Gates an Asset Obama Can't Afford to Lose

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When Barack Obama was first elected President of the US the Australian government used all its channels of communication to send a very clear message. It told the Obama foreign policy team not to abandon the Asia policy of its predecessor, George W. Bush.

Whereas when Bush was first elected he made some needless early mistakes in Asia because of his administration's so-called ABC approach - Anything But Clinton - there was no need for Obama to repeat that kind of mistake.

Canberra's assessment was that Bush's foreign policy had been substantially successful in Asia. The Obama administration took the Australian message on board and, although it quite forgivably talks about the US being "back in business" in Asia, it has substantially continued Bush policies.

Nowhere is this continuity more clearly evident than in the person of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was also Bush's defence secretary. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left Australia earlier this week after an extremely successful AUSMIN meeting that deepened the US-Australia alliance, spoke some home truths about China's recent bellicosity and saw Julia Gillard's full immersion in the relationship.

Gates and Clinton are Obama's two most impressive and powerful cabinet secretaries. It is to Obama's credit that he chose such hard-headed centrists, and such high-profile figures, for these critical positions. And despite the fearful hammering Obama's Democrats took in the mid-term congressional elections, the striking thing is how little criticism there was in relation to foreign policy or national security. China's unfair trade practices, and especially its currency manipulation, did figure in some Republican advertisements but China was not a big issue in the mid-terms, nor was foreign policy generally.

In a perverse way, this is a signal vote of confidence in Obama's foreign policy stewardship, which started out uncertain enough but has got consistently better. Gates is a very good friend of Australia. He was at the previous Australian-hosted AUSMIN in Canberra in 2008, when he was part of Bush's cabinet. At that time his arm was in a sling because just before the trip he broke it, quite badly, in a fall. Then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was not making the trip. Her deputy, John Negroponte, was substituting. If Gates had pulled out, as surely a broken arm gave him every right to, it would have been a big blow to the prestige of the first AUSMIN hosted by the new Labor government. Gates's face was white with pain when he got off the plane from the US. During a dinner hosted by Kevin Rudd, he had to leave the table to go and take painkillers. His commitment to the Australia relationship was personal and real.

With the peculiar sequence of recent developments in US politics, Gates is now one of the most powerful defence secretaries the US has seen. He has said he wants to leave office next year. It is widely assumed this will be after the July review of US policy in Afghanistan. However, if he left at that time, he would be impossible to replace adequately. Although I think Obama is still more likely than not to win re-election in 2012, he certainly is vulnerable. Any replacement secretary of defence would only be assured, therefore, of 15 months or so in office, from next August to the November 2012 election. It will be difficult, even for Obama, to get a figure to match Gates for that kind of assignment.

However, nature does not in any event offer Obama any true match for Gates. When Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld under Bush, Democrats, not least Obama himself, were a bit crestfallen, simply because Rumsfeld was such a juicy target to run against. Gates, on the other hand, is not polarising but considered and moderate in tone.

Gates was a centrist Republican, though he now describes himself as an independent in party terms, but he was right-wing enough for Bush to be comfortable with him and to win endorsement from Senate Republicans.

He also had enough respect among Democrats for them to support him.

Obama followed a long line of Democratic presidents in appointing a moderate Republican as defence secretary. Bill Clinton did the same with former Republican senator William Cohen. But if Gates leaves, the Democratic Party will want the job to go to one of its own. The last genuine Democrat to be defence secretary was the hapless Les Aspin, who held the job for a short time at the start of the first Clinton administration.

But if Obama appointed a high-profile Democrat, would that nominee face a gruelling struggle to win Senate confirmation? Also, how effective would that person be, and how quickly would they become effective? The sheer overwhelming paper flow and the range of deployment, equipment, policy and personnel decisions that a US defence secretary must take make it one of the most demanding jobs in the world.

Gates has not given any indication that he will stay on through the entirety of the Obama administration but some of those who know him suggest that his body language betrays someone who is now once more very comfortable with the idea that he has a lot of work ahead. Gates staying in office would almost certainly be in Australia's interests, not only because of his demonstrated regard for Australia and his commitment to the US presence in the Asia-Pacific but because it probably also maximises Obama's chances of continued national security success and credibility.

At the 2008 AUSMIN I had the chance to participate with some others in a long discussion with Gates and this week in Melbourne did so again. I took one significant take-out from that conversation. Gates stressed, as did the AUSMIN communique, that US military withdrawal from Afghanistan would be conditions-based. After mid-2011, when Obama has committed to beginning the US troop draw-down, the majority of US troops would still be in Afghanistan and still be going after the Taliban, Gates said. Moreover, he doesn't think the Taliban leadership will be ready to negotiate seriously until it is convinced it can't win militarily, and that means probably early next year. Further, even after the US withdraws most of its troops, it wants to stay intimately involved in partnering the Afghan government on to a productive development path.

This contradicts a bit the picture of the Obama administration's intentions given in Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, in which the President seems determined to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

It may be the Obama administration has decided it is absolutely unacceptable for Afghanistan to fall apart before the presidential election in 2012. Therefore a troop draw-down will begin next year but go very slowly at first.

Gates endorsed 2014, the middle of Obama's second term, as the year to hand over comprehensive security responsibility to Afghan forces. So the Republican sweep in the mid-terms may have contributed to pushing out the time line for a big US presence in Afghanistan a little. That presence is likelier to be effective, I suspect, if Gates stays in office.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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