Talking “Duty” With Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
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RG: Thank you.
HH: Congratulations. Duty is number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Are you surprised by that?
RG: Well, actually, yes I am. To have a book like this be number one is obviously gratifying, that people seem to like it, but it is a bit of a surprise.
HH: Well, I want to cover some of the things in the book, Duty, that have not been covered by a lot of the press, so I’ll jump around a bit.
RG: That would be terrific.
HH: And I want to begin with your first meeting with former President George W. Bush, and you raised five concerns with him, one of which were the bait and switch, you call it, on the reserves in the National Guard. They expected to spend their summers in camp and a few weekends, and in fact, had become an active duty force. Do you think that bait and switch continued last week when the military COLA was cut by the Congress?
RG: Well, no, I think that my reference to the bait and switch was that until, as you suggest, until 9/11, the Guard in particular had expected to have monthly meetings and spend a month in the summer time in encampment, and be called up only for natural disasters in their state or national emergencies. And what we did was right after 9/11 convert them into an operational force and deploy them for a year, fifteen months, sometimes eighteen months. And I think for those who had joined the Guard before 9/11, that was completely contrary to their expectations, and perhaps as important, their families and their employers. I think anybody who joined after 9/11 knew what to expect.
HH: Well, doesn’t that logic, though, carry over to what happened last week, because that retirement pay COLA cut hits people who have been in the service 20 years, most of whom have been in at least ten already, or who have already served, often, six, seven, eight deployments. It is really just to hammer them on their retirement pay?
RG: Well, I obviously am out of office, and so don’t know the particulars of that. I know that when we were talking about any changes to retirement benefits when I was secretary, particularly on retirement pay itself, my assumption was that those who were in the service then or had been in the service would be grandfathered so that any change would really only apply to new soldiers signing up, or new members of the military signing up. So they would know on entry what the change circumstances would be.
HH: You see, I think that’s the fair way to go, and today, there’s a story on the CBO suggesting barring working age military retirees from TriCare Prime when they retire, again, a switch in the middle of the service different from when they began. And when I talked last week with a bunch of veterans about this, Secretary Gates, and I’d love to hear your opinion about this, they worry that America is beginning to break the bond they’ve had with the people who fought the war for them. What do you think of that?
RG: Well, first of all, I don’t think that’s happening. But as I said when I was secretary, the reality is that benefits, and particularly the health care benefit, is really eating the budget alive. In 2000, the budget for Pentagon health care was about $12 billion dollars. And now it’s about, between $60 and $65 billion dollars. And I think that what we were looking at, and what I went to Congress several times trying to get, and failed every time, I have to admit, was a modest increase in the premium for TriCare. There wouldn’t be any change in eligibility at all, but we were talking about raising the, there hadn’t been an increase in the TriCare premium since TriCare was installed in the mid-1990s. And we were looking at about $5 dollars a month, and only for working age retirees, and then they would go back to the full benefit, or back to the regular benefit when they reached retirement age. But it was only in the premium. It really had nothing to do with eligibility.
HH: That’s where I think the controversy comes. Well, I point out, that was one of the first things you talked about with W., and that impressed me. The other thing is you asked him, you told him you were afraid the Pentagon were buying too many weapons suited to the Cold War than to the 21st Century. Your successor, Secretary Hagel, has suggested we are no longer an 11 carrier group Navy, that maybe eight or even six might serve. What do you think about that?
RG: Well, I don’t agree with that. I think that numbers and presence matter a lot. And as I discuss in the book, in my discussions with President Obama, I was pretty clear with him that what I was talking about was spending the Pentagon budget a lot more wisely, not reducing it. And it seems to me that when you have, when you confront the kind of world we have today, which is just getting more complex, whether you’re looking at the Middle East or the South China Sea, or Russia, or any number of other problems, this is not the time for the U.S. to be significantly reducing our military capabilities. And the reality is, you know, I understand that we have a lot more technology on our ships, but the reality of physics is you can’t have the same carrier in the South China Sea and in the Persian Gulf. And I think that presence is a deterrent to other people doing bad things. So I think the number of our Navy ships is lower than it should be, and I would include carriers in that.
HH: Now Secretary Gates, I want to go from the front of the book to the back, and to the single most surprising thing I found in Duty, and it’s your account of meeting with the Chinese, and in the course of your visit to Beijing, they roll out their J-20 Stealth fighter.
