Keep Gates

Rumors, leaks, gossip, backbiting, an air of mounting mistrust. Looks like Lulu’s back in town.

The smooth Obama transition has been disrupted by the great disrupter, and one wonders: Does he really want to go there? Hasn’t he been there? How’d that go?

On the face of it, the apparent offering of the secretary of state job to Hillary Clinton is a clever, interesting choice: An experienced and sophisticated workhorse with her own standing in the country, and bearing a name that is popular in the world, will be the public face of U.S. diplomacy. Mr. Obama gets to put her in a subordinate position while appearing to be magnanimous, and her seat in the U.S. Senate will likely be filled by a more malleable Democrat who won’t be plotting from day one to get to the White House. A threefer.

But the downside is equally obvious: To invite in the Clintons—and it’s always the Clintons, never a Clinton—is to invite in, to summon, drama that will never end. Ever. This would seem to be at odds with the atmospherics of Obamaland. “Loose cannon,” “vetting process,” “financial entanglements,” questions about which high-flying oligarch gave how much to Bill’s presidential library, and what the implications of the gift are, including potential conflict of interest. More colorfully, and nostalgically: people screaming through the halls, being hired and fired, attacking the press, leaking, then too tightly controlling information, then leaking, and speaking in the special patois of the Clinton staff, with the famous dialogue evocative of David Mamet as rewritten by Joe Pesci.

Will she go rogue? Will the rogue go rogue?

In the parlance of business there are clean deals and dirty deals. Clean deals have clear constituent pieces, are easy to bring together and line up, and carry few or surmountable obstacles. Dirty deals have deep complications, broad variables, proliferating unknowns. With a dirty deal there’s potential profit but much mess—too much underbrush, no clear path. This would seem to be a dirty deal.

But it will be interesting to watch. The appointment is so surprising that everyone’s inner Machiavelli is working overtime. Is she floating it to box him in and leave him embarrassed if he ultimately goes elsewhere? Are Mr. Obama’s people floating it knowing a) she wanted it, b) but it won’t work because Bill will never give up all the information required in an FBI full field investigation, and c) hey, that’s the best of both worlds, an offer that was made and a reality that thwarted it. Not our fault! And she stays in the Senate, dinged, her power undermined again.

These are the questions that keep us loving politics.

*   *   *

Robert GatesMore important is this: Keep Gates. Reappointing Robert Gates as secretary of defense would be magnanimity with a purpose, a show of something better than cleverness, and that is wisdom.

We are at war, in two countries. The stakes don’t get much higher. In Iraq at some point a drawdown will begin, with attendant drama and dislocation. Some will bomb our troops to get us out, and some will bomb our troops to keep us in. In Afghanistan, where those who are most deeply experienced believe the situation will get worse before it gets better, where the fighting is hard but an Iraq-style surge doesn’t quite fit the situation or geography, our troops appear to be in the long slog, part two. Those back from the field speak of the time-consuming, resource-eating work of mind-changing, of recognizing and “incentivizing” potential allies, of economy-building, infrastructure-building, of tribal engagement, of buying off foes as Britain bought off members of the Irish Republican Army, of talking to the Taliban and other groups in the only way that will be effective, and that is from a position of strength.

What does Mr. Gates bring to this? Two years, next month, of success, and a professional lifetime of experience and knowledge. He is a bipartisan figure of respect—truly an object of across-the-board admiration. He is not part of the old crew that got us into war and bungled it but the new crew that stabilized it and created progress. And the point is to keep him not only for continuity, which may be virtue enough in a difficult and dynamic situation, but for his particular gifts and acumen. “Judgment,” a high U.S. military official told me in conversation. Mr. Gates knows how to read the situation and make a decision. “He is brilliant,” the official said. There are members of the military who once felt they had to wait forever when they asked for an answer on a request for change in materiel or tactics. But because Mr. Gates is so deeply read in, he prioritizes, apprehends, understands and gives directives quickly. The U.S. command structure, which is thick with veterans of previous secretaries of defense, would be encouraged—and relieved—by his reappointment.

Among Democrats there will be a proud and understandable sense of “We can run Defense too.” They can. But of the possible Gates successors in the party none are—or can be—as knowledgeable in current on-the-ground realities. This is a particularly bad time for on-the-job training. As an added inducement for the president-elect, there will be clamor in the Democratic Party in the next few years to cut Defense, the one sizable chunk of the budget that can be cut and that they’d enjoy cutting. And in truth there has been some wild spending there. But few would know better than Mr. Gates what can be sacrificed and what cannot, and what needs more. Just by being there, he would provide the new president some Republican cover, which would take some of the sting out of a future Republican anticutting counterattack. “Democrats always cut defense and leave us weak. Wait, Gates said that cut is reasonable.”

Mr. Gates is a public servant, not an operator. He was director of the CIA (the only one in the agency’s history to rise from an entry level position to the top) from 1991 to 1993 and George H.W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser from 1989 through 1991. The last is key. Mr. Gates is from the George H.W. Bush part of the Republican foreign-policy establishment, not the George W. Bush part, and that is no doubt in part why W. picked him, when Iraq was going bad. Mr. Gates was change you can believe in.
He also knows something about winning wars, having helped six American presidents win the cold one.

Mr. Obama said on “60 Minutes” that he means to include Republicans in his cabinet. This is where to start. And of course there is a rich tradition here, with Bill Clinton putting Republican William Cohen at Defense, and John F. Kennedy picking Republican Douglas Dillon for Treasury.

Keeping Mr. Gates would signal that Mr. Obama is serious in his desire to reach across party lines, and in the area that matters most immediately: national security. With Joe Biden having thoughtfully pointed out that Mr. Obama will likely be tested early on, Mr. Gates would be a steadying hand and voice. Somehow you can’t imagine him informing a new young president that the Bay of Pigs is a good idea.

Would Mr. Gates stay? He said last week, in Estonia: “I have nothing new to share with you on this subject.” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told Politico on Wednesday. “I’m going to stick with the secretary’s very eloquent response.”

That sounds like yes.