Obama Defense Picks Hint at Gates’ Influence

Created: January 08, 2009 18:03 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/01/danzig.jpgRichard Danzig (Navy.mil)

Thursday’s announcement of the new senior subcabinet leadership at the Dept. of Defense was conspicuous for a name it didn’t include: Richard Danzig.

Danzig, a former secretary of the Navy, has been one of President-elect Barack Obama’s chief defense advisers for over a year. His absence hints at a development with great significance for Obama’s first term: the implicit recognition that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Pentagon chief under President Bush and tapped by Obama to continue in the job, will not be a placeholder for a Democratic appointee waiting in the wings, as many in the defense community and Democratic politics have presumed.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Instead of Danzig, Clinton-era Pentagon comptroller and former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) staffer, William Lynn, currently a vice president of the Raytheon Co. defense corporation, will be nominated for the deputy secretary position. Michele Flournoy, a co-founder of the new Center for a New American Security think tank — which has distinguished itself as a home for theorists and advocates of counterinsurgency, stability operations and irregular warfare — was tapped to become undersecretary of defense for policy, a pick that indicates Gates wanted in a partner for his recent efforts at reconfiguring the Pentagon to focus on complex and untraditional methods of warfare.

Conversations with Pentagon officials and those close to the Obama transition suggest that Danzig — once thought a likely prospect for deputy secretary — possessed a different set of skills than those Gates wanted in a deputy, indicating Gates’ influence over the Pentagon transition. “He sees it as [a] management” job, a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, noting that Danzig is a defense theorist in his own right. The outgoing deputy secretary, Gordon England, was also primarily tasked with managing the complex day-to-day tasks at the Pentagon while the secretaries he served, Gates and Donald Rumsfeld, set policy. Management and not vision is the traditional role of the deputy secretary, with the neoconservative defense theorist Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary from 2001 to 2005, as the only recent exception.

The official noted that Gates does not see himself as a benchwarmer secretary who remains in office to get the military comfortable with Obama so that the president-elect can then appoint a Democrat to the position. “There’s not a hard and fast date” to Gates’ retention at the agency, the official said, although Gates’ coterie of aides is operating on the prudential assumption that he’ll stay in the job for about a year at least.

Gates is likely to use that time to make his mark on the Pentagon, the official said. During the last two years of the Bush administration, Gates’ tenure overwhelmingly focused on Iraq, and his aides carried special watches to remind themselves that they had a limited time in office. But now that he is remaining in the Obama administration, the official said, he is likely to focus as well on the tasks he has envisioned in his public statements and writings, such as refitting the Pentagon to focus on “institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations,” rather than focusing just on traditional combat, as he recently wrote in a Foreign Affairs article.

Democratic officials close to the Pentagon transition team who would not speak for either attribution or quotation indicated that they felt Gates was a more natural fit for the Obama administration than he was for the Bush administration. His well-received efforts at crafting a more realistic defense posture; emphasizing the civilian and not the military aspects of foreign policy and defense; and repeated emphasis on counterinsurgency and irregular warfare have been championed by several defense experts in the Obama transition’s orbit. Flournoy’s arrival as policy chief reflects that congruence.

A veteran of the Clinton Pentagon, Flournoy has in recent years devoted her efforts to a vision consistent with Gates’ inclinations. The Center for a New American Security, which she founded with Kurt Campbell — who reportedly will take a senior position at the State Dept. — has distinguished itself as the central Washington think tank for understanding counterinsurgency and stability operations, a complex panoply of joint military, political, economic and social measures to bolster governmental capacity against violent rejectionists and keep the peace in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. CNAS has hired a number of defense experts with deep experience in counterinsurgency, Iraq and Afghanistan, including, most recently, David Kilcullen, a former senior aide to Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

As undersecretary for policy, Flournoy will play an important role in shaping the U.S.’ overall defense posture at a time when a debate is unfolding over how much emphasis the military should place on counterinsurgency and what the proper balance ought to be between civilian and military forms of national power. She is likely to bring several counterinsurgency-focused scholars from CNAS into the Pentagon, though neither the transition nor CNAS have commented on such prospective hires.

“CNAS is proud that President Elect Obama has chosen Michele Flournoy to be the next Under Secretary of Defense for Policy,” said spokesman Price Floyd. “She has been a great leader for CNAS and will be a great leader for the Defense Department.”

When he arrived at the Pentagon in 2007, Gates focused overwhelmingly on Iraq, and did not seek to replace the Rumsfeld-era political appointees he held over, with the notable exceptions of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, whom he fired in mid-2008 for laxity in U.S. nuclear security, along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley. Ironically, under a Democratic president, Gates is helping construct a Pentagon team that reflects his perspective on the future of U.S. defense. Regardless of how long Gates actually remains in office, that team will have an impact on Obama’s foreign policy.

“He’s not a caretaker,” the Pentagon official said. “He’s going to do what he’s been laying out.”