HH: And then you to go the meeting the next day, and it becomes clear to you, “That the Chinese civilians in the room had known nothing about the test, which was clearly intended to embarrass you and the Americans,” that you write that, but I sat back and I said the Chinese civilians didn’t know that the military was doing that? Isn’t that shocking?
RG: Well, there were several things, actually, when President Hu was president of China that their military did that our analysts and intelligence folks did not think had been known to civilian leadership. One was their anti-satellite test several years ago. Another was the clash in the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy ship, Impeccable. And then the third was the rollout of the J-20. My own view, and frankly, it led to a lot of discussion among us about whether Hu, President Hu, had full control over the People’s Liberation Army. I think one thing that’s changed under President Xi, he comes from a military family, and he has quickly acted to establish control over these guys. So there’s a good news and a bad news to that, and under President Hu, when something like the Impeccable happened, you could at least think to yourself well, maybe the guys, the president of the country didn’t know about it. And so you could take some relief maybe this isn’t Chinese national policy. On the other hand, now with President Xi having established control, when they do something like establish this air defense zone that they’ve established, you pretty much have to assume he knew about it and approved it.
HH: Well, and so that means perhaps the tigers as Dr. Kissinger called them at the end of his book, On China, are ascendant in the PRC?
RG: Well, I think that remains to be seen. I think that one of my worries all along is that as countries confront increasing domestic problems, particularly authoritarian governments, they try to rev up nationalism and xenophobia. And I think we just have to wait and see whether that’s what Xi is trying to do, or exactly what he has in mind, to be honest.
HH: Well, I hope everyone who reads Duty gets to the end where you write that Beijing learned from the Soviet experience that they have no intention of matching us ship for ship, tank for tank, missile for missile, and thereby draining themselves financially in a no-holes barred arms race. They’re developing asymmetrical and very effective tools of war. Do you think our military establishment, our contractors, our intelligence community, is up to that challenge?
RG: Yeah, I think so. I think they’re very aware of it. Whether it’s the Chinese development of highly accurate cruise and ballistic anti-ship missile to keep our carriers at bay to the east of Taiwan, or cyber, or their anti-satellite capabilities, those are three of those asymmetric areas that I was referring to. And I would just say that our folks are quite aware of that, and working hard to build capabilities to counter all three.
HH: Let me switch, then, to the other great geopolitical actor. There’s quite a lot about President Putin in Duty, very amusing, very revealing, and I loved your comment, I’ve got to find my notes here, where you were at his dacha and you turned, I think, to Secretary of State Rice and said I don’t have the patience for diplomacy. I’d forgotten how much I really don’t like these guys.
HH: How, tell the audience what your assessment of Putin is. Mitt Romney tried to make him an issue in the 2012 campaign, and Americans kind of sloughed it off, and people kind of laughed about it. But here it is basically, you know, fiddling the tune in Syria.
RG: Well, I think that I made the comment that I had looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw a stone cold killer. And he and I had a number of very direct conversations, and at one point, I kind of poked at him a little bit, saying just a couple of old spies going at each other. But I think that the truth is, that I think Putin is bad for Russia. And I think right now, it’s the Russians that are paying the greatest cost for him being in power, and he potentially could be president of Russia until 2024. And his refusal to open the country up politically, his refusal to encourage, and provide predictability for foreign investment, his regard of all the natural resources as a kind of a natural patrimony, so not any encouraging foreign investment there, and frankly, stealing from Western companies by expropriating what they’ve invested. Russia just has a number of problems. I think that former President Medvedev, who is now again the prime minister, had a pretty good idea what was wrong with Russia and what needed to be done to fix it. But Putin pushed him out of the way. And my own view is, as I say in the book, is Putin’s a man of the past. He’s all about lost glory, lost empire, lost power. And he’s, while he will cooperate with us in certain areas, and one example is he did let the sanctions on Iran go through the U.N. He did agree not to provide the S-300, very advanced air defense system, to the Iranians. And he did let our military equipment go across the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Afghanistan. Even with all that, he’s not going to miss an opportunity to embarrass us or create problems for us. And I think that what I referred to in one interview as kind of the judo that he did on us in Syria with respect to the chemical weapons is a good example. I mean, here we went one day from threatening to bomb these guys, and that Assad had to go, and a few days later, basically, we were in a position where he had to stay in power in order to deliver on the agreement we signed up to, to get rid of the chemical weapons. So Putin’s going to look for opportunities like that. And we just need to be a little cleverer.
