Gates: Military looking at quicker Iraq withdrawal
Set to move ahead with Obama goals
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled a willingness yesterday to forge ahead with two key priorities for the incoming Obama administration: accelerating the US withdrawal from Iraq and shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
As the only Republican Cabinet member asked to stay on by President-elect Barack Obama, Gates told reporters that military commanders are looking at ways to more quickly pull troops out of Iraq in light of the 16-month timetable that was a centerpiece of the Democrat's campaign.
He also said it will be a high priority to work with the new Congress on legislation that will enable the United States to close the detention center at the US naval base in Cuba, where about 250 terrorism suspects are still being held.
In a blunt and occasionally personal briefing, Gates acknowledged his unique position in the new Democratic administration.
"I guess I would say that I was engaged in my own form of strategic deterrence," said Gates, who for two years has talked of his desire to return home to Washington state. "It was my hope that if I made enough noise about how much I did not want to stay here and how much I wanted to go back to the Northwest that I wouldn't have to worry about the question ever being asked."
But Obama asked, and Gates said there was no way he could say no. And while there has been speculation that his tenure might be somewhat short, in an effort to ease the transition during wartime, Gates said his agreement to stay on at the Pentagon is "open-ended" and that there is no timeline for his departure.
"I have no intention of being a caretaker secretary," Gates said.
Gates, who oversaw the buildup of forces in Iraq in 2006-2007, made it clear that he is comfortable and even impressed with Obama's commitment to the military and said he is "less concerned" about the 16-month Iraq withdrawal timetable. Although he has repeatedly insisted that any drawdown in Iraq must be based on security conditions there, Gates noted that Obama has said he will listen to his commanders and pull forces out responsibly.
"I was impressed by his reaching out to Admiral Mullen to come sit down and talk with him," said Gates, referring to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "And he has made clear that he wants to have a regular dialogue with the chairman and the chiefs and the commanders."
The situation in Iraq has changed, he said, pointing to the new agreement with the Iraqis that calls for US troops to be out of cities by next June 30 and out of the country by Jan. 1, 2012.
"Commanders are already looking at what the implications of that are in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis," Gates said.