By Andrew Gray
WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama’s reported decision to ask Robert Gates to stay as U.S. defense secretary has been widely praised but it may lead to at least a few awkward moments for both men.
While Gates has tried to stay out of domestic politics and avoided direct criticism of Obama during the election campaign, he has advocated policies that have been at odds with Obama on issues such as the Iraq war and relations with Iran.
Having previously made clear he wanted to bow out at the end of the Bush administration, the 65-year-old Gates will also face questions about long he will stay under Obama and whether he will be a lame duck if he remains for only a short time.
Nevertheless Gates, lauded by Democrats, Republicans and the mainstream U.S. media since taking over the Pentagon from Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006, is an attractive choice for Obama.
He would provide continuity at the Pentagon while the United States fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has backed several policies supported by the president-elect.
Like Obama, Gates wants to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight spiraling insurgent violence and close the military prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama is expected to unveil his national security team early next week and several major U.S. news organizations have reported that Gates has agreed to stay on.
Selecting Gates would also help Obama fulfill a promise to look beyond Democrats for members of his cabinet. Gates is a former career CIA officer who has held his most senior posts under Republican presidents.
But while recent events mean they are not as far apart as they once were, either Obama or Gates — or both of them — will have to shift some ground on Iraq if the next administration is to present a united front.
Obama’s presidential candidacy was fueled by opposition to the Iraq war and he has pledged to give the U.S. military a new mission on his first day in office — end the war.
He wants a timetable for withdrawal and has suggested U.S. combat troops could be out of Iraq in 16 months.
Gates, while stressing U.S. troop levels in Iraq will decline, has argued against timetables and a quick pullout.
"I have cautioned that no matter what you think about the origins of the war in Iraq, we must get the endgame there right," he told Congress in September.
"I would urge our nation’s leaders to implement strategies that, while steadily reducing our presence in Iraq, are cautious and flexible and take into account the advice of our senior commanders and military leaders," he said.
Those remarks were clearly a plea to Obama, who will now have to decide how much to defer to commanders who say a quick withdrawal of the 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq could jeopardize security gains that have cut violence to four-year lows.
The idea of a withdrawal timetable has become more widely accepted, however. A new U.S.-Iraqi security pact lays out a timeline to get all U.S. troops out by the end of 2011.
And if stability in Iraq holds, it may be easier for U.S. commanders to recommend more troop cuts.
On Iran, Gates will have to explain why he would serve in an administration that plans to talk directly to Iranian leaders when he has voiced skepticism about the value of such an approach.
"I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years," he remarked dryly, later in September.
"Every administration since (the Iranian revolution) has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed," he said at National Defense University in Washington.
However, Gates has not always opposed dialogue with Iran.
He co-authored a study in 2004 that advocated reaching out to the government of previous Iranian president Mohammad Khatami but he has suggested the prospects of progress are slim while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in office. (Editing by Todd Eastham)