The War in Iraq will always be tainted by the fact that the premise on which the United States went to war was the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that was proved to be not true. But the eventual assessment of this conflict will depend on how the situation in the Middle East evolves over the next decades, says Robert Gates, CIA Director (1991-1993) and the US Secretary of Defense (2006-2011).
Today we are going to talk about that little boy from Wichita, Kansas, the one who earned Eagle Scout, the one who went through life always trying to be prepared and to serve with duty, honor and distinction. Unknown to many his doctoral dissertation wrestled with both the Soviet and Chinese question. For the public he served many roles and under many presidents including Secretary of Defense for both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And while it may seem a bit too early to write his memoir as I suspect there are many pages yet to be written, Robert Gates has with Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War which gives an insider’s look to some of his experiences and thoughts.
Welcome, Secretary Gates. I want to talk about a shared moment even though we’ve never met. In 2006 I was volunteering at the cast of the contingency air medical staging facility and some of the military hospitals around Washington DC. I was working with the group that was helping families deal with their loved ones as they convalesced as they returned from the theater. While I was seeing some of the things the report came out just as you were being installed a Secretary talking about the difficulties that Walter Reed was facing and some of the things that weren’t going so well. And I remember hearing you for the first time and just taking it on a very blunt matter-of-fact, very steady way, not diverting it, not avoiding it at all and I wondered how important it was that that was part of your first impression and how that affected your course?
Certainly that was an important moment in terms of communicating how much I care about troops and particularly taking care of those who had been wounded and the families of those who had been killed. It was an opportunity to demonstrate not only that care but also that I would demand accountability when it came to taking care of the troops and as a result of the findings of that time and that investigation I fired the hospital commander, I fired the sergeant general of the army and I fired the secretary of the army. I think it sent a powerful message both to the troops but also to the leaders that people who didn’t take proper care of our troops would be held accountable people who didn’t perform their jobs well, would be held accountable and frankly that was kind of a new thing in Washington DC.
And it was probably a necessary message not just under political spectrum but as you said for the people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, because Iraq was and still remains somewhat difficult theater. The US military might be designed in fact better at winning wars than winning the peace. Do you feel that you had the tools necessary to prosecute the task you were assigned?
I think we had most of the tools, I think that there were some serious deficiencies that I moved quickly to remedy. I think and it was clear that we needed much more heavily armored vehicles and moving our troops from one place to another than relatively light Humvees that were like jeeps and that were being destroyed constantly by roadside bombs and under in the road bombs. We clearly needed more intelligent surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in Afghanistan, we needed it faster. So there were number of items of equipment that frankly when I became secretary I thought were needed by the troops and it was important to get them to them in weeks of months, not in years. So a good part of my first year or so and in office was trying to get that equipment to the troops. I think part of the problem is that like most wars everyone expected that the efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan would be short so people weren’t willing to make long term investments and expensive investments in capabilities that they thought wouldn’t be needed very well. I was willing to do that, my attitude was win in a war, you are all in and you do everything that is necessary to be successful. And if you have material left over at the end, well, so be it.
In other words you wanted to make sure you were prepared just as you were trying as an Eagle Scout. But I wanted ask you then about the balance being prepared having that fore thought, making sure you are at the logistics and materials necessary but also maintaining enough mental nimbleness to be prepared for things that go wrong, because certainly in real life things always go somewhat differently as expected.
This is one of the reasons why I think people need to be more cautious about entering conflicts because they never go the way people intend, on very very rare occasions such as the first Gulf War in 1991 that go better than expected, but most of the time they got a lot worse than expected and take a lot more time than expected. But you have to be willing to do this questioning yourself routinely in terms of is the strategy working, what are the benchmarks to tell me whether or not the strategy is working and I might prepare to adjust. One of the things that I admire the most about General Petraeus, General McChrystal, General Rodriguez, General Austin, General Dempsey and others in these two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan was that if something wasn’t working they would quickly abandon it, try something different, try a different tactic, they were willing to be very creative and very innovative but they were willing to fail fast and try something that if something wasn’t working to shift gears unfortunately Washington isn’t that good in doing that and I think that is one of the things that I tried to focus on the Pentagon was that the senior military leadership needed to focus on the wars we were fighting and make sure we were doing a good job in those rather than being completely occupied with fighting future wars that might not take place at all or it may not take place for 20 or 30 years.
I imagine though that there is a fine line between questioning tactics and questioning yourself. And in giving that I want to ask a little bit about your experiences in theater amongst the troops. How did that change you? How did it inform your strategy going forward?
I think one of the things that people don’t understand that my experiences on the front lines and at the hospitals made me very watchful of anything that would put those troops on danger or in greater danger, it made me determine to do everything possible to protect them in terms of equipment and taking care of them. But at the same time you have to willing to make the decisions to send those troops, same troops, in harm’s way. And sometimes you have those two parallel plots in your mind: what do I have to do to win this battle, what do I have to do to take care of these troops? And you have to be able to do both at the same time, you can’t be so preoccupied with taking care of the troops that you don’t fulfill your responsibilities of Secretary of Defense in executing the president’s strategic decisions in war. But at the same time that doesn’t prevent you from having a deep sense of commitment and caring for the troops that you’ve sent in harm’s way leaving everything in your power to take care of.
