ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY PLANE OVER THE PACIFIC (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the reshaping of much of President Barack Obama's national security team — including the selection of Gates' own successor and the controversial search for a new Joint Chiefs chairman — was at least a year in the making.
In his first extended comments on the process, Gates said the key consideration was preserving what he called a sense of teamwork among the top national security aides as the administration winds down the U.S. military role in Iraq and fashions a plan for turning over security responsibilities in Afghanistan by 2014.
Gates was adamant that news reporting on the process for selecting a successor to Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was flawed. He cited specifically reports that Marine Gen. James Cartwright — long considered the leading candidate to replace Mullen when he retires Sept. 30 — was damaged by offering independent advise to Obama during a decisive review of Afghan war policy in late 2009.
"I will tell you that some of the negative things that have been reported as influencing the decision — for example the Afghan piece — are completely wrong," he told reporters traveling with him from Hawaii to Singapore, where he will attend an Asia security conference Friday and Saturday.
The interview aboard his Air Force plane — known as the National Airborne Operations Center — took place as it was crossing the international dateline Thursday.
As recently as April, Cartwright was believed to be a cinch to get the Joint Chiefs job. Instead, Obama announced on Monday that he would nominate Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had just taken over April 11 as Army chief of staff. Cartwright, currently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is expected to retire when his term ends in August.
Gates said he would not discuss publicly his own recommendation to Obama for the Joint Chiefs selection.
In the interview, he said he doubts China aims to match U.S. military power but is tailoring its buildup in ways that will extend its influence in Asia.
"The Chinese have learned a powerful lesson from the Soviet experience," he said, alluding to the economic burden — ultimately fatal — that the Soviets assumed in trying to keep up with Washington in a Cold War arms race.
"But I think they are intending to build capabilities that give them a considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence," he said.
He did not mention Taiwan by name, but there is a worry in Washington that the Chinese are seeking the means to compel Taiwan to reunite with the mainland — by force if necessary.
Gates said the U.S. is not trying to contain China and accepts that it will remain a global power into the foreseeable future. Gates is scheduled to meet his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, on the sidelines of the Singapore meeting.
It is Gates' seventh trip to Asia in the past 18 months and is his final overseas trip before he retires on June 30. Obama has named CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace him.
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