HH: There’s a bit of optimism built in your response there, Secretary Gates, when you said that he could be president through 2024.
RG: Well, that’s not optimism.
HH: I know, but that assumes he’ll go in 2024. Do you think he’ll ever leave absolute power that he’s now assembled?
RG: Well, it was interesting. When his term came up, it was the end of his second term, he did agree to step down from the presidency and switch roles with Medvedev. I suppose he could do that again with somebody other, someone else he could manipulate. But everything that I read suggests that the Russians themselves are beginning to get kind of tired of Putin.
HH: Oh, interesting. Now on page 156, you write about the Munich Conference. And there’s an interesting line in there. “I could see Yushchenko, who at the time was the president of Ukraine, glaring at Putin with undisguised hatred. I’m confident the sentiment was reciprocated.” Now did you or any, either President Bush or President Obama, do you actually hate anybody in the way that Yushchenko and Putin hate each other?
RG: No, I don’t think so.
HH: Does that put the United States at a disadvantage in the great game of nations that we don’t do that?
RG: No, I think that getting emotional over things, and giving in to hatred, frankly, inhibits your ability to be cleverer and to do smart things. I think you just, I think you need to be very cold-eyed about these things and be tough in your actions. But if you let yourself get caught up in emotion, you may make decisions that aren’t the best for the country. I think you can be cold-eyes and tough with these guys without getting emotional about it.
HH: One of the things you wrote is that during the 1990s, we did not take Russian interests seriously. We did a poor job of seeing the world from their point of view, and managing the relationship for the long term, and that the fascinating conversation I had on the 90s. But from that perspective, trying to see Russia from their point of view, do you think President Putin views President Obama as he did President Bush? Or do you think he, I don’t want to use the word respect, but perhaps was more fearful of President Bush than he is of President Obama?
RG: You know, all I can say is that Putin once told me that he thought he could do business with Obama, and that their relationship was okay. He, I think that my sense was that Putin was perhaps more apprehensive about Bush, but I think he felt he had to keep his personal relationship with him on a different plane. And here’s something I felt strongly about for a long time, and frankly, it’s an area where I’ve disagreed with some of our presidents in the past, and that is I think these personal relationships frankly don’t matter very much. In most areas of the world, and in our own internal politics, personal relationships matter for a lot. But I think when you’re dealing with the Russians, particularly, or the Soviets before them, I think sometimes some of our leaders were fooled into thinking that because they had a good personal relationship with the leader of the Soviet Union or Russia, that that would lead the Russians to behave in a different and better way. That was never in my impression.
HH: When you say that President Putin was less apprehensive, or more apprehensive of President Bush than he was of President Obama, why would that have been, again, putting yourself in the Russian president’s position?
RG: Well, I think in no small part because of the strong way in which President Bush responded to 9/11, his willingness to undertake military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether they felt like ultimately those things sapped our strength, I just don’t know. But I think his willingness to initiate military operations certainly made them, I think, a little more careful.
HH: And wrapping up on Russia before I move on, when you say we didn’t pay enough attention to them in the 1990s, it was, there’s a fascinating part of Duty where you talk about our holiday from history in the 1990s, and that we simply offended the world, in essence, with arrogance and obtuseness. Did we deserve that? Were you saying that we deserved that envy or that disapprobation from the rest of the world? Or are you saying that that was their misunderstanding of what we did?
RG: No, what I was getting at is that I think, you know, it was a little bit about of the way that I looked at being Secretary of Defense. The truth of the matter is in terms of internal deliberations, you know, the relationship between a number of my predecessor and the secretaries of State and others in the administration, often has not been very good and sometimes has been really terrible. And my attitude always was I don’t have to be loud, I don’t have to be aggressive, I don’t have to push, because the reality is that everybody knows that the secretary of Defense has the money, has the people, and very little can be done without the cooperation and support of the Department of Defense. So all I was trying to say in Duty was that I think that’s the way the United States in its extraordinary power should behave. I go back to Theodore Roosevelt’s line about speak softly and carry a big stick, and I think we spoke too loudly, and maybe didn’t pay enough attention to the big stick in the 1990s.
[Bush after 9/11]
HH: In the aftermath of 9/11, you also wrote that W.’s you are either with us or against us strategy may have rekindled what was a brief interlude in the world’s dislike for us. Did he have an option other than that strategy?
