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Secretary Gates Interview on Meet The Press with David Gregory

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and David Gregory
March 01, 2009
               But first, yesterday evening I sat down with Robert Gates in his first television interview as President Obama's secretary of defense.
Mr. Secretary, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
MR. GREGORY:  For the first time at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on Friday, the president talked about a date certain for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.  This is what he said.
PRES. OBAMA: But August 31st, 2010 our combat mission in Iraq will end.  I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
MR. GREGORY: Now, the president talks about the combat mission being over by August of 2010; the idea being that we're currently at about 142,000 troops, that residual force would be roughly 50,000 troops.  But those forces left in Iraq will still be in harm's way.  There will be some fighting, they will be dying.  This war will go on beyond August of 2010.
SECRETARY GATES:  They do have a very different mission, but that mission will be principally a training, assistance, advisory role.  There will be a limited counterterrorism operations aspect to it, and we will still have some soldiers embedded with Iraqi units as part of, of the training effort.  But it's a very different kind of arrangement, and our soldiers will be consolidated into a limited number of bases in order to provide protection for themselves and for civilians who are out working in the Iraqi neighborhoods and countryside as well.  So I think that the way General Odierno plans this, the, the risk to our troops will be substantially less than certainly was last year, and it has, has gradually declined.
MR. GREGORY:  So that mission then changes with, with a smaller force.  How, how do you describe it generally?  Is this a situation where U.S. forces are, are standing down and Iraqi forces are finally standing up in that principle position?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, the Iraqi forces already are standing up in a significant way.  They basically organized the security for the provincial elections last month and did a very good job.  We were in the background, helped them with some planning and so on. But it, but it is a very different kind of mission, and the units that will be left there will be characterized differently.  They will be called advisory and assistance brigades. They won't be called combat brigades.
MR. GREGORY:  But nevertheless, we say the combat mission is over, U.S. troops will still be in harm's way.
SECRETARY GATES:  Yes, but at a very different level than in the past.
MR. GREGORY:  Some Democrats, supporters of the president--critics of the war, like the president, who was opposed to the war in Iraq--think that the size of the residual force at 50,000 troops is too big.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was interviewed on MSNBC this week by Rachel Maddow.  This is what she said.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA):  And I don't know what the justification is for 50,000--a presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq.  I do think that there's a need for some, and I don't know that all of them have to be in country.  I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000 or 20,000.
MR. GREGORY:  Does this agreement represent, on the part of the president, a concession to his commanders on the ground to keep a larger force than perhaps he originally wanted for fear that the county might come apart without a significant U.S. presence?
SECRETARY GATES:  No, I don't think it was a concession.  I think that there was a lot of analysis of the risks that were involved.  I think that if the commanders had had complete say in this matter that, that they would have preferred that, that the combat mission not end until the end of 2010.  And so having a somewhat larger residual or transition force mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner.
SECRETARY GATES:  So it was really a dialogue between the commanders in the field, the Joint Chiefs here, myself, the chairman and the president in terms of how, how you mitigate risk and how you structure this going forward.
I think the important thing to point out, though, is that the president has said that that will be a transition force of 35,000 to 50,000, and it's a way station.  We--as he pointed out, in the absence of any new agreement with the Iraqis we have to be at zero by the end of 2011. So that 50,000 or 35,000 is a way station on the way to zero.
MR. GREGORY:  The president did not want to extend that combat mission until the end of 2010 as his commanders wanted.  Why not?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, first of all, there were the Joint Chiefs and others who felt that if you look at the risk and, and also you look at the strain on the force and the need for additional forces in Afghanistan, and looking more broadly at, at our forces, there were those in the Department of Defense who were arguing very strongly for the 19-month period.  So I think, I think this really was the product of a dialogue between the president and the chiefs and the commanders.
MR. GREGORY:  You've always said it's important to be a realist about Iraq. President Bush originally thought that the U.S. would be able to get down to 30,000 troops by September of 2003.  Tom Ricks, the author, as you know, of "Fiasco" and now "The Gamble," has covered the Pentagon in this war extensively, said this about the plan to end the combat phase:  "I don't think it's going to happen.  Why doesn't he [President Obama] just say as they stand up, we'll stand down. He is walking in the failed footsteps of his predecessor, which is being persistently overoptimistic about Iraq." Let's be clear here.  Has the president said that if things get worse, if things go bad, that all bets are off?  That he would stop the withdrawal?
