Gates said he has no intention of being “a caretaker secretary” in the Obama administration. As the first defense secretary asked to serve in the administration of another party, Gates said there is far too much at stake for the nation to simply occupy the position.
The secretary thanked President George W. Bush for appointing him as secretary in November 2006.
“Serving in this position has been the most gratifying experience of my life, and he made it possible,” Gates said. “I also thank him for his support in the difficult decisions that I’ve had to make. It has been an honor and a pleasure to work for and with him.”
He also thanked President-elect Obama for asking him to remain in office, adding that he does not have a time limit in the new administration. “The president-elect and I agreed that this would be open-ended,” Gates said.
The secretary has said many times in the past that his desire was to retire to his home in Washington state. But, “with the country fighting two wars and our men and women in uniform at risk, if a president asks me to help, there’s no way I can say no,” he said.
As with every new president, Obama will appoint people to fill the civilian leadership positions at the Defense Department.
“Virtually every political appointee in the Department of Defense before yesterday assumed he or she would be replaced on Jan. 20 or soon thereafter,” Gates said. “That assumption remains as valid today as it was before.”
The secretary will have some input in the Obama administration’s personnel choices for the department.
“I expect that the transition will provide names and candidates to me for positions — particularly for the most senior positions,” Gates said. “I will interview them, and then I’ll make a recommendation to the president, and the president-elect or president will make the final decisions.”
Gates admitted that he considers himself a Republican, but feels he can work well with President-elect Obama and his team. Gates has served under eight presidents of both parties.
“The president-elect has made it pretty clear that he wanted a team of people around him who would tell him what they thought and give him their best advice,” Gates said. “I think he has assembled that team. There will no doubt be differences among the team, and it will be up to the president to make the decisions.”
One area of decision involves U.S. forces in Iraq. Gates said the signing of the status-of-forces agreement already put the United States on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.
Obama’s desire to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office is doable. “But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown, and he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders,” Gates said. “So I think that that’s exactly the position a president-elect should be in.”
Gates painted in broad strokes some of the priorities for the next few years. A strategy review in Afghanistan, close scrutiny of the budget, and a very hard look at the way the department handles acquisition and procurement will be important steps in the next few months, he said.