Arms control advocates and anti-war activists are ratcheting up pressure on President-elect Barack Obama to dump Defense Secretary Robert Gates and replace him with a more strident anti-war voice.
Nominating Gates to stay, “would be a violation of the mandate for change that Obama says he represents,” said Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the anti-war group CodePink.
A better bipartisan fit for Obama, they say, is Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who brings out what they like about Gates – his ability to deal with Russia, Iran and Syria – without the direct link to Bush’s policies.
“That would be an unmistakable sign from the Obama camp that they really are nonpartisan,” said Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com. “He would be great.”
The pressure comes as momentum appears to be gaining for those who support keeping Gates to remain at the helm of the Pentagon, at least for a transitional period.
Moderate Democrats in Congress, including Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, support the idea.
But when Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) promoted Gates appointment in a closed door meeting with Obama and House Democrats several months ago, he was booed by his colleagues.
“Senator Obama has talked about having a Cabinet of rivals along the lines of [Abraham] Lincoln, people who will not be intimidated to express a contrary view. He’s talked about the need to have a Cabinet that’s not an echo chamber, reflecting his own opinion.” Schiff said, adding Gates could bring such perspective to a young president’s inner circle, one that he may not have now.
Opposition to Gates stems from both politics and policy.
Many Democrats believe Obama needs to send a clear signal to anti-war advocates, an early base of support for his candidacy, that he will keep his promise to bring troops home from Iraq in a prudent and speedy fashion.
Lingering questions also remain about Gates’ role in the Iran Contra scandal, when he was CIA director.
Others suggest that Obama must appoint a Democrat so the party can shore up its national security credentials with voters. Among those being touted for the position are Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) , an Army veteran who traveled with Obama during his summer tour of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
“The only reason Barack Obama is president today, the main reason Obama is president-elect, is because of his opposition to the war in Iraq,” and Gates, a former intelligence officer and Cold Warrior, was brought in to fix the war, not end it, a defense industry official said, adding, “He is so far outside the box of what Democrats want.”
The scenario most often floated by those closely watching Obama’s emerging defense team is this: Gates would remain at the Pentagon for six months to a year. Former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, or another Obama candidate, would be nominated as Gates’ deputy, who would take control of the Pentagon after Gates’ departure.
Danzig’s spokeswoman declined to comment, saying only that anyone who says they’re certain about Obama’s choice doesn’t know the real story.
Gates exacerbated the opposition to his retention with a recent speech at the Carnegie Foundation in which he staked out a position that made it hard for arms control advocates to back the notion of keeping him around.
Congress last year pulled funding from studies to create a Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which would reduce and replace aging nuclear warheads in the nation’s arsenal. During the speech, Gates said the cut was misguided.
“The reason, I believe, lies in a deep-seated and quite justifiable aversion to nuclear weapons, in doing anything that might be perceived as lowering the threshold for using them or as creating new nuclear capabilities,&rquo; Gates said. “Let me be clear: The program we propose is not about new capabilities – suitcase bombs or bunker busters or tactical nukes. It is about safety, security and reliability.”
Daryl Kimball, the president of the Arms Control Association, said that vision is out of step with the vision Obama outlined during his campaign.
“Gates’ speech represented a full-throated defense of [President] Bush’s nuclear weapons programs over the last eight years,” Kimball said. “I find it hard to imagine Robert Gates faithfully pursuing the nuclear weapons policy vision that Senator Obama has outlined.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this story.