Robert Gates has served 9 different Presidents over the last 45 years. Join us as we look back on that service and look forward on the challenges that face our nation.
Dr. Gates, thanks so much for joining me this evening. I really appreciate your time.
Gates: No problem happy to do it. I live in Seattle area now, so this is really convenient for me.
Terrific. Before we begin, lets cover some housekeeping? First of all you and I are not really having dinner. Second, this paraphrased conversation actually occurred during a keynote speech you gave at a conference recently to about 200 people. I was at that conference and have turned the questions you were asked and the answers you gave into this format for the purposes of this article. Did I cover everything?
Gates: I believe so. Is this legal?
We’ll find out won’t we?
First of all, you seem to have a very high degree of name recognition and approval among a large part of the electorate. Would you consider running for office?
Gates: Two words: Instant. Divorce. There are a couple of reasons I relocated back to the Pacific Northwest. First my wife is from this area and we really love it. Second, it is as far away from DC as I can get without actually leaving the country.
That seems pretty definitive. You’ve worked for 9 different Presidents over the last 45 years. The stories you must have…
Gates: Oh for sure, some of them are pretty funny too. I remember one time at the Vatican, I was there with President Nixon, SState Kissinger and a contingent of other delegates to meet with the Pope. The Secretary of War at the time was Melvin Laird. He was a bit of a loose cannon, so once we were in Italy Nixon instructed that he not be notified of the time and location of the meeting with the Pope. Well the next day rolls around and who should come walking down the hall with a big cigar puffing? Laird. Kissenger begs him to at least put his cigar out before going into the audience with the Pope. Laird complies, and sticks it in his pocket. During the official visit Kissinger looks over and sees Laird patting himself on the chest, a thin tendril of smoke coming out of his pocket. Moments later, Laird is frantically patting at his suit, smoke now billowing out. Some of the rest of the audience, confused and sitting further away think its applause and start clapping. Not only did our Sec Defense try to immolate himself, but the rest of the delegation was applauding him for it.
That’s pretty funny. Any other good Kissinger stories?
Gates: Sure, Nixon met with Golda Meir in 1969 in the White House, she was accompanied by her Cambridge educated, very westernized foreign minister. Nixon cracked: “Ms Meir isn’t it interesting that we both have jews as the heads of our state depts?” Meir shot back: “Yes, but mine speaks English”.
Boy there aren’t enough good Golda Meir jokes around. That was excellent. Any other good ones pop into mind?
Gates: I remember LBJ asking Bill Moyers to do the blessing at a dinner. Moyers started and LBJ barked: “Bill I can’t hear you. Speak up!” Moyers responded: “Mr. President, I wasn’t speaking to you”.
Tell me about how you view the world today. Where are the top risks in the world right now?
Gates: In order, Iran, South Korea, and Pakistan
Gates: Yes, in the past provocation by the North was ignored by the South, they were viewed as the deranged cousin best ignored. Now a sea change has taken place in the military and civilian leadership of that country. If N. Korea tries some of the same provocations they’ve tried in the past, I fear S. Korea will retalitate.
Wow, I had no idea. On that note, what about China?
Gates: China is complicated. One of the challenges they have is that the civilian leaders of the country keep control only by ensuring constant growth of the economy. That has already slowed, and the only tool they really have left is nationalism. The other challenge is that the People’s Liberation Army and the civilian govt. don’t really communicate much or see eye to eye on certain subjects. I remember that one of my main goals was to keep both of our countries military leadership in communication with one another. On one trip to support this effort I flew into Beijing and the military brass decided that day to unveil their new stealth fighter and put it on display for our arrival. I was mad about that, and confronted Hu Jintao about that at our meeting. He looked at me puzzled and then started speaking very rapidly to one of his aides. He had no idea this had happened. This is one example among many we experienced in our relationship with the Chinese.
Is conflict inevitable with the Chinese as they grow in influence and we pull back?
Gates: Not at all. China does not want to be our enemy, nor should we want them to be. However, if we treat them like one, they will respond in kind.