RG: I think that it had the biggest impact on some of our closest allies, and you know, I’m not sure had I, you know, I stand by what I said in the book. Had I been in office at the time, I’m not sure I would have differed with his approach.
HH: You also, one of the things you point out, and many people have agreed with you, and many have disagreed, that the policy of rendition and of Gitmo added to this animosity abroad. On either of those, do you think there were options that America could have pursued, because I really don’t know the alternative to Gitmo, or actually the alternative to rendition during the early years of the war when we didn’t know what was going on.
RG: No, and I make that point in the book that people forget how much fear there was after 9/11, and the cascade of threats that were coming in, and how little we knew about al Qaeda, how little we knew about how many there were, how many were in this country. There were threats coming in of potential nuclear attacks on Washington and New York, and the administration had no idea the magnitude of the threat that we were facing. And I think under those circumstances, out of fear and lack of information, they were doing what they thought was necessary to protect the country, and I used the examples in the book of Franklin Roosevelt’s interment of the Japanese, and Lincoln’s suspension of the habeas corpus during the war, during the Civil War. When a president believes that the survival of the nation is at risk, he’s going to do these things. And so all I’m saying, all I said in the book was that after we got a better understanding of what al Qaeda was about, after we got a better understanding of the nature of the threat, and as we developed significant assets to deal with that, intelligence and other kinds of assets, then there probably should have been a review of some of these things. But as you suggest, you know, we’ve had multiple reviews of Guantanamo, and the reality is the Congress has made it clear they have no intention of shutting it down and bringing any of those prisoners to the United States.
HH: Now Secretary Gates, when we talk about Libya, as you do a lot in your book, there are quite a lot of different levels, but there’s one thing I wanted to ask you about. I was debating the decision to invade Iraq the other day with another anti-Iraq war person, and pointed out to him that had there not been an invasion of Iraq, Qaddafi would have been holding onto all of his chemical weapons, and whatever else we took out of there. And I don’t know, you know what we took out of there when he disarmed post-Iraq invasion. In your opinion, would Qaddafi have let us cart away all of his really bad stuff had the invasion of Iraq not occurred?
RG: Well, I just don’t know the answer to that. There were a lot of incentives. There were a lot of disincentives. He had a lot of sanctions on him that were having some real economic impact. I don’t, I honestly don’t know whether his decision to give up his nuclear weapons was the result of the invasion of Iraq. Another alternative was that he was trying to build, I mean, he’d been trying to build a nuclear weapon and had not had much success because of the sanctions and the efforts of the international community to stop him. So drawing a direct connection there, I just don’t know the answer to that.
HH: Well, let me ask you then, because there is quite a lot about the Libyan intervention in the book, fascinating account, by the way, and I’m glad that it’s there. It’s really the first detailed account of the decision to go into Libya that I’ve seen anywhere from someone who actually would have the ability to write it. And I would recommend everyone read Duty if only for that. When that decision was undertaken, the Cabinet split. The President was on the fence. Had Qaddafi still possessed the weapons that he gave over, would there have been any question in your mind we should not have done what we ended up doing?
RG: I think that he, you know, given the chronology that we’re looking at, the difference between, say, 2005 and 2011, based on the intelligence that I read, I don’t think that he would have made enough progress. I think we would have had pretty high confidence that he did not yet have nuclear weapons. So I don’t think it would have been a deterrent to what President Obama decided to do.
[Hillary and Libya]
HH: All right, now going to the Libyan conversation that you lay out, Page 511, “Hillary threw her considerable clout behind Rice, Rhodes, and Power.” Would you describe the division in the Cabinet that the President was surrounded on when it came to the intervention in Libya?
RG: Well, it was basically, this was one of those rare occasions when I actually agreed with the Vice President, but we had two different perspectives. The Vice President opposed the intervention in Libya, I think, because of domestic politics. I opposed it because we were already in two wars, and my concern that we were getting involved in a third war at a time when our services were stretched to the limit, and our forces, and their families, were exhausted. And what I basically was saying in the Situation Room, and in fact, used these very words, can I just finish the two wars we’re already in before you guys go looking for another one? I also felt that our objectives were unclear. And we didn’t think about what the consequences would be. And I think what we’re seeing in Libya now is part of the result of that. In the absence of any kind of a centralized government, the country’s flying apart into its old elements of Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the center, and Fezzan in the west and south. And the question is, to what degree are those places, particularly in the east as we saw in Benghazi, are they becoming a safe haven for extremists? This is not make an argument that Qaddafi should have been allowed to stay in power. All I’m saying is that when we engage in a military intervention to throw somebody out, we’d better have some idea of what’s going to come after him, and I don’t think we did.
