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Gates Is Going; Is His Political Capital?

UPDATED: Heritage Analyst Says Gates Announcement Means Congress Can Wait Him Out on Cuts

It's official. One of the most dynamic and effective defense secretaries ever plans to leave office sometime in 2011. Buzz readers, of course, knew that in late May, but Gates made it public in a Foreign Policy magazine interview published today.

Gates told Fred Kaplan that "he hopes to leave office next year, possibly as early as January, but certainly by the end of 2011," according to the article. The interview occurred July 12 in Gates's office.

"It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he said. "This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."

That timing would allow Gates to try and cement the effioiencies he seeks and present his final budget, the second full effort by the Obama administration.

The first reaction to Gates' decision to leave was that he is wasting the enormous political capital he has built up.

"By allowing so much lag time between today's announcement and when he will actually depart sometime next year, Gates' is diminishing his political capital and therefore ability to push through these latest rounds of unpopular defense efficiency cuts with the submission of the President's budget request in February--including the closure of JFCOM, reduction in local Washington contractor workforce, and elimination of flag and general officer positions," said Mackenzie Eaglen, military expert at the Heritage Foundation. "Gates has the stature to see these cuts through as he has in the past, but members of Congress can now simply wait him out to override the decisions they do not like."

Eaglen pointed to Gates' previously masterful handling of the Hill, and contrasted that with his departure announcement.

"In the past, the Secretary prevailed because he proved that he was willing to out-wait Congress to achieve the vast majority of his largest priorities in this multi-year reform effort within the Department. Further, the Secretary has proven politically savvy by beginning his most controversial reforms out of sync with policymakers' legislative cycles to help achieve momentum," she said. "By announcing the largest set of major weapons program cuts in history in April a month before the President's FY10 budget was released, the Secretary controlled the narrative, dominated the conversation, and never looked back--accomplishing nearly all of his objectives. That winning strategy is no longer in play and therefore the defense cuts and modernization funding increases are less likely to be realized."

A GOP defense expert, John Ullyot, said he wouldn't be surprised if President Obama asks Gates to stay on in the job until 2012 precisely because "Secretary Gates is the only person with a sufficient reservoir of bipartisan respect and goodwill to maximize the chances for enactment of some of the sweeping budget changes he announced recently." Ullyot was spokesman for Sen. John Warner when he was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A former senior Pentagon official said the announcement "sums up [Gates's] management style. Announce a $100 billion reduction over next five years, and your retirement a week or so later." This source said Gates had not informed Pentagon officials about his likely departure. "It is another of many problems that he created, and has no plan, nor solution for except to task the next team."

The replacement list is led by John Hamre, presently head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former DepSecDef. Our former Pentagon official said he was, "not sure Hamre will pick up the hand grenade; might have to be someone with little understanding of defense and then let the military piece it back together."

Hamre is followed closely by Sen. Jack Reed, senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. There are still whispers about that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may move from Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon, but they are, so far, pretty thin even for rumors.

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