As Barack Obama's cabinet has been shaping up, rumors circulate that he may keep current Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his position. More than anything else, Obama has demonstrated a desire to have smart, competent and pragamatic people around him and Gates may be all those things. Many in the media and in Congress have given him high marks for his work at the Pentagon, though honestly, after Donald Rumsfeld a crash-test dummy would have been an improvement.
Keeping Gates in the job would also allow Obama to make real his promise to put aside partisanship in favor of effectiveness, demonstrating to Republicans his willingness to bring them into his process of governing. (Caution here: Bill Clinton made a similar gesture when he made Republican William Cohen Secretary of Defense. That certainly didn't curb the rabid, drooling Republicans on Capitol Hill any.)
What troubles me about keeping Gates on in his current job, however, is precisely this: by keeping a Republican holdover in the Pentagon, Obama would tacitly concede the assertion that Republicans are "stronger" on national security and defense issues. This was the one issue area where McShame held any advantage in most polling. It remains the most stubborn myth of the Republican Party.
In fact, of course, by any and all measures we have, the Bush/McShame foreign and military policy has been a disaster for American security and our global position. We didn't get a chance to talk about this much during the fall campaign, because national security issues - and the war in Iraq - disappeared from discussion, were understandably buried under the collapsing economy.
Just as it is clear that a 21st century Democratic New Deal must come to the rescue of an economy ruined by 30 years of Republican Free Market Fundamentalism, so too we need to have a dramatically new approach to military policy. Robert Gates might well execute such a policy, but Democrats need to take charge of this in order to finally kill the idea that Republicans have kept us safer.