HH: That’s the second order consequence. I’m just a civilian. I don’t know anything, but I once had General Mattis’ chief of staff tell me the problem with civilians was they never thought about second order consequences. And I took that to heart, and so I’m more careful about that.
RG: Well, he couldn’t work for a better guy than Jim Mattis.
HH: I’m going to come to generals in a minute, but I want to stay in Libya and that decision. Had the Secretary of State not urged intervention, do you think the President would have done it?
RG: I think he might well not have. He told me it was an extremely close decision on his part. It was an extremely close call.
HH: Okay, well given that, given that Hillary’s probably the thumb on the scale there, there are names not in your index for good reasons – Chris Stevens, Ty Woods, Glen Doherty, Sean Smith, the casualties of Benghazi. And you were out of office, not your operation. Do you think we know enough about Benghazi at this point what happened and who’s responsible?
RG: Well, you know, I haven’t read everything that’s been in the press, and I haven’t read the report by the Senate Intelligence Committee. What I’ve said in response to Benghazi is simply I think the only thing that matters is what did, what was offered to the Ambassador, including by the U.S., the commander of U.S. Africa Command, General Ham? What did the Ambassador ask for in the way of additional security? Who did he ask? And who made the decision not to grant his whatever request he made? Those are the things that I think people need to know, and why did they turn down his request, whatever it was. Those are the questions that seem central to me?
HH: Secretary Gates, there are very few people who have been in the office that Secretary Panetta was in that night. But when Finding 7 of the Senate comes out quoting now, “There were no U.S. military resources in position to intervene in short order in Benghazi to help defend the temporary mission facility and its annex on September 11 and 12.” It goes on to talk about the Strike Eagles in Djibouti were too far away, fighters not available in Aviano, they were not on alert status, we would have to build weapons, load weapons, get tankers to support it, get it there. Are you surprised given that the battle began and lasted, the second battle began six hours after the first battle began. Are you surprised that the American military could not get anything there?
RG: Well, to be honest, I think that it is more difficult if you’re not on an alert status, it is difficult to get pilots in, get missions planned, get aircraft ready to go, and they’re not close. So no, I’m not surprised they weren’t ready. And frankly, I’m not sure that sending one or two or three planes in at low altitude, not knowing what the situation there was, would have been a good idea on short notice. The same way with sending in Special Forces. If I were, if I had been on the job and not knowing whether we had 200 al Qaeda or a bunch of protestors or whatever in that fight, I would have been very reluctant to send in a Special Forces squad that might have quickly been outnumbered. I mean, I did this, we did this once before when we sent some Special Forces across the border in to Pakistan, and they thought it was going to be an easy in and out. And they nearly got wiped out. It ended up in an eight or ten hour firefight, and we were lucky to get out of there without significant casualties. So I think you’ll find that most military people hesitate to go into a situation where they have no idea what’s going on, on the ground, and what forces or weapons they may face. In extremes, I suppose you could do that. But it’s extremely risky, and you could have ended up with many more killed than were, in fact. The question is what more should have been done well before that in terms of being ready for attacks on our embassies, having a ready force as we do now in the wake of Benghazi? Those are the questions that I think are important.
HH: A question I find important I’d like to know your reaction to since you have been in both the director of Central Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense chair, is that Secretary of State Clinton talks with Mr. Hicks at 2am in the morning Libya time, never calls him back, and we don’t know what happened to her or the President that night. We don’t know what they did, we don’t know where they went. And there’s no doubt in my mind that there are records of that. I mean, just from Duty, you seem to have kept excellent journals. We know how many pounds of brisket you had on Air Force…on the plane.
RG: Yeah, that’s the Air Force that keeps track of stuff like that.
HH: So are you surprised we know so little about where the Secretary of State and President were on the night of Benghazi?
RG: I just don’t have any idea what the problem is in finding that information out.
HH: Does the public have a right to know it?
