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."