WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has agreed to stay on at the Pentagon well into next year, providing some continuity as the nation fights two wars and putting a Republican face on President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet, two officials with direct knowledge of the transition team's deliberations said yesterday.
The announcement that President Bush's Pentagon chief will keep his job is slated for next week, when Obama plans to introduce his national security team - which is also expected to include Senator Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, the officials said.
One aide to a top Pentagon official described the Gates decision as "about 85 percent a done deal." The aide said several key issues are still being finalized, including how long Gates will stay, along with identifying which of his top aides will remain and how many Obama advisers will come to work for him.
Gates, the aide said, has expressed a desire to stay on for at least a year to ensure he is not viewed as a "lame duck" and has sufficient standing in the new administration to implement the new president's policies.
At the same time, "there are staffing complications that have to be worked out," according to the aide, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "There is a whole lot of Democrats who are waiting to take on Pentagon jobs."
The possibility of Obama retaining Gates, who replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld in December 2006, was first discussed during the presidential campaign when it was raised by Richard J. Danzig, a top Obama defense adviser and former Navy secretary who has also been mentioned as a possible Pentagon boss or deputy defense secretary.
Gates, 65, a registered independent, is widely respected in both parties for his pragmatic instincts. Although he opposed increasing US troops in Iraq when he was nominated by President Bush, he nonetheless carried out the so-called surge strategy that started last year and that is credited with helping improve security. Meanwhile, over the objections of members of Bush's war Cabinet, Gates has also advocated engaging Iran diplomatically.
He made headlines in November 2007 when he delivered a speech at Kansas State University - which aides said he wrote personally - advocating for strengthening America's "soft power," including diplomacy and economic influence, and warning that the United States' increasing reliance on military power to achieve its objectives is self- defeating.
And like Obama, Gates believes the United States must turn its attention from the war in Iraq to a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Speaking before NATO defense ministers in Toronto over the weekend, Gates indicated the United States will be boosting its military presence in Afghanistan above and beyond current plans to expand the force.
"We are clearly going to be putting more troops in," he said.
In recent weeks, Obama advisers have privately expressed concern that the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and other potential enemies might view Obama's election on a platform to end the war in Iraq and rebuild international alliances as a sign the United States is letting down its guard. Retaining Gates, several of the advisers confided, could send a message that when it comes to defeating America's enemies nothing has changed.
But the move could also anger antiwar activists who supported Obama early in the campaign and are holding him to his pledge to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
Another sign of continuity is Obama's reported decision to name retired Marine Corps General James L. Jones as his national security adviser. Jones, a key Obama campaign adviser, was commander of NATO until 2006, including overseeing the alliance's contributions to the war in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported yesterday that John Brennan, Obama's top adviser on intelligence, took his name out of the running for any intelligence position in the new administration.
Brennan wrote in a letter to Obama that he did not want to be a distraction. His potential appointment as CIA director had provoked protests from liberals who fault him for not speaking out forcefully against the Bush administration's interrogation, detention, and rendition policies.
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.