The retirement of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates provides potent political as well as policy challenges for Pres. Barack Obama. A hard act to follow, Gates has been collegial, effective, and attentive to the public good. However, the nominations of CIA chief Leon Panetta to succeed him, and Gen. David Petraeus to head CIA, are promising.
The scale and power of the Pentagon encourages conflicts at the top of the federal government. A dramatic example is the clashes between Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger during the Reagan administration. Another involved policy rifts between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Gates' predecessor, in the George W. Bush administration.
By contrast, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have developed a good partnership, visible to the public as well as political leaders -- and militaries -- around the globe.
In a highly partisan political era, featuring intense rancor between Democrats and Republicans, Gates has proven quite adept at bridging that great divide. Indeed, he is the first Pentagon head in history to continue in the post after an election resulted in change in party in the White House.
Gates has challenged Defense Department strategic planning overall while cutting specific weapons systems. Fundamentally shifting the helm, he has bluntly criticized the Pentagon for preparing for unlikely general wars with China, Russia and other major powers, while realistic challenges involve unconventional wars. Afghanistan provides exhibit A.
Gates has fought hard, with uneven success, to reduce weapons programs currently behind schedule or over budget. Prime targets have included the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter, Boeing's C-17 transport and programs to arm 747 aircraft with laser weapons, the Army's Future Combat Systems operation, and the Missile Defense Agency.
More recently, he announced an across-the-board freeze on hiring, a 10 percent per year cut in spending on civilian contractors, and elimination of the Joint Forces Command, created for inter-service cooperation. This last move generated intense heat from politicians in Virginia, where the command has been based.
European allies also face hard choices regarding spending. Recently Gates has bluntly in criticized them for not contributing more to the durable alliance of NATO.
Perhaps Gates' greatest contribution, going beyond weapons and alliance politics, is giving sustained emphasis to the high suicide rates and emotional stress among our military veterans.
Pentagon point man Gates has also shielded Obama, important for this Democratic president. While the party took the White House and Congress in 2008, an ABC-Washington Post public opinion poll just before the elections showed Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain was viewed as more likely than Obama to protect national security by 49 percent to 43 percent.
Leon Panetta's House of Representatives service is an asset. In more turbulent times, President Richard Nixon selected GOP Rep. Melvin Laird of Wisconsin as secretary of Defense. Laird proved highly effective in assuaging an agitated Congress. Democrat Panetta began in politics as a Republican, which may prove beneficial in today's divided Washington.
Some complain about choosing military general officer David Petraeus to head CIA, but the first four directors of the agency were senior military professionals: Rear Adm. Sidney W. Souers, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Vice Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, and Gen. Walter Bedell Smith.
Panetta and Petraeus provide experienced, effective and savvy political and policy leadership. They'll need all their skills, and probably develop more, in the 2012 presidential battles.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org