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Secretary Gates Interview with Tavis Smiley

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
March 11, 2009

                MR. SMILEY:  Good evening from Los Angeles, I'm Tavis Smiley.

 

                Tonight, an exclusive conversation with the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  Appointed by President Bush, Secretary Gates was asked to stay on the job by President Obama.  Secretary Gates is the first person then in U.S. history to serve in this important capacity under presidents from different parties.  We'll get his thoughts tonight on a number of pressing issues, including the president's decision to set a withdrawal date for U.S. combat troops in Iraq, and the increasingly difficult situation in Afghanistan and much more I suspect.

 

                We're glad you've joined us, Defense Secretary Robert Gates coming up, right now.

 

                (Commercial break.)

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Robert Gates was appointed Secretary of Defense by President Bush back in 2006 and now, of course, continues in that role under his second commander-in-chief.

 

                Prior to his current post, he served as President of Texas A&M, which followed his distinguished career at the CIA. 

 

                He joins us tonight from the Pentagon. 

 

                Secretary Gates, delighted to have you on the program.  Thanks for your time, sir. 

 

                SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES:   Thank you very much.  I'm happy to be here.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Let me start with what some might regard as an unorthodox place to commence our conversation.  I've got a few questions for you about the challenges you face as Defense Secretary to be sure, that said, since you have now been the Defense Secretary under two presidents, I'm curious, for starters, as to what your personal milestones are?  What are you happy about with regard to what you've been able to do as Secretary of Defense and then we'll talk about some of these challenges.

 

                What are you happy about right now?

 

                SEC. GATES:   Well, first, I would say, I think that, clearly, the war in Iraq is in a better place than it was when I took this job and I think I've had some part in that.  There are a lot of other people responsible for it as well, especially General Petraeus and others.  So I'm very happy about that.

 

                I'm happy that we've been able to do some things to help the war fighters, these heavier armored vehicles that have significantly reduced the number of our men and women in uniform who have been killed by these IEDs.  We've given them more surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance capability.  I think we've made some major changes to take care of our wounded warriors.  I think all of those things I feel pretty good about.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Before I get into the details then, what, as we sit here right now for this conversation, do you regard as your greatest challenges right now as Defense Secretary?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Clearly, the war in Afghanistan is our biggest current challenge and getting the strategy right on that, having a path forward and having clear and attainable goals, I think is the biggest challenge that we face right now.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  I don't want to read too much into this, but I do want to get your take on it.  It seems to me that the violence, the spike in violence in Iraq, the place where you think or suggested a moment ago that you're happy about the progress we've made, but the flip side of that is in the last week or so as you know, of course, the violence has spiked in Iraq right around the time, interestingly, that Mr. Obama announced what the withdrawal plan was going to be for Iraq.

 

                I don't know if there is a connection, I don't want to read too much into it, but how should the American people read the spike in violence in Iraq of late?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I don't think that there is a correlation between the president's announcement and the spike in violence.  I think it's tied more to the successful completion of the provincial elections and al Qaeda trying to disrupt the positive impact that the provincial elections had around the country, and even with the violence over the last couple of weeks, the level of violence in Iraq is dramatically lower than it has been really from a year ago or from six months ago or anytime since 2004.

 

                So I think that our commanders see these as isolated incidents.  We've always said that al Qaeda retains the lingering capacity to try and have these spectacular events, but in terms of sectarian violence or broader violence of Iraqis against Iraqis, the levels of violence are really at their lowest level since 2003, 2004.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  So you don't see any correlation between what may happen, what might likely happen when we start the pull out given what's happened over the last week with the increase in violence?

 

                SEC. GATES:  No, I really don't.  I think it's more tied to trying to counter the positive aspects of the provincial elections and I think these are still localized attacks.  It's going to be a long time before there are no attacks in Iraq and before the terrorists there are completely brought under control because we do believe, the commanders do believe most of this violence is being caused by the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  I want to talk more about Iraq, but before I do though, let me play a clip from this program last night, Thomas Ricks, as you know, a long-time military correspondent for The Washington Post was our guest on this program last night.  These two books that Americans seem to be eating up about what he's writing at least, Fiasco and his new book, The Gamble.  Here's what he had to say last night about the way forward in Iraq.  Let's take a listen and I want to get your thoughts on it if I might, sir.