SECRETARY GATES:  What the president has said is that as commander in chief he always remain--retains the flexibility and the authority to change a plan or adjust it if he thinks it's in the national security of the United States. The fact is, I don't think any of us believe that that will be necessary.
MR. GREGORY:  But again, it's possible if there's a deterioration, he reserves that right to end the withdrawal.
SECRETARY GATES:  I would characterize the likelihood of significant adjustments to this plan as fairly remote.
MR. GREGORY:  Fairly remote. But let's talk about where there are potential flash points in Iraq.  People I've talked to say there are three real areas.  In the north you've got tension between the Arabs and the Kurds; the prospect of the Kurds, perhaps, trying to split off from Iraq.  In Mosul, a large al-Qaeda in Iraq presence. In the south, in Basra, oil-rich area, as you know, militia groups fighting over that oil revenue.  In your judgment, what are the prospects of civil war once U.S.  forces come out in large numbers?
SECRETARY GATES. Well, first of all, I think it's important to remember we have another 18 months, and we are going to have a substantial force there.  I would disagree that there is a, a significant instability in Basra.  I think Basra is one of the real success stories from Prime Minister Maliki's offensive down there last year.  So I--Mosul is a problem. The Arab-Kurb tensions are a problem.  The need to get an oil law is a problem. 
So, so there are problems.  We have the, the concerns associated with a national election at the end of this year, is one of the reasons why General Odierno wanted to keep those troops there as long as possible, or a significant number of troops.  So there's no question, we've had a significant military success. There has been real progress on the political side, but there is clearly unfinished business in that arena as well.  But we will still be there with a significant presence for another 18 months.  And, and as we've seen just over the last six to 12 months, what we have mostly seen is significant progress. And I think most of the people most closely associated with that expect--with Iraq expect that progress to continue.
MR. GREGORY:  There is an agreement between the United States and Iraq to pull all forces out by 2011.  That's what the president alluded to.
MR. GREGORY. What are the prospects that in fact U.S. forces remain in Iraq beyond that date?  Which is possible if you renegotiated that deal, if the Iraqis said please stay.
SECRETARY GATES:  It's, it's really not a renegotiation, it would be a completely new negotiation.  My guess is it would be at the instigation of the Iraqis, and, and we would just have to wait and see.  At this point it's completely hypothetical.  We have a signed agreement with the Iraqis that says, that says we have to be out of there...
MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.
SECRETARY GATES:  ...by the end of 2011, and that's what we're all planning on.
MR. GREGORY:  General Odierno, Odierno has said he expects and would want, in fact, U.S.  forces there at some level, perhaps 35,000, at least until 2015.
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, I, I also have said that I thought perhaps we would need to have troops there beyond that time.  That was all--what certainly my remarks were before the SOFA was signed.
MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.
SECRETARY GATES:  And before we made a commitment to be out of there by 2011.  If we're there beyond that, it'll be because of a new agreement and negotiated with President Obama and, and based on what he thinks is in the best interests of our country.
MR. GREGORY:  When the United States finally leaves Iraq, will it have achieved victory?
SECRETARY GATES:  I think that we have--as I've said, I think we have, have had a significant success on the military side.  There is still--the political side is still a work in progress in Iraq.  And frankly, I think before you start using terms like "won" or "lost" or "victory" or "defeat," those are the kinds of things that I think historians have to, have to judge.  But I think that from the standpoint of the military mission we will have enjoyed significant success.
MR. GREGORY:  Is it fair to say that when the U.S. leaves President Obama will not be able to declare either victory or defeat, that it'll be something of a muddle?
SECRETARY GATES:  The question is, what kind of position is Iraq in at the time that we pull out?  If Iraq is basically stable, if the level of violence remains at the relatively low levels that it is now, if they have had national elections, if they are an ally of the United States, I would call that a substantial success.
