Defense chief Gates says wants to leave in 2011
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON | Mon Aug 16, 2010 2:20pm EDT
(Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a driving force behind both the Afghan war plan and in overhauling the Pentagon's finances, said in an interview published on Monday he aims to retire next year.
But his press secretary Geoff Morrell shot down suggestions that Gates announced his retirement to Foreign Policy magazine, saying it was nothing more than "musings" over a wish to quit, which the U.S. defense chief has done before.
"I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," Gates was quoted as telling the magazine in an article published on its web site. http:/www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/16/the_transformer
"This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year," added Gates, who is also in the midst of a major budgetary overhaul of the Pentagon.
But Morrell sounded a cautionary note when asked to comment: "Don't get carried away. This is not Bob Gates announcing he is stepping down. This is somebody who has been a failure at retirement, musing about when it would make sense to try again."
"All he was doing here was expressing the logic about leaving with enough time on the clock for the president to backfill him," he told Reuters. "That Gates would like to leave should not come as news to anybody."
Asked about the Foreign Policy magazine report, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said: "It's not a surprise that he might be talking about his next phase in life."
"He's stayed longer than he had originally said he intended to. And the president is thankful for his service and the American people have benefited greatly as a result," he said.
SIMILAR TALK IN PAST
Gates, who was seen as instrumental in turning around the Iraq war, made similar suggestions of his wish to quit when he was President George W. Bush's defense chief, but then agreed to stay on when asked by incoming President Barack Obama.
"At the end of the Bush administration he made clear time and time again that the circumstances in which he would stay on were inconceivable. He was deliberately doing that in the hopes that he wouldn't be asked -- but it backfired," Morrell said.
In his interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Gates pointed out he would have been in his job longer than all but four of his predecessors if he stayed until January 2011.
Gates had been expected to leave before the end of Obama's first term in 2012, which is a presidential election year.
He has spoken of his wish many times to return to his home state of Washington, where he is currently vacationing after a trip to California last week to see U.S. troops.
Asked at a news conference last week how long he planned to remain as defense secretary this time round, Gates replied cryptically: "As far as I'm concerned, all I will say is that I'm going to be here longer than either I or others thought."
In the coming year, Gates has a lot on his plate.
In December, the Obama administration will review progress in its strategy overhaul for the nine-year war in Afghanistan, which included sending in 30,000 more troops to defeat the Taliban.
In July 2011, the Pentagon is expected to start pulling U.S. troops out of the war zone as long as the right conditions exist for that to happen.
Gates, a former CIA director with bipartisan support, is also in the midst of a major overhaul at the Pentagon and wants to shift more than $100 billion over five years from overhead accounts to U.S. forces in the field and for modernization.
He has called for an unsparing review of staffing, organization and operation of the Defense Department, which accounts for 19 percent of U.S. federal spending and roughly half of discretionary spending.
Gates' prospects for success in overhauling the Pentagon, often in the face of vested interests, may depend largely on how long he remains on the job, analysts have said.
"I think that a lot of the initiatives that Gates has begun are very long-term projects," said Todd Harrison, an expert on the defense budget at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private research group.
"And if he leaves at some point in 2011, he will only have had enough time to begin to fundamentally alter the way the Pentagon operates."
(Additional reporting by Jim Wolf and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman)