Meet the new boss, same at the old boss....my coverage of Robert Gates, speaking to ROTC students and reporters at the National Constitution Center this afternoon:
If one thing motivated the 53 percent of Americans who voted for President Obama in 2008 more than anything else, it was the notion that a Democrat in the White House would bring radical change from the excesses of George W. Bush.
And nowhere was that more true than in the area of defense and fighting terrorism, where partisans expected Obama to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, try terrorists in civilian courtrooms and guide the nation out of its unending and costly wars overseas.
But now the man who ended up serving as defense secretary under both presidents says that an Obama administation didn’t really deliver any change at all when it came to military and anti-terror issues.
“I think on a lot of the big issues there was a lot of continuity,” said Robert Gates, the recently retired Pentagon chief who was in Philadelphia yesterday to receive the 2011 Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center.
Gates noted that Obama has actually been more aggressive than Bush in using missiles from unmanned drones — waging a type of warfare that has killed some al-Qaeda leaders but also scores of innocent Afghan civilians.
On counter-terrorism, the former defense secretary said, “I think that President Obama has been more aggressive than President Bush, particularly in the use of drones. Clearly on the legal side there are some differences in terms of rules involving detainees and interrogations and so on — but in terms of the military and military strategy, I think think there been continuity."
But Obama has kept in place a system of indefinite detention for some terrorism suspects, and Gates noted that while the current president did try to close the Guantanamo prison camp on the tip of Cuba, he’s been stymied by lawmakers.
Will Gitmo close anytime soon? “Given the current state of affairs in Congress,” Gates replied, “probably not.”
The 67-year-old Gates, who stepped aside this summer for current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, ran the Pentagon for the last two years of the Bush administration and the first two-and-a-half years of Obama’s presidency.
In announcing their selection this summer of Gates, who presided over wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, constitution center officials said Gates earned the medal — which has gone to six Nobel Peace Prize winners in the past — for his role in “defending freedom.”