But how do you personally develop a way to handle that? I know that when I worked in psychiatric facilities, when I worked in military hospitals I developed a sort of wall which separated the reality of working with people with serious maladies from my home life. How did you decompress? How did you escape? How did you wrestle with the problems that you knew or the deaths that were caused in part by your decisions?
President Bush and President Obama respectively were the seventh and eighth presidents that I had worked for. I had been Deputy Director and Director of CIA under President Reagan and the first president Bush. And in my CIA role I sent people in harm’s way. So I had been doing this a long time and first of all you have to be persuaded that what you are doing is in fact the right thing for the country. That in itself becomes an important psychological defense. If you believe that the actions that you are taking are important to safeguard the country and all Americans, then you are prepared to make the tough decisions that put specific people at risk. The other side of that coin is knowing that all of those people that you are putting at risk are volunteers, they have known what they were getting in to and they were prepared to take that on for exactly the same reasons – to do what is necessary to protect the country against their adversaries, against their enemies. And so knowing that they are volunteers, having confidence that you are doing the right thing I think is important in being able to deal with that on a day-to-day basis.
Let’s deal with the question about the right thing. There are many who claimed that Iraq was a diversion from the real war or the threat in Afghanistan that stands from Afghanistan. Can you respond to that? Should we have been ion Iraq?
Well, as I have said I think that is a question that history will have to answer. I think that the war will always be tainted by the fact that the premise on which we went to war was that there were weapons of massive destruction in Iraq and it proved not to be true. So that will always be a factor. But I think it will depend on how the situation in the Middle East evolves over the next 10-15-20 years in terms of whether that action is seen as the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam is the first crack in the wall of Arab authoritarianism that survived for decades and opened new opportunities or whether it led to a generation of instability and conflict in the regions. Until those questions are answered I think you can’t make a final judgment on the war itself. There is no question and I write about it in the book that Iraq diverted both senior level attention and military capabilities away from Afghanistan and probably made earlier success in Afghanistan much harder to achieve.
You mentioned earlier that you were the Deputy Director of the CIA, in 1984 Iran contra came to light when you were serving in that post. How much did you know and looking back how much should have been known? And would you do anything differently today?
It was late 1986 when it actually happened and I would tell you that there were two things going on in parallel. One was supporting the countries in Nicaragua and the other was selling weapons to Iran. I think the investigations showed that a lot of people knew that each of those two things was going on but was known only to a handful of people at the White House and Director Casey at CIA and few CIA people in the Clandestine Service that money from those arms sales in Iran was being diverted to countries in Nicaragua. So it is that redirection of the money that was this most scandalous part of the whole thing and very few people knew about that. I didn’t know about that, neither did a lot of other people.
-Now moving quickly into the present, yesterday Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine. Can you speculate on what kind of talker conversations happen when a moment like this occurs at the DOD or with the DOD in the White House?
I think that primary focus would be on the frustration at the limited options that are available in terms of retaliation or responding to the action. First of all you basically take the military option off the table, we are not going to go war with Russia over Crimea or over Ukraine and so you don’t want to end up in a military confrontation with the Russians. And actually there is nobody that I’ve heard that is arguing for that. So the question then is what kind of economic sanctions, what kind of political sanctions might have some impact on Vladimir Putin in terms of getting him either to change course or to alter his political strategy. And frankly giving the nature of the person Putin is I think that that is a very tough question because I think it will take very far reaching sanctions to have any impact on his decision making process.
I guess that leads us to the question about the balance you might have faced between pragmatism, politics, responsibility and duty. Could you talk about those and how often they went in conflict with each other?
-I don’t think that they really come into conflict that often and I think that if you believe that decisions are being made that make it tough for you to do your duty they always have a choice to resign, for example if I had faced some of the budget decisions that Secretary Panetta and Secretary Hagel had faced in terms of the consequences of sequestration I’m not sure that I would have felt like I could do my duty to the troops in carrying those out and then the question of whether you should resign would come up. That is always balance that, well, if I stake and I hope to mitigate the consequences can I make the consequences less dangerous for the country and for the troops. And I find that when you are in the situation where pragmatism becomes very important and you have to make sure that your policies are in alignment with your values, but you also have to watch out for what will protect the American people.
And finally what have you learnt that you want to make sure that your successors understand and learn going forward whether that the successors right now in this cool classroom or the people actually at the DOD or CIA?
From my personal standpoint it is the importance of being able to act, of doing things that serve the country and that means you have to compromise, it means you have to work with both Republicans and Democrats, it means that you have to make deals. That is the real world in which things get done. And those who argue that you can’t compromise I think don’t understand how the American government works and how the Constitution sets things up in terms of checks and balances, that the only way it works is through compromise and if you are in a senior position, particularly with respect to national security you have to make sure that you have been actually get things done rather than just pound the table.