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US Defense Secretary to Step Down in 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he will likely leave his post next year, ending what would be a very eventful four-year tenure.  

Secretary Gates told Foreign Policy magazine one of the most difficult things in public life is knowing when to leave office, and he believes the right time for him will be sometime next year, perhaps as early as January.  

Gates says by then the Obama administration will have completed its first review of the president's new Afghanistan strategy, and his cost-cutting and accountability initiatives will be well underway.  He also says if he stays until 2012, it may be difficult for the president to find a high-quality successor with just one more year left in his term and an ongoing election campaign.

The secretary, who turns 67 next month, also told the magazine that managing two wars has been "very wearing."  He said, "there's a certain point at which you just run out of energy."

Still, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says Gates will not be weakened by his announcement, as he serves out what are now expected to be his final months in office.

"I would just caution you, he is not about to walk out the door," he said. "Look at what he has said about that; he hopes [to retire] in 2011."

Whitman would not say whether Gates has discussed his plans with President Obama.  But officials said last year that the two men had agreed Gates would serve at least until the end of this year and would discuss his future at that time.

Gates was first appointed defense secretary by then-President George W. Bush in late 2006.  Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at a time when the war in Iraq was spiraling out of control and voters had punished the president's Republican Party in congressional elections.  Gates is widely credited with helping manage the turnaround in Iraq, which is enabling the United States to end its combat mission there this month and to plan for the withdrawal of all its troops by the end of next year.  He is also a key architect of President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy, which calls for the beginning of a gradual U.S. withdrawal from that country in July of next year.

Gates, who has described himself as a Republican, became the only U.S. defense secretary ever asked to stay on from one administration to the next when then-President-elect Obama, a Democrat, asked him to remain in office after the 2008 election.  Gates agreed and has frequently spoken of his commitment to the troops fighting two very difficult wars.

If he leaves next year, Gates will have become the fifth longest-serving U.S. defense secretary in history.

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