RG: Well, you know, I think certainly the intelligence, I mean, yeah, the Oversight committees, whether it’s for the Department of State or the intelligence community, if it’s germane to their examination of the circumstances, I would think that they ought to be able to find that out.
HH: You also write quite a lot about Egypt, and this is crucial. On Page 510, “While it was hard to believe the clock can be turned back to 2009, Egypt is likely to face difficult days ahead. As I warned, the best organized and most ruthless have the advantage in revolutions.” Should the United States be going all out to support General Sisi right now, Robert Gates?
RG: Well, I think, you know, as the book makes clear, I felt that the way we dealt with President Mubarak was a mistake. And I said so at the time, and I say so in the book. I think others in the region drew two lessons from that. The first is that if you have demonstrators in your street, shoot first and ask questions later. And the second is if you have demonstrators in your streets, there’s the chance the United States is going to throw you under the bus. And I think we should have encouraged a more evolutionary process in Egypt, not one that would take years, but a period of months in which reformers and others could have become better organized, because the only organized force in the entire country at that point was the Muslim Brotherhood. And as I say, the problem is that I think we misunderstood the Arab Spring in the sense that we thought it was sort of this flowering of democracy when in fact it was revolution in multiple countries – Tripoli, Egypt, Libya and now Syria. And in revolutions, as you just quoted, the most violent and the most extreme tend to be the ones that come out on top, not the secular reformers. So in terms of what we do now, I think that we ought to be encouraging Sisi to hold elections. I think we ought to be encouraging the observance of greater protection of freedom of speech and political freedom, and encouraging him to move Egypt toward a democracy, toward a restoration of democracy. But I believe it’s a mistake to cut off military assistance to the Egyptians at this point, because the future of the Middle East is so uncertain right now. And frankly, one of the reasons to do that is in my opinion, is that it’s important that Egypt continue to adhere to the peace treaty with Israel. And I think having that, and the Egyptian military has been a bulwark of support for that treaty. And I think to take any step that would lead them to wonder about their relationship with us, or to turn their backs on us and then maybe the treaty itself, could be pretty destabilizing in the region. So I, in all of these things, I guess my basic approach, and it was my approach in Libya and my approach in Egypt, was to be very cautious, because we’re in uncharted waters, and we have a very poor record when it comes to unanticipated consequences.
HH: You quote then-chief of staff Bill Daley as looking at you one day, saying what the F do I know about Egypt, an admission against interest, we say in the law, and refreshing, but fleeting in the White House that you describe. Does the Obama White House, has it gotten any better on Middle East policy than when you departed, because it seems utterly clueless.
RG: Well, I think, you know, you look at Syria and so on, and I think it’s a matter of concern, that’s for sure.
[Vice President Biden]
HH: Secretary Gates, everyone knows your opinion of Vice President Biden, your irritation with him. It’s been widely reported and commented on, and that’s fine. I really would like to know, though, you stated he’d been wrong on everything for 25 years for the benefit of the audience that doesn’t know. But I’d like to know why you think he’s been wrong that much for 25 years. This isn’t a personal thing, but why does someone get it that wrong that often for a quarter century?
RG: Well, I like Biden. I enjoyed working with him. He’s a stand-up guy. I think he’s a person of integrity. But you know, you just go back, he’d only been a Senator two or three years when he voted against the assistance package to South Vietnam that was a central part of the Ford administration’s effort as we had to leave Vietnam to try and give the South Vietnamese government a shot at survival. So then-Senator Biden voted against that aid package, and it was defeated, so no aid went. He voted against every element of President Reagan’s Defense build-up, and President Reagan’s approach to dealing with the Soviets. He voted against the B-1 bomber, the B-2 bomber, the MX missile, and several other weapon systems, voted against all kinds of missile defense. He voted against the first Gulf War. So I think that there’s an ample record there of somebody who’s just too often, particularly when dealing with our major adversary, the Soviet Union, got it wrong.
HH: Did you vote for him in either election?
RG: Well, I think I’ll keep my votes private.
HH: All right, now I go back to the first question as to why he gets it wrong…
RG: But if you listen closely to the answer I just gave…
HH: I heard it (laughing). I think everyone heard it. My question is if you, is it ideology? Or is it lack of capacity that he’s always wrong?
