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Why would Defense Secretary Robert Gates want to retire?

Robert Gates indicated in an interview published Monday that he plans to leave his job next year. Here are three things that might be factors in his decision.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates looks on as President Barack Obama speaks in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, in this June 22 file photo. Gates says he plans to leave his job next year.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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Why would Secretary of Defense Robert Gates want to retire?

After all, he is on track to become one of the most influential Defense secretaries of the past 50 years, as he continues to push to reshape the post-cold-war military. His presence provides stability of leadership at a time when America is still involved in two wars. A Republican and a holdover from the Bush administration, Secretary Gates by all accounts has become a favored insider in the Obama White House.

“He has been an excellent secretary of Defense. He has been a credit to the administration and done good things overall,” says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow in defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Yet in an interview published Monday, Gates indicated that he plans to leave his job next year and retire to his lakeside home in the state of Washington.

“If I stay until January 2011, I will have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors,” Gates said in an interview with Fred Kaplan for Foreign Policy magazine.

(Those four, in chronological order, are Charles E. Wilson, Robert McNamara, Caspar Weinberger, and Donald Rumsfeld.)

Gates told Mr. Kaplan that he wants to give President Obama the opportunity to appoint a new defense chief without the looming pressure of a presidential election. Good candidates might not be interested in the position unless they are assured of serving more than a few months.

“I think that it would be mistake to wait until January 2012,” Gates told Kaplan.

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But there may be other, unstated reasons Gates says he’s planning his own exit strategy. Here are a few things that might, possibly, be factors in his decision:

His work here is done. Gates arguably has done more to reshape the modern military than most of his predecessors. As the Foreign Policy article notes, he has killed or drastically downsized 33 weapons systems, including the Air Force’s cherished F-22 Raptor and the Army’s ambitious Future Combat System. He fired top generals who displeased him – such as ex-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley – and replaced them with leaders attuned to his desire to build more-flexible forces. He’s instituted new organizations, such as a Cyber Command, while proposing to get rid of others, such as Joint Forces Command.

Afghanistan is what it is. The strategy for Afghanistan is set, going forward, and whether it succeeds or fails now depends less on what happens in Washington and more on what happens in the Afghan field. Gates, under his own timetable, would remain in office through the period this fall and winter when Mr. Obama will be weighing the results of his surge of troops into the theater, so he’ll remain a crucial voice in the debate. Meanwhile, Iraq appears to be winding down. Thus Gates would not be leaving at a time when war efforts are in flux – at least, that is how things look at the moment.

He is still a Republican. Gates is a relatively unpartisan technocrat who has served Nixon and all subsequent presidents, except Bill Clinton, in some capacity. Appointed Secretary of Defense by George W. Bush, he stayed on into the Obama administration to provide continuity at a time of national need.

If he stays too long, however, he may believe that he could become identified with Obama and the Democrats, or at least more identified with them than he is now. Perhaps he would rather go out while he remains a bridge between the two parties.

Or perhaps he would rather go before the budget fights get too nasty. It’s true that in recent weeks, he has outlined proposed cuts in some areas, including a reduction in the number of generals and admirals. But at the same time, he is pushing for increases in other areas. He’s a proponent of flat or increased military spending, overall. And that might be a tougher and tougher position to defend in the years ahead, as the US looks for places to trim back record deficit spending.

“It’s going to take strong leadership and a grasp of the issues to get through coming fights over defense costs,” says Mr. Harrison of CSBA.

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