 

                MR. THOMAS RICKS (Author, The Gamble) (From video):  I worry that President Obama talking about getting out of Iraq quickly is not departing from President Bush, but repeating the mistake Bush made of being over-optimistic.  So Obama says he'll end the combat mission by next summer, August of 2010, but Bush didn't invade Iraq saying I've got a great idea, let's go get stuck somewhere for ten years.  Bush also thought he could get out quickly, and I don't think that Bush was right in thinking he could get out quickly and I don't think President Obama is going to be able to get out half as quickly as he thinks.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Your thoughts, Mr. Secretary?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Oh, I have a lot of respect for Tom Ricks, but I think that, first of all, the president is not getting out what I would call quickly.  It will be 18 months between now and when our major combat units come out.  We will still have 50,000 troops there and I think our commanders, particularly General Odierno, the commander in Iraq, our commander in Iraq, is pretty comfortable with where we are, especially with the mitigating impact of having those 35,000 to 50,000 troops still there.

 

                I think that we have seen a significant improvement in the quality and capability of the Iraqi security forces, especially the army.  They did a good job of organizing security around the provincial elections. 

 

                So I think that we have seen a lot of progress, but all of our commanders to Mr. Ricks' point, all of our commanders point out that the situation is fragile.  There still are Arab-Kurd tensions.  There still has not been a solution to our passage of a hydrocarbon law.  There is still al Qaeda there and they're trying to stir things up.

 

                So there are periods of danger ahead, and I think one of the reasons why President Obama agreed to leave the bulk of American forces in their path to the end of 2009 is because most people see that the national elections in December as a potential time for an escalation of the violence.  We will still have significant combat presence in Iraq at that time and I think they see that as the period of maximum risk and we will have a lot of forces at that time.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  You mentioned Afghanistan earlier, Mr. Secretary.  Let's travel there quickly.  I don't mean to make you political in this sense.  We all know and acknowledge you were not part of the Obama campaign, President Obama once elected asked you to stay on and you agreed to serve and I'm honored to have you on the program.

 

                That said, there were expectations that many Americans had about how he was going to handle Iraq, how he was going to handle Afghanistan.  Many Americans who voted for him didn't think that meant sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

 

                How should the American public contextualize that decision?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think that what the president has decided is really quite consistent with what he said during the campaign.  I think that he made clear during the campaign he intended to send more troops to Afghanistan.  I think that he made clear he was going to draw down our troops in Iraq.  He had a 16-month period that he talked about in Iraq.  He also said he would listen to the ground commanders and it was based on that dialogue that he agreed to 19 months instead of 16.

 

                So I think that he has kept the commitments that he made during the campaign, but he has shown some flexibility in terms of the realities on the ground, I think, in both places.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  What does it mean that everybody in authority in Washington, in the White House, in Congress, in the Defense Department, everybody agrees that we are simply not winning in Afghanistan?  What does that mean?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think the situation is more complex than that in the sense that there are areas of the country, particularly in the north and in the west that are relatively peaceful and where there has not been a significant spike in violence.

 

                The eastern area is not in bad shape.  The biggest problem that we face is in the southern part of Afghanistan, which is sort of the Taliban homeland.  So we have a different situation in different parts of the country and I would say it's in the south where we would all agree we're not winning and that's one of the reasons why we're going to increase our troop presence there, as well as the civilian presence.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  The White House has floated Mr. Obama, President Obama himself, Vice President Biden, they have floated this notion of perhaps working with the Taliban, trying to get those who are disaffected, those who have a different point of view after all this time working with those members, certain members of the Taliban to help us fight al Qaeda.

 

                Your thoughts on that?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think almost all insurgencies in the end game involve political reconciliation.  The issue is it needs to be on the terms of the government of Afghanistan.  This is a matter mainly between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

 

                There are elements of the Taliban that are absolutely irreconcilable, and frankly, will have to be killed.  But there may be other elements that are willing and maybe a majority who do it because it's a job, because they get paid.  There may be some who do it for other reasons, but I think there is the potential for reconciliation.  I think the key is it must be organized between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and I believe it needs to be on the terms set by the government of Afghanistan.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  But what would be the incentive for those who chose to fight with us against al Qaeda?  What would their incentive be?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, to bring peace to the villages and towns and countryside of their homeland of Afghanistan.  There's some evidence that a fair number of the Taliban are not committed Islamists or extremists and so they may be able to be wooed away.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Two questions I want to ask now that require you to kind of look back for just a second if you will and I recognize, again, acknowledge up front you were not there at the beginning of President Bush's administration when these decisions were made, but you did, of course, decide for whatever reasons personally to come on to be a part of that team. 

