Partial transcript from a Media Roundtable with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.:
Q: Just how comfortable are you with President-elect Obama’s positions on withdrawal of troops from Iraq, on Afghanistan, on Iran, on Guantanamo Bay, for example?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think the president-elect has made it pretty clear that he wanted a team of people around him who would tell him what they thought and give him their best advice. I think he has assembled that team. There will no doubt be differences among the team, and it will be up to the president to make the decisions.
We did meet, but I would tell you that there were no negotiations or anything like that. The discussion really was focused on how will the — how will it work; how do we make this kind of an appointment that, as I indicated, really has no precedent, work in practice. So it more focused on that and relationships than it was on substantive issues.
Q: Well, specifically, then, do you consider yourself at odds with President-elect Obama on a possible timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq?
SEC. GATES: I think that I would subscribe to what the president-elect said yesterday in Chicago. He repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within 16 months. But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown, and he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders. So I think that that’s exactly the position a president-elect should be in.
Q: But he also said it’s right time frame, 16 months. Do you think that’s the right time frame–
SEC. GATES: Well, I think–
Q: –sixteen months to remove combat troops?
SEC. GATES: — I would take you back to what I just said in terms of what — all he said. And it’s within that framework that I think that’s an agreeable approach.
Q: Just the 16 months again — what might be your concerns at this point about a 16-month timetable?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, the situation has changed, I think, in some significant ways since the campaign, and most of all in terms of the signing of the SOFA. We are going to be out of all populated areas of Iraq by the end of June 2009. By the end of June 2009, we are obligated, under the SOFA — or we will see that provincial Iraqi control has extended to the entire country, to all 18 provinces.
So we will confront or have a different kind of situation, in Iraq, at the end of June 2009 than we would have thought perhaps in June of 2008. And I think that the commanders are already looking at what the implications of that are, in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis.
So again I go back to the president-elect’s comments yesterday. He did talk about the 16 months in terms of combat forces. But he also talked about a responsible drawdown and that he was willing to listen to the commanders.
Q: So you’re less concerned about that timetable than you were before the election.
SEC. GATES: I’m less concerned about that timetable.
First of all, we have a definite timetable now in the SOFA. It’s a longer one but it’s a definite timetable. So that bridge has been crossed. And so the question is, how do we do this in a responsible way? And nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved, with so much sacrifice, on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis, at this point. And so I think that the president-elect framed it just right yesterday.