WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he accepts President-elect Barack Obama’s approach to scheduled troop reductions in Iraq, arguing Tuesday that the hotly debated subject of timelines for withdrawal largely has been settled by a new U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
“That bridge has been crossed,” Gates said a day after he formally agreed to remain as Obama’s Defense secretary. “And so the question is: How do we do this in a responsible way?”
The security agreement, approved last week by Iraqi officials, requires U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities and towns by June 30 and to withdraw completely by the end of 2011. Obama wants combat troops out within 16 months, but has indicated he would take security considerations and advice from commanders into account.
By staying, Gates becomes the first Pentagon chief to be carried over from one administration to the next. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed 80 percent of Americans supported Obama’s decision to keep Gates.
But Gates will have to manage a sharp change in policy, shifting from a president who has supported a high number of troops in Iraq to one who repeatedly has said he intends to quickly withdraw combat troops.
Saying his tenure would be “open-ended,” Gates promised during a Pentagon news conference that he would not be a caretaker as secretary. He hinted that he planned to put some muscle behind his rhetorical critique of Pentagon spending priorities and overhaul the way the military buys weapons.
He also said that closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be a high priority, but could require new legislation, such as a measure preventing former detainees from seeking asylum in the United States.
And Gates said the next request for emergency war funding, an estimated $83 billion, will be delivered to Congress in a matter of weeks. If approved, it would bring the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars to about $947 billion.
While he is remaining in his job, Gates has told other political appointees that they should expect to be replaced as the Obama transition team moves to install its own team in the Pentagon. “The truth of the matter is, when I came here two years ago every single position was filled by somebody who had been appointed by somebody else,” Gates said. “And I think it’s worked out OK.”