RG: Well, I think that there are folks who, I mean, we dealt with this all through the Cold War, and I happened to be one of those, I guess I was pretty much of a hawk during the Cold War, and I felt that the only thing the Soviet Union understood, the only thing that any of our adversaries understand, is strength, and that any, I don’t oppose negotiations with our adversaries, but they need to understand that we, as President Reagan made so clear, we negotiate from a position of strength. And I think that’s important going in. Frederick the Great said at one point said that negotiations without arms are like instruments without music.
HH: I want to go now to the generals question. In Duty, you write about a January 20th, 2011 meeting on what troop levels would be in 2014. “It was as if we had never stopped arguing since 2009,” on Page 556. “The internal fight heated up again on March 1 when Biden convened a meeting in his residence to push for dramatic troop drawdown.” In all these meetings, there is David Petraeus. And he is at least temporarily lost to the service of the country. What was your reaction, by the way, when that story happened, and to the loss of General Petraeus from the CIA and the service of the country?
RG: Well, it was very disappointing. I have, as the book makes clear, I just have an enormous amount of respect for David Petraeus.
HH: And so lots of the key generals are gone. And Max Boot wrote, probably nine months ago, we do not have such a surplus of brilliant commanders that we can afford to wave away those like Petraeus and McChrystal and Allen and Mattis, who’ve demonstrated a mastery of the modern battlefield. We can only hope that President Obama’s cavalier attitude towards the loss of their institutional knowledge, their leadership abilities and their complex understanding of a dangerous world does not prove to be a tragedy for the nation. First of all, do you believe President Obama has a cavalier attitude towards the loss of this level of commander?
RG: No, I don’t. He and I spent a lot of time discussing military succession, and discussing who would take senior positions. And I think it’s important to remember it was Obama who put Petraues in as Central Command commander, as commander in Afghanistan, as director of CIA. It was Obama who appointed McChrystal to be commander in Afghanistan, who appointed John Allen to be the commander in Afghanistan, and Jim Mattis to be the commander at Central Command. All of those were on my recommendation, but he agreed to them.
HH: You are a student of history, obviously. Has America ever allowed four of its best war fighting generals, are those four are going to be written about for a very long time by people who write military history, to leave the active service while the war was still ongoing?
RG: Well, first of all, I think you need to remember that it was actually Petraeus came to me and said in terms of his next job beyond Afghanistan, he wanted to go to CIA. So the original idea for Petraeus to go to CIA was his own. And I was surprised by it, but I must say I was pleased by it. And in the case of General Allen, you had this investigation that went on forever, and I don’t, I haven’t talked to General Allen since that all happened, and I just don’t know whether at the end he, my recollection is he was exonerated, but he may have just decided to throw up his hands and go ahead and retire rather than go through a confirmation fight to become commander in Europe. So I think in each of these cases, you can’t lump them together. I think there were different circumstances in each case. And I know that in the case, for example, of General Allen that Obama had very high regard for him.
HH: Let me then go, before we run out of time in our last 10-15 minutes here, back to the number one issue in the book. Buried in the book is your effort to get missile defense deployed in Poland. And the underlying premise of that is we need protection from Iranian missile. We, ourselves, and our European allies do. Two days ago on this show, three days ago, Charles Krauthammer called the accord with Iran a “catastrophe,” that while it was more cynical than Munich. Two days ago, John Bolton on this show said it was Munich. Do you think that deal is Munich? And are the American people adequately aware of the threat from Iran, Secretary Gates?
RG: Here’s what I think is the case. We, I think we are seeing in the Iranian’s willingness to come to the table the potential success of a strategy pursued by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama of ratcheting up the economic pressures on Iran to the point where it hurts so badly, the Iranian people, that their government is forced to come to the table or be at risk of having domestic turmoil. I think that’s happened. I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. You know, they talk about six months. My view is, and what I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation. Well, it’s just, we’re close. Let’s do another month. Let’s do another two months. I think we ought to have a firm deadline. I think that while I oppose the imposition of additional sanctions right now, because I do think it would blow up this opportunity, I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations. And finally, from my standpoint, the only agreement that we ought to be willing to sign up to is one that rolls back the Iranian program to the point where they are no longer a nuclear weapon threshold state, a state that could go to a nuclear weapon relatively quickly. So I think the important agreement, it’s not that we began the negotiations that it’s a bad idea. I think that what people ought to be focused on is what happens at the other end of those negotiations, and what kind of an agreement we get. And a poor agreement is clearly far worse than no agreement at all, in my view.
