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WASHINGTON — Robert Gates took over the defense secretary post at the height of two overseas wars, yet in some ways he faced an easier challenge than his successor.

That’s because Gates replaced the prickly and unpopular Donald Rumsfeld and was immediately hailed by politicians and defense experts as a welcome change of pace. In some ways, anyone who replaced Rumsfeld would have been a success.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, Gates’ presumed replacement, has the opposite problem — from day one, he’ll be less popular than the 67-year-old incumbent defense secretary.

Panetta — a former Democratic congressman and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton — is well known on Capitol Hill, and his work at the CIA has earned him a positive reputation in Washington.

But in the last 4½ years, Gates has built up a reputation of direct honesty and apolitical work, serving under two different political administrations and generating a tremendous amount of respect on both sides of the aisle.

The new defense secretary will have to rebuild that rapport, in an election environment, while the country manages two wars overseas (and a “time-limited, scope-limited military action” in Libya). That means navigating troop requests and budget numbers through a polarized Congress, and keeping the Pentagon above the political fray while fighting for critical military needs.

Here’s a look at the other top issues Gates replacement will have to face:

Afghanistan

When Gates took over as defense secretary in late 2006, the most pressing issue was finding a way to end the Iraq War. His replacement will have to do the same for Afghanistan, a conflict that will enter its 11th year this fall.

The White House has pegged this summer for the start of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, and publicly pledged to have Afghan security forces ready to operate independently by 2014. Both deadlines came with the requisite “as conditions allow” caveats, but NATO leaders have backed those goals.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been less supportive.

Conservatives have accused Obama of abandoning the mission in Afghanistan and giving Taliban fighters reason to bide their time. Anti-war members of his own party — and, reportedly, even within the administration — have pushed for a quicker withdrawal, pointing to public opinion polls showing dwindling support of the war. In fact, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed that more Americans disapprove of Obama’s management of the Afghan war than support it.

U.S. forces saw their highest casualty counts of the campaign in 2010, and NATO forces are battling perceptions among Afghan locals that international efforts have caused more civilian deaths than they’ve prevented.

Gates earned praise for skillfully navigating Bush’s 2007 “surge” of troops into Iraq, using those security gains to set up plans to end the U.S. mission there. If the new secretary can keep the president’s timetable on track, it could bring the same level of respect.

But all of that assumes that Afghanistan is the major U.S. military engagement in coming years.

“What’s happening in the Middle East now is going to be unfolding for months and years,” said James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. “The big headlines are going to be the ones that nobody predicted.”

He said the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya underscored that uncertainty. U.S. involvement in the Libya no-fly zone not only put new pressure on military personnel, it also cost hundreds of millions in unanticipated defense spending. And, even though administration officials have insisted that no U.S. ground troops will be sent to Libya, analysts say that’s still a possibility.

“This administration really wants to focus on domestic policy, but there’s not much they can do to get foreign policy off the radar,” Carafano said.

In February, Gates quipped to Army cadets at West Point that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” But Carafano noted that the instability of the regions will not make that an easy yes-or-no choice for the next Pentagon leader.

The budget

For the last two years, Gates has repeated the mantra that “the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing.”

Earlier this month, Obama tightened that valve. He called for cutting $400 billion from planned defense spending in coming years, part of deficit-reduction moves throughout the federal budget. What exactly that will mean for troops and equipment purchases in coming years remains to be seen.

Last year, Gates used the looming threat of budget cuts to end over-budget systems like the VH-71 Presidential Helicopter and the vehicle portion of the Army’s Future Combat Systems plans. In January, he announced $78 billion in other defense cuts in the next five years and $100 billion in funding shifts from other costly weapons systems to more immediate force needs.

Gates was successful in getting Congress to begrudgingly accept his 2010 cuts, but the next secretary will be the one responsible for persuading Congress to continue that trend.

“The budget is going to be the primary preoccupation of the new secretary for the next few years,” said Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute. “How much the Defense Department can cut and how much capability they can still keep will be the struggle.”

That fight has already started. Lawmakers in the House have objected to Defense Department plans to trim nearly 70,000 soldiers and Marines from the ranks, starting in 2015. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., has publicly questioned the idea, saying that he “cannot in good conscience ask the Army to do more with less.”

Delays in Navy shipbuilding and cuts to Air Force aircraft purchases have also drawn criticism from Congress. But the steady growth of the total Pentagon budget over the last decade has also irked other lawmakers, who have eyed even more massive defense spending cuts as a way to help balance the budget.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in March, Thomas Donnelly, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Defense Studies, said the “presumption that a $700-billion-per-year defense budget must include a lot of waste, fraud, and abuse” doesn’t ring true.

Guantanamo

One of Obama’s first acts as president was an executive order mandating the closing of detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. More than two years later, it’s still fully operational.

Military officials have transferred or released dozens of prisoners over that time, but larger plans to shutter the prison have been stalled because of Congressional and public opposition. Gates himself admitted in February that the probability of closing Guantanamo is very low, because officials still don’t know what to do with many of the detainees.

Obama has continually called the facility a rallying point for terrorist groups, and insisted that better alternatives to the Cuban base exist. Beyond that rhetoric, Gates leaves his successor few answers.

Several hundred detainees are being held at Guantanamo, and White House officials have proposed moving them to stateside prisons and prosecuting them on U.S. soil.

But Congress in recent years has barred the president from using defense funds from implementing such a plan, with Republicans in the House and Senate defending the facility as the right place for the dangerous war criminals.

Personnel issues

Gates departure leaves the Pentagon with unanswered questions about how the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal will be finalized, whether women should be allowed to serve in expanded combat roles, what the future role of the Marine Corps will be and how to pay for rising military medical costs.

But the biggest immediate personnel issue facing Gates’ replacement might be helping to pick his closest co-worker: the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Adm. Mike Mullen’s four-year term in that post runs out this fall. His public comments against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law proved critical to Gates’ and Obama’s efforts to overturn it, and their close relationship has proved a steady and reliable presence for the military through the recent political shifts in Washington.

After the 2008 election, Obama tapped Gates in part because of the stability his re-appointment would bring to the military during a time of transition in Washington.

Now, with another election looming and Mullen’s impending retirement, the president faces the reality that he’ll have a new set of faces guiding the withdrawal from Iraq this year and the planned drawdown from Afghanistan.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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