MR. GREGORY:  I want to turn to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  You have said that in fact the greatest military challenge now is Afghanistan.  The president has said that he will commit 17,000 additional U.S. troops.  This is how you described Afghanistan recently:  "This is going to be a long slog," you said, "and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan." That was in January.  Back in December you said about Pakistan that it is on top of the list when it comes to problems and challenges that the U.S.  faces.  Now, most of the security risk is posed from that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan where jihadists and the Taliban are resurgent.  In that area, and as you look at the whole picture, what worries you most?
SECRETARY GATES:  I think it's the safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border not just for al-Qaeda, but for the Taliban, for the Haqqani network, for Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and these other affiliated groups that are all working together.  They're into--they're separate groups, but they're all working together.  And, and I think as long as, as they have a safe haven to operate there, it's going to be a problem for us in Afghanistan.  After all, 20 years ago I was on the other side of that border as deputy director of CIA fighting the Soviets, and we had the safe haven in Pakistan.  And let me tell you, it made a big difference.
MR. GREGORY:  Is it sustainable, this policy of covert operations targeting the Taliban and other jihadists through covert measures, at a time--and doing so, as I say, through covert measures at a time when, when the Pakistani leadership thinks it's destabilizing the country?
SECRETARY GATES:  I'm not going to get into any intelligence operations.  I will just say that I think that the key here is our being able to cooperate with and enable the Pakistanis to be able to deal with this problem on their own sovereign territory.  I believe, based on my talks with the Pakistanis here in Washington this week, this past week, that, that they have--they clearly now understand that what's going on up there in that border area is as big a risk to the stability of Pakistan as it is a problem for us in Afghanistan.
MR. GREGORY:  The, the overall consequence--the trouble and consequences of, of jihadists making significant gains in either Afghanistan or Pakistan is perhaps more acute in Pakistan given its nuclear potential.  True?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, as long as we're in Afghanistan and as long as the Afghan government has the support of dozens and dozens of countries who are providing military support, civilian support in addition to us, we are providing a level of stability in Afghanistan that at least prevents it from being a safe haven...
MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.
SECRETARY GATES:  ...from which plots against the United States and the Europeans and others can be, can be put together.  So that border area, particularly on the Pakistani side, is, is the most worrisome
MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you specifically about Afghanistan.  Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in The Washington Post Thursday about what the U.S. strategy has been up until now:  "To create," he says, "a, a central government, help it extend its authority over the entire country and, in the process, bring about a modern bureaucratic and democratic society. That strategy cannot succeed in Afghanistan." How does the strategy have to change in Afghanistan?
SECRETARY GATES:  I--first of all, we're reviewing exactly that in the administration right now.  That's what the Pakistanis and the Afghans were in town for was to participate in that review.  We're talking to the Europeans, to our allies, we're bringing in an awful lot of people to get different points of view as we go through this, this review of what our strategy ought to be.  And I often get asked, well, how long will those 17,000 be there? Will more go in?  All that depends on the outcome of, of this strategy review that I hope will be done in a few weeks.
MR. GREGORY:  Let me turn to Iran.  David Sanger from The New York Times in his book "The Inheritance" talks about the legacy of the Iraq war with regard to Iran, and he writes this:  "It may turn out that one of the great post-Iraq paradoxes was that in crying wolf about Iraq, the American intelligence community found itself unable to raise the alarm about Iran."
And his point is there were no weapons of, of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet Iran has been able to progress with a nuclear capability short of, of a nuclear bomb but with kind of a virtual bomb, which is just being on the brink of having an actual weapons stockpile.  The question is this:  Is it possible to get Iran to abandon its weapons program short of some kind of grand bargain? In other words, bigger carrots and bigger sticks?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, first of all, I don't think that whatever one--however one might criticize the war in Iraq, I don't think that either the last administration or the current one have been distracted from the growing problem with Iran and its nuclear program in the least over the last number of years.  We worried about it well before even the Bush administration.  So I, I think that there has been a continuing focus on how do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear weapons program? 
They're not close to a stockpile, they're not close to a weapon at this point and so there is some time.  And the question is whether you can increase the level of the sanctions and the cost to the Iranians of pursuing that program at the same time you show them an open door if they want to engage with the Europeans, with us and so on if they walk away from that program.  Our chances of being successful, it seems to me, are a lot better at $35 or $40 oil than they were at $140 oil because there are economic costs to this program, they do have economic challenges at home.