HH: Will you be surprised if the Israelis do not wait the six months that you’re talking about?
RG: Yeah, actually, I would be. I think they’ll wait and see.
[What makes for a good president]
HH: All right. Now I want to turn to the pressure of being a president and the ability to decide. You’ve served eight president, and like I say, I think that’s the modern land speed record. Maybe Brent Scowcroft, your friend, has done that, but very few people have done that. And so studying the office there, you obviously have a very nuanced portrait of Secretary of State Clinton in the book, and people have to read Duty if they want to get the whole portrait and not just pull quotes. And they can. Is there anyone on the Republican side of the aisle, among the people who are often mentioned, whom you would welcome as her debate partner in 2016 on the future of American foreign policy, and who ought to be in the Oval Office?
RG: Well, that’s a tough question since I generally don’t get involved in domestic politics. But I think that there are, there are probably several Republicans who could give her a run for her money in that respect, and I think, and have the potential to be elected as president.
HH: I began the program today talking to Senator Ted Cruz, whom is on many people’s short list. He will have only been a Senator four years were he to run and win the presidency as President Obama did. Is there a lesson in President Obama’s first term that tells us about electing people who have that short a resume when it comes to executive experience?
RG: Well, I will tell you this, and I only dealt with President Obama on the national security side. And I found him, much to my surprise, willing to make decisions, tough-minded about those decisions, and for all the debate and everything else, people should not forget he added 60,000 people, 60,000 troops to the Afghan surge. And whatever issues or reservations or anything else there might have been, he, in his actions, he did the right thing, and the same thing in the raid with bin Laden, and some other things. So I think that when it comes to national security, he has been pretty tough-minded. At least he was during the period when I was secretary of Defense. So I think, you know, I, sometimes people who come to the presidency have a knack for being able to be decisive. Others don’t. You know, the truth of the matter is I don’t think Jimmy Carter was. He never did quite figure out his policy towards the Soviet Union until they invaded Afghanistan. So I think, and he’d been a governor. I mean, he’d actually run something. So I think it really depends on the individual.
HH: And so you mentioned decisiveness. Is that the key quality in presidential qualification?
RG: Well, I must tell you I think, I got asked, particularly in 2012, a lot about what qualities we should look for in a president. And I’ve often said I can’t do better than what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said about Franklin Roosevelt in the early 30s. He said he has a second-rate intellect, but a first-rate temperament. And I think temperament really matters. And if you look back through our history at George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, they all would fit, I think, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr’s characterization. They weren’t necessarily the smartest guy in the room, but they all had extraordinary temperament, and they were all great presidents.
[The timing of Duty]
HH: A couple, two last questions, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Thanks to you for spending so much time. But now the first one’s a hard one. Why didn’t you tell all this before the election, because I think Duty would have impacted the election.
RG: Well, and I did not want to do that. I mean, I think I do owe loyalty to the people that I work for, and who have given me their trust, and I think it would have been, from a personal standpoint, I think it would have been wrong to write this in a way that might have affected the election. And I told the publisher that when we first sat down together in the summer of 2011.
HH: But if the, this isn’t the second question, but a follow on. If the Vice President is so wrong so often, and he’s a heartbeat away from the presidency, didn’t people deserve to know that from the perspective of a combat and commander, secretary of Defense, chain of command guy who could actually speak to it?
RG: Well, to be honest with you, I actually hadn’t thought that much about Biden’s record until we were sort of facing off against each other in the Situation Room.
[Johnny Football and the Cleveland Browns]
HH: All right, and a last question. This goes back to your time at Texas A&M.
RG: By the way, he had a lot of company in those positions, as a lot of folks will remember.
HH: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah, and a lot of them want to be president. I think Secretary of State Clinton probably agreed with him on every one of those positions, don’t you?
RG: Well, I’ll leave that, I don’t know.
HH: I think so. I’m just going to guess, I don’t think there’s a lot of light between those two. This goes back to your, I’m from Ohio. I’m from Warren, Ohio. I’m a Cleveland Browns season ticket holder. They want to draft Johnny Manziel. Now you were the chancellor of Texas A&M. What do you think about that?
RG: Well, whatever team gets him is going to be lucky, I think.
HH: That’s the wrong answer. Secretary Gates, thank you so much for writing Duty, and thank you for your time today.
RG: Absolutely. Thank you. My pleasure.
End of interview.