retires as defence secretary at the end of this month, ending a career in government that began 45 years ago.
Gates has served eight presidents in both parties, including as CIA director and Pentagon boss.
On his farewell foreign trip, Gates talked at length with Newsweek’s John Barry about his fears for the future of American supremacy, his relationship with Hillary Clinton, and his concerns about the more polarised, less experienced Washington that he leaves behind.
Here are some of the Gates extended comments from the interview.
On American Supremacy:
“I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position. And it didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time. And the country—and the leadership of the country, both Republicans and Democrats—face, I think, very tough choices.”
“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons why I think it’s time for me to retire. Because frankly, I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government—leave aside Republican or Democrat; that’s got nothing to do with it—I wouldn’t want to be part of a government that is being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world. I don’t know whether that will happen or not. But it’s an issue that is going to have to be addressed.”
“My hope is that those fears are unfounded, that we will figure out a way through this, and a way to sustain our presence around the world—and even increase it in the Pacific. But I think there are some very real questions that are going to have to be answered in terms of the size and shape of the U.S. military.”
On Hillary Clinton:
“We really didn’t know each other. But after the president made [his announcement of Clinton as secretary of state]… I suggested we get together for lunch fairly quickly. We ate in my office, at a little round table that had belonged to Jefferson Davis when he was secretary of war, before he went to the dark side.
And I just told her, based on my experience, that how well the administration worked would depend a lot on how well she and I got along together. If we got along, the message would go to the entire bureaucracy, not just our own bureaucracies, but the rest of government as well. She totally understood—first words out of her mouth. So she and I really set out from the very beginning to have a constructive working relationship. And at least from my standpoint, it’s gone well beyond that to a meeting of minds on a lot of the big issues.”
“Frankly, I really enjoy working with her. Hillary is a realist and very tough-minded in the way she looks at the world. She’s got a great sense of humour; she’s very smart, with a feel for people. She’s got great instincts. And she’s the only person in the administration I can’t whine to about my travels.”
“Hillary and I call ourselves the Old Folks Caucus. And I must say it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever worked for a president who was 20 years younger than I was.”
On Disputes Inside The Administration:
“I’d be hard-pressed to identify issues where there were big differences between defence and State during this administration. Maybe nuances. But we were completely on board in terms of New START, and in terms of trying to improve the relationship with Russia. And we’ve worked very closely—I would say principally Hillary and Admiral Mullen [Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman] have worked very closely—with respect to Pakistan. I’m actually hard-pressed to come up with a consequential issue where the two departments have been in a different place.”
“Beyond Hillary, I think one of the things that has made a difference was my strong support for a bigger budget for the State Department. That really was a man-bites-dog story. I think I read in the press—and therefore it must be true—that no secretary of defence had ever been quoted as arguing for a bigger budget for State. So below Hillary there’s been a level of goodwill in State towards the defence Department and towards me.”
“One thing I worked hard at, particularly for the first six months to a year [of the Obama administration] was to speak only when I thought I could make a contribution. I felt it was important that the president and the rest of the team see me as part of the Obama Team, not as the holdover from the Bush administration.
The real risk of a holdover is becoming a real nerdge in terms of, well this is the way we used to do it, or we tried that and it didn’t work. I worked really hard not to do that, but basically to kind of hold my tongue and when we were looking at policy options and so on to try and look forward…. I just felt the way I comported myself was really critical, particularly in the first few months.”
On Osama bin Laden:
Gates favoured an air strike to kill bin Laden. He recalled previous failed Special Forces operations, including Desert One, the abortive hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980. “But I was very explicit with the president in one of the discussions [of options]. I said: “Mr President, I want ‘truth in lending.’ Because of experience, I may be too cautious, you know. I think it’s important to be honest about that.”
“Yes, the American people are war-weary. Look. 10 years in Afghanistan is almost twice as long as any modern war we’ve been in. The real fight in Vietnam was 1965-66 to 1972, six or seven years. The Revolution was seven years—and that, incidentally, was the last time we ever fought a war with an all-volunteer force. This is 10.”
Afghanistan as another Vietnam? “There is one parallel that I think is appropriate, and that is, we came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game. Creighton Abrams had the right strategy in Vietnam, but it was too late. President Obama, I think, got the right strategy and the right resources for Afghanistan—but eight years in. So asking for another year is hard.”
“I’ve always believed that, at the end of the day, there is no alternative to a political solution [in Afghanistan]. The question is, on whose terms? And I think we are increasingly in a position that reconciliation [with the Taliban] could take place on the terms of the Afghan government and the Coalition.”
“Talk to our commanders. Their view is that this is the critical year, because we have taken away all of the Taliban’s heartland, and if they can’t take it back this year, and we further expand the security bubble, then—just like the sheikhs in Anbar province [in Iraq] who had come to the conclusion that they could not beat us—they come to the table. I’m not saying it will all be settled by the end of the year. I’m just saying you could begin a serious dialogue by the end of the year.”