MR. GREGORY:  You do see the need, though, for a--some kind of strategic relationship between the U.S. and Iran?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, I think that--that's really up to the Iranians.  I've been--as I like to say, I've been in this search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years.  I'm still looking.
MR. GREGORY:  We've got a few more minutes, and I want to go through as quickly as we can some other really important topics.  The first is Mexico, a major threat on the border with Mexico because of a widening drug war there. The Economist magazine wrote this startling synopsis, and they call it "Who's in charge?  The police chief in Ciudad Juarez, on Mexico's border with America, resigned after drug gangs, who had murdered his deputy, threatened to kill one of his officers every 48 hours until he quit." What's going on there, and how big of a national security threat is this for the U.S.?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, I think that what is important is that President Calderon of Mexico, perhaps for the first time, has, has taken on the battle against these cartels.  And because of corruption in the police and so on, he sent the federal army of Mexico into the fight.  The cartels are retaliating.  I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past.  Some of the old biases against cooperation with our--between our militaries and so on I think are being set aside.
MR. GREGORY:  You mean providing military supporting?
SECRETARY GATES:  Providing them with, with training, with, with resources, with reconnaissance and surveillance kinds of capabilities; but just cooperation, including in intelligence.  But it clearly is a serious problem, and, and--but what I think people need to point out is the courage that Calderon has shown in taking this on, because one of the reasons it's gotten as bad as it has is because his predecessors basically refused to do that.
MR. GREGORY:  The global economy.  Director of national intelligence Dennis Blair said in fact that the global recession and economic turmoil and instability had outpaced terrorism as the most urgent threat facing the United States.  What's your assessment?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, I wouldn't disagree with that.  I think that they're both very real.  But the global economy is clearly a much broader kind of threat to international stability and international cooperation.  Terrorism is a much more, I think, limited and defined threat.  They're both real.  The economic threat clearly affects many, many more people and countries.
MR. GREGORY:  Where's Russia going?
SECRETARY GATES:  That's a good question.  That's not entirely clear.  As I said in the last administration, for the first time in American history you had secretary of state and secretary of defense both with doctorates in Russian history, and we didn't have a clue with what was going on.  I, I, I personally believe that the Russians are trying to come back from what they considered the ultimate humiliation of the collapse--not only of the Soviet Union, but of the Russian empire.  And, and I think Prime Minister Putin feels this more acutely than Medvedev.  Maybe it's an age thing. 
But he is clearly determined to assert Russia's role as a key international player and as, as a country that can block anything that it doesn't like.  And, and in many areas if we don't go through Russia, they won't cooperate with us.  So I think Russia's a real challenge.  I think like the vice president said in Munich at a security conference, there is a chance to reset the relationship because there are a number of areas where we have common interests.  For example, arms control. So I think we'll be looking at that, we'll be looking for opportunities to see if we can make some progress with the Russians.  But, but it's been tough.
MR. GREGORY:  How long will you stay as secretary of defense under President Obama?
SECRETARY GATES:  Well, I think that's probably up to the president.
MR. GREGORY:  In your mind, though, would you stay for his entire first term?
SECRETARY GATES:  That would be a challenge.
MR. GREGORY:  Do you have a date certain in your mind of when you'd like to go?
MR. GREGORY:  There's some thought you might stay maybe a year and a day, and that's it.
SECRETARY GATES:  No date in mind.
MR. GREGORY:  What's the difference between working--what's different between working for President Obama vs.  President Bush?
SECRETARY GATES:  That sounds like the subject of a good book.
MR. GREGORY:  Is that a book you're planning on writing?  Are they different presidents?  Do they have different styles, different temperaments?
MR. GREGORY:  What's the major difference to you?
SECRETARY GATES:  I--that's--it's really hard to say.  I think that, I think that probably President Obama is, is somewhat more analytical, and, and, he makes sure he hears from everybody in the room on an issue.  And if they don't speak up, he calls on them.
MR. GREGORY:  A marked difference from his predecessor?
SECRETARY GATES:  President Bush was interested in hearing different points of view but didn't go out of his way to make sure everybody spoke if they hadn't, if they hadn't spoken up before.
MR. GREGORY:  Secretary Gates, we look forward to reading that book and talking to you about it.  Thanks for being here.
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