Defense Secretary Robert Gates wound up his final trip to Iraq this weekend, prompting a wave of speculation about who’ll replace him. Most of the attention has centered on CIA chief Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff. But there is another serious contender for the post: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi who has an unusually close relationship with President Obama. In the hallways of the Pentagon, many senior military officials believe it’s Mabus—not Panetta—who’ll be their next boss.
Mabus doesn’t enjoy Panetta’s high profile in official Washington, but the Navy secretary has had a long and varied government career that could make him a good fit for the Pentagon’s changing mission. Gates has been a wartime Pentagon chief who spent his first years in office helping to bring Iraq back from the brink of civil war. More recently, he’s been a central player in the administration’s decision to sharply escalate the Afghan war. His successor will face a fundamentally different set of challenges: overseeing the American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan while reconfiguring the Defense Department to adjust to a new era of mounting budgetary pressures.