Sec. Gates's exit sparks talk of Hillary Clinton taking over at the Pentagon

Speculation in the nation's capital on who will replace Robert Gates at the Pentagon has centered on an intriguing possibility: Hillary Clinton.

Gates told Foreign Policy magazine that he wants to step down as secretary of Defense sometime in 2011. A Republican, Gates was the only member of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet to stay on under Obama.

“It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012 [to leave],” Gates said. “This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year.”

Clinton may seem an unlikely choice to head the Pentagon, but she has won praise for her performance at State and forged a strong relationship with Gates. Many supporters argue she has the most credibility with the military of any Democrat and would be a logical choice to take Gates’s place at the Pentagon.

“The military loves her. They love her,” said Leslie Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Gelb floated the possibility of a Foggy Bottom-to-Pentagon move for Clinton in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year.

The appointment of Clinton to replace Gates would be historic. The former first lady and presidential candidate would be the first woman to serve as Defense secretary and only the second person – after George C. Marshall – to have served as both secretary of State and Defense.

“That might appeal to her,” Gelb said.

Still, the Hillary-for-Defense speculation drew a familiar retort from some Washington veterans: It must be August, when the congressional recess makes for a slow news cycle. They viewed the suggestion as a slightly less far-fetched version of the other fantasy that has been making the summer gossip rounds: that Obama will swap Clinton for Vice President Joe Biden on the 2012 ticket and send Biden to run the State Department.

“It’s a little hard for me to go along with that theory,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of the possibility that Clinton would replace Gates. “I just don’t know why she would ever consider it.”

O’Hanlon said the real news about Gates was not that he planned to leave the Defense Department, but rather how long he planned to remain. In the interview, Gates acknowledged that he initially did not want Obama to ask him to stay on as secretary of Defense.

“No one has ever assumed that Gates would stay for a long time,” O’Hanlon said.

O’Hanlon said the secretary’s remarks leave open the possibility that Gates will stay on for another 16 months.

The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Geoff Morrell, downplayed the interview in an e-mailed statement to reporters. “This is not Secretary Gates announcing his retirement,” he said. “This is the secretary musing about when it would make sense for him to finally bow out. He has long said he would not serve the whole term and now he has told Foreign Policy that he thinks it best to leave with enough time on the administration's clock for his successor to be effective.”

Among the other frequently-mentioned contenders to replace Gates is Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and Obama campaign adviser, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Nunn would likely be a controversial choice among Democrats, as he helped negotiate the controversial “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military that many in the party are working to eliminate.

In an appearance Monday on MSNBC, William Cohen, a Republican who served as Defense secretary during President Bill Clinton’s second term, said Obama should reach across the aisle for “some balance of having a Republican sitting in that seat.” He floated the names of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who joined many Democrats in opposing the Iraq surge, and John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of Defense who is president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chairman of the Defense Policy Board.

Choosing another Republican could rankle Democrats, however. If Gates serves through 2011, it would mark 15 years since a Democrat last ran the Pentagon.

“It will appear that they don’t have a Democrat” who can head the Defense Department, Gelb said. “The Democrats worry about that.”

As for Clinton, her selection would surely draw cheers from the legions of supporters who are looking for the next glass ceiling for her to break.

“She’d be extraordinary in the position,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic strategist and top fundraiser for Clinton in 2008. “She has shown an extraordinary capacity for growth [and] for creative thinking in every challenge she’s had in government.”

The State Department declined to comment for this story.