Defense Secretary Robert Gates spent last week on a farewell tour of sorts through Iraq, the country that has dominated most his tenure at the Pentagon. Speaking to a large gathering of American troops in Iraq, Gates recalled that a firefight had been raging behind him during his first press conference in the country in 2006. "Things were not going well here," he told the troops last week.
Things have since markedly improved, for both Iraq and for Gates. The country's once-unrelenting violence has fallen precipitously, and it has a government that--regardless of its fragility and flaws--is one of the only democratically elected regimes in the Arab world. Gates, meanwhile, is preparing to leave office as one of the most popular and well-respected Defense secretaries in American history. His successor will have enormous shoes to fill, which helps to explain why so much of official Washington is engrossed in the parlor game of trying to guess who will replace him. The leading contenders appear to be Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi who has close ties to President Obama.
For this week's conversation, let's talk about the post-Gates era at the Pentagon. What kind of qualifications will be most important for the next Defense secretary to possess, and why? With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, what are the likely to be the biggest challenges of the next secretary's tenure? Should the White House aim to find someone with Gates' public stature or go for a technocrat perhaps better suited to the coming age of Pentagon austerity? And the $64,000 question: If you were advising Obama, who would you recommend for the job and for what reasons?