradually take over responsibility from the coalition as U.S. troops begin to withdraw next July.

"The July 2011 deadline was a hard hurdle for me to get over because I'd fought against deadlines with respect to Iraq consistently," Gates told Kaplan. "But I became persuaded that something like that was needed to get the attention of the Afghan government, that they had to take ownership of this thing ... And I recognized the risks."

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Congress mulls airlift of Iraqi allies as pullout nears

As the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq accelerates, the thousands of Iraqi citizens who have worked with the U.S. military since the 2003 invasion face an even more uncertain future. Congress is calling on the administration to devise a new plan to help them.

In 2008, a shocking article in the New York Post written by U.S. Marine Owen West described the harrowing experience of translators and aides to U.S. troops in Iraq as they try to escape the threats on their lives and transition to a better life in America. An excruciatingly long process full of bureaucratic hurdles faced these refugees, to the point that even then-ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker wrote to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to complain of "major bottlenecks" in the system.

For those who have made it the United States -- and over 35,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived since 2003 -- they then face another set of near-insurmountable challenges. Your humble Cable guy has come across several young Iraqis, mostly women, who found themselves with no job, no money, and no place to live once they made it to the Washington, DC area. Eligible for one-time grants ranging from $900 to $1800, most have trouble finding work and are still fighting with the State Department for permanent residence status. Many were completely dependent on the kindness of the soldiers they had worked with in Iraq, and many returning veterans have taken former translators and their families into their homes.

Congress held hearings and eventually passed legislation in 2008 to expand the services for Iraqis who had worked with the U.S. military, largely due to the work of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who led a campaign to bring attention and resources to the issue right up until his death.

But now, as the U.S. military leaves Iraq, Congress is calling on the administration to do more.

Twenty-two senators and congressmen wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates Friday to demand the administration come up with a comprehensive plan to support the thousands of Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. military.

"Time is of the essence in developing a plan to address this looming crisis as the August 31, 2010 withdrawal date rapidly approaches," the lawmakers wrote. "The United States has a moral obligation to stand by those Iraqis who have risked their lives -- and the lives of their families - to stand by us in Iraq for the past seven years, and doing so is also in our strategic self-interest. Providing support for our Iraqi allies will advance U.S. national security interests around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, by sending a message that foreign nationals who support our work abroad can expect some measure of protection."

The lawmakers praise the State Department for speeding up the visa process but lament that only about 2,000 visas have been issued out of the 15,000 visa limit State has set for such Iraqis. The process still takes over a year and requires hundreds of dollars in fees many refugees can't afford. Specifically, the lawmakers are asking the administration to speed up the resettlement process, expand the visa program to include Iraqis who worked for non-governmental organizations, and consider an airlift of Iraqis who are in danger as the withdrawal date approaches.

The letter was authored by the chairmen of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL). Hastings added a provision to the fiscal 2011 defense policy bill calling for a plan to expedite resettlement of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis at risk as troops withdraw from Iraq.

At the commission's July hearing on the issue, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration Eric Schwartz said that the Obama administration is devoted to improving the resettlement program for Iraqis who can't return home and will triple the number of those resettled to the United States this year.

Schwartz also said he authorized a doubling of the one-time grant refugees are given when they arrive in the United States.

"It won't eliminate the enormous challenges faced by new arrivals, nor will it address the longer-term adjustment needs that are addressed by the Department of Health and Human Services, but it will help to ensure that incoming arrivals have a roof over their heads and have sufficient provisions for their first months in the country," he said.