You did mention Iran as your top concern…
Gates: Yes, Iran is a real puzzle. I do believe that Iran possessing a nuclear weapon in the already destabilized Middle East would be a disaster. They would not be subject to the NNPT, and other countries in the Middle East would quickly follow. Isreal’s response is an unknown to me.
What do you mean by that?
Gates: My impression of the Isrealis is that they have always been much more tactical than strategic in how they handle crises in foreign affairs. They are more likely to react, than to examine the issue from a long-term perspective. I have no idea how they would react to Iran possessing a nuclear weapon. I don’t think the Isrealis know how they would react.
Is bombing Iran an option?
Gates: I certainly hope not. Iran has sequestered their nuclear program in the middle of urban areas and deep underground in many many different locations. Even the most precise bombing campaign would never take it all out. At that point, the general population would forget all about their differences with the mullahs and would be unified against the rest of the world.
So….what are our other options?
Gates: There aren’t any good ones.
What about Russia, how important have they been to dealing with Iran?
Gates: They have been very good partners lately. Back in the 80’s and 90’s they never really seemed to understand how big a problem Iran could be for them. They do now. Russia has been very helpful in the UN lately and recently cancelled, with a significant financial penalty, a big shipment of weaponry for Iran.
What do you think of Putin?
Gates: He and I have known each other for some time. I was at a conference in Europe several years ago, and he was giving a speech about how the US was the cause of all the world’s problems etc etc etc. After the speech I spoke to him briefly: “You know you and I are old cold-warriors going way back. The difference now? I went to re-education camp, and you never did”. His recent announcement that he was going to run for another series of terms was disappointing but not surprising. I felt that we could really work with Medveded, and I was hopeful that he’d stay on, but that obviously is not going to happen.
Let’s change gears. What are some of the biggest differences between working for Presidents Bush and Obama?
Gates: Well first of all let me say that each President I have worked for has been radically different. Each has their own strengths and characteristics. As far as the difference between the Bush and Obama administrations? Honestly for me, it wasn’t all that different. There is a tremendous amount of continuity in the Defense Dept. Things happen a certain way whoever the President is, and that is the case here. As far as the men themselves are concerned, Bush was much more instinctual, while Obama is a lot more analytical. He really likes to examine every problem from the top, bottom, left, and right before making a decision. That’s the biggest difference in my opinion.
What were you doing on 9-11?
Gates: I was on a plane. I was not in government at the time, and was flying to Chicago. The captain came on the telecom and told us that the WTC had been attacked and that we were being told to land immediately. We landed in Kansas City and I watched the events unfold on tv from a Kansas City hotel room. I was there for 3 days. After, I talked to my wife about feeling the need to serve a bit more, the events on 9-11 really compelled me to do so. So I took the job of President of Texas A&M University.
How about domestically, any comments on our problems at home?
Gates: First of all, our problems are not going to be easy to solve. The American people have consistently said that they want a government that they are not willing to pay for, and we have politicians that are only too willing to accomodate those wishes. What I can tell you is that anyone that says we can overcome these difficult challenges without revenues, cuts, and investments is simply not credible.
It is my firm belief that we won the Cold War because we had cohesive long-term vision of how to deal with and defeat the Soviet Union, regardless of who the President was. Ultimately that is what won the day. We face problems domestically that are equal in scale if not larger than the challenge of the Cold War. We need a long-term, multi-administration, multi-Congress plan, approach and execution to solve them. That is why I am so pessimistic about them being solved.
That’s encouraging. Last question: How do the deals get done between actors internationally?
Gates: Two things really drive international diplomacy. First is interests, that one is self-evident. The other is personal relationships. You would be very surprised to know how much gets done because of how you get along with someone. I’ve known some of the actors on the international stage for 30-40 years. That’s extremely important when it comes to getting things accomplished.
Do you have a recent example?
Gates: Sure, during the Tahrir Square demonstrations I was on the phone every other day with Defense Minister Tantawi, whom I’ve known for 30 years, begging him not to send tanks into Tahrir Square. I’d like to think that had something to do with the relatively peaceful end to a very charged situation. If there is anything I worry about now that I’ve retired, it is the loss of these personal relationships to the administration and the country.
Thank you Dr. Gates for your time, it was fascinating spending it with you.