On The Tone In Washington:
“Congress is all over the place. The Republicans are a perfect example. I mean, you’ve got the budget hawks and the defence hawks within the same party. And so I think there is no consensus on our role in the world. Actually, there never was a consensus, but there was a broad layer, a broad degree of support across the political spectrum. I think that is fragmenting.”
“Things have gotten so nasty in Washington… One of the big changes in the Congress since I first came to Washington is that all of these folks go home every weekend. They used to play golf together; their families got to know each other, go to dinner at each other’s homes at weekends—and these would be people who were political adversaries. The last surviving relationship like that, that I can tell, was the relationship that Alan Simpson and even Orrin Hatch had with Ted Kennedy. I just don’t think you find any of those now. And if you don’t know somebody, and you don’t care what they think about you, then it’s easy to call them names and make all kinds of allegations.”
“The other thing that has changed is the 24/7 news cycle—cable, all the talk shows. In the old days, people who were offensive or nasty or had wacky ideas found it hard to get exposure on the institutional outlets, whether it was the big newspapers or the three big networks or CNN. But with that proliferation [of channels] and blogs and everything else, everybody can be on all the time. And I will tell you from personal experience, people will say things on blogs or in emails that they would never dream of saying in person.”
“I have tried to maintain civil relationships with everyone I meet—and, even if I violently disagree with them, try to be respectful. Whether it’s Congress or the press or students at Texas A&M [where Gates was president before going into the Pentagon], I try never to condescend. I try to treat people as intelligent, thoughtful adults, even [laughing] if they’re 18 years old. And it has an impact—more of an impact on the kids, actually, than it has on older people. But things have gotten so nasty in Washington that having someone who doesn’t take cheap shots at people or demonize them or question their motives, I think is unusual, and I’ve tried to be consistent.”
Will historians judge the invasion was a mistake? “I don’t know the answer to that. I do know one thing: one of the supreme ironies is that during the Arab Spring there is only one functioning democracy in the entire region. As messy as it is, for the seven or eight months it took the Iraqis to form a government, they were arguing with each other and not shooting each other.”
On Nuclear Proliferation:
“North Korea now constitutes a direct threat to the United States. The president told [China’s] President Hu that last year. They are developing a road-mobile ICBM. I never would have dreamed they would go to a road-mobile before testing a static ICBM. It’s a huge problem. As we’ve found out in a lot of places, finding mobile missiles is very tough.”
“The problem with conceding that we will live with the Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs is that, particularly with respect to Iran, I think there is a very high likelihood that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons other states in the region will feel compelled to have them. I think it will spark an arms race, a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world.”
“Similarly, what happens in northeast Asia depends very much on us. If Japan or South Korea begins to feel that our deterrence capability and our umbrella of protection is falling apart—that we’re pulling back—then I think there will be a temptation for proliferation there as well. So I think to just sort of fall back to the default of both Iran and North Korea being nuclear powers, accepting it and figuring out how to live with it, is very short-sighted. I think it significantly underestimates, if you will forgive the expression, the fallout.”
On Libya And The Collapse Of Europe’s Militaries:
“Granted that the Europeans have had the horrors of two world wars, and it has made them loathe conflict and war. Yet they continue to live in the real world, a world where there are in fact security challenges. And they are kind of caught betwixt and between. It’s been too easy for too many countries to speak strongly about the NATO alliance and the need for solidarity in the alliance and so on.
But too many of them are not just diminishing, but coming close to eliminating their ability to conduct any kind of meaningful military operation. We are seeing that in Libya, where eight of 28 allies are participating. So I see the danger of a two-tiered alliance: those who fight and those who talk. And I worry about it. Because the ones who fight are going to become increasingly resentful of those who only talk.”
On The Fraying Of The Transatlantic Alliance:
Gates expanded his views in answer to a question in Brussels: “What’s changed is the political and economic environment of the United States… You have a lot of new members of Congress who are roughly old enough to be my children or grandchildren.
And they do not have the formative experiences that I have had… I am, in the active U.S. government today, essentially the last senior leader who is a product of the Cold War. And I think the kind of emotional and historical attachment that American leaders have had to this [NATO] alliance for nearly 65 years is ageing out. Decisions and choices are going to be made more on what’s in the best interest of the United States going forward… My hope is that the fact that reality is changing in the United States will get the attention of European leaders to realise that the drift of the past 20 years cannot continue—not if they want to have a strong transatlantic partnership with the United States.”
On Being The Last Of His Kind:
“I think we are very thin on people who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations—thin almost to the point of non-existence. People who have dealt with both sides of the aisle and are trusted by both, whether or not they agree; and people who have experience stretching over multiple administrations. Now Richard Holbrooke is gone, it’s very difficult to find anyone in this administration whose experience in government at any senior level in the national security arena goes back before the Clinton administration.”
“I do worry about who comes after me. When I look back at the people that I think were seminal during my career, people who had bipartisan respect and were regarded as wise men after they left office—guys like George Shultz, Scowcroft, Kissinger. All those people are in their mid-80s, early 90s. Larry Eagleburger, another of that breed and a dear friend of many, many years, has just died. So I’m sort of the youngest who served in multiple administrations. But I don’t see who is coming along behind me, who has that kind of experience, and that worries me.”
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