ARLINGTON, Va. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would likely leave office in 2011 to avoid disrupting the next presidential election cycle.

“I think sometime in 2011 sounds pretty good,” Gates said in a Foreign Policy magazine interview conducted July 12 but published on Monday.

Gates said the timing allows him to see if the surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan brings progress, but doesn’t put his successor in a position to serve only one year, should President Barack Obama be defeated in 2012.

Gates, who took office under President George W. Bush, agreed to Obama’s request to stay on and lead the Iraq war drawdown and escalation of the Afghanistan war. Last December, Obama secured a promise for one more year of service from Gates. They will revisit the commitment this December, when Gen. David Petraeus is due to give a progress report on Afghanistan.

“I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012,” he said. “You know, who knows what the election situation will look like? But also I just think this is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of a presidential election.”

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman cautioned reporters Monday not too “make too much of this,” but did not dispute the accuracy of the article.

“This is not Secretary Gates announcing his retirement,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters Monday. “I would remind you all that every time Secretary Gates has seriously considered hanging it up for good, he ultimately has decided to keep serving so my personal advice would be to wait for a real announcement or better yet wait to see what happens next year.”

Gates’ retirement is one of the more popular parlor games in Washington. The secretary, who has served eight presidents but keeps a home on an island in Washington state, frequently jokes about his dislike for Washington, D.C.. After accepting the job offer from Bush in 2006, Gates famously said he kept a clock on his desk that counted down the days until the end of that term. Bush left office 20 months ago, but Gates remains. And the clock has been turned off.

White House spokesman Bill Burton acknowledged Gates' extended tenure and said his plans didn't offer any surprises.

“The president is gratefully thankful for that service, but any announcement will come from him,” Burton said.

Originally from Kansas, Gates is a former Air Force intelligence officer and the only person to rise from entry level to director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Previously, under President George H.W. Bush, he was deputy national security adviser. He was president of Texas A&M University when the younger Bush called him to run the Defense Department, but only after turning down an offer to run the Department of Homeland Security.

The former Eagle Scout hold degrees from the College of William and Mary, Indiana University and Georgetown University.

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