 

                In that regard, two questions, as we look back on it now, what did the Defense Department learn about this notion of thinking that we can shock and awe people into the behavior that we want them to have?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Looking back, it seems to me that almost everybody, including those who were in the administration at the time agreed that the assumptions were that this would be a very quick, largely conventional kind of conflict, Saddam would be put out of power and then the situation turned back over to the Iraqis themselves.

 

                I think that most people would agree that there was, clearly, inadequate planning for the situation not turning out that way and for us to be involved for a protracted period of time, and I think that was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that was made. 

 

                I think that we just didn't anticipate or they didn't anticipate at the time that this could be a protracted counterinsurgency kind of challenge and it clearly turned out to be that.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  It was a big mistake.  I hear the point you're making, Mr. Secretary, I guess what I'm asking is whether or not at this point, the Defense Department, the military understands, has spent time, has started to wrestle with, marinate on, pick it on your own term, what those lessons were from what we thought.  I hear your point on what we thought was going to happen.

 

                Are there lessons at the Defense Department under your watch has learned from that and are enacting as a result of that mistake?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Oh, I think very much so, in fact, I brag a little bit and I'd say I think the Department of Defense and particularly our leaders in uniform, our men and women in uniform have probably learned better and faster because their lives have been on the line than anybody else in the government or in the world and what we've had to relearn for the first time since Vietnam is how to do counterinsurgency, that this isn't a conventional conflict, it's not like taking on the Soviet army in Europe or something, but requires a totally different set of skills and I think we have institutionalized those.  And one of my goals is to make sure that the lessons that we have learned are not forgotten and that they are, in fact, institutionalized into our training and doctrine so that officers ten or fifteen years from now still have access to the lessons that have been learned.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Let me go back, Mr. Secretary, again, for one more question and then I'll come forward.  Again, not trying to make you overtly political here, but your opinion on these matters does, in fact, matter. 

 

                Is there a need for a real, rigorous debate in Washington, and for that matter, outside the Beltway about this so-called Bush doctrine?  It came up a little bit during the campaign, but not much.  Is the time now for debate about the Bush doctrine, in other words, this notion of if we think you're going to hit us, if we think you have something, we hit you first.  If we find out you didn't, we say, oops, our mistake.  But this whole notion of launching first, of hitting people first, if we think they're going to hit us -- is it time to rethink this Bush doctrine?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think one of the biggest lessons learned in this is that if you are going to contemplate preempting an attack, you had better be very, very confident of the intelligence that you have, and I think that the lessons learned with the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction and some of the other things that happened will make any future president very, very cautious about launching that kind of conflict or relying on intelligence. 

 

                He's going to ask a lot of very hard questions, and I think that hurdle is much higher today than it was six or seven years ago, and my personal view is that any future president, this current president or any future president, while they have to retain if they have very solid evidence that we are about to be attacked that we be in a position to take action to prevent that, I think though that the barrier, first of all will be, are we going to be attacked here at home as one of the thresholds?  And then the quality of the intelligence would be another.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Speaking of being attacked at home, there are many who argue it's not a matter of if, but when.  Do you share that view no matter what we try to do to stop that, do you share that opinion?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't believe in inevitability.  I believe that if you had asked nearly all Americans on September 12th, 2001, seven and a half years later -- do you think there will have been another terrorist attack, 99 percent of people would have said, of course.  But here we are seven and a half years later and there has not been another successful attack.  The fact is though that there have been a number of plots that have been disrupted, both here and overseas, people planning, people conspiring to do these things, so we've seen enormous improvements in law enforcement and intelligence and cooperation and sharing of information, both internally in the United States and with other countries.

 

                The threat is always out there.  We have to be aggressive in taking it on, but I don't think there is -- I personally do not believe in inevitability in history. 

 

                MR. SMILEY:  You used to work as we all know at the CIA and we know that should, if, and when, the president has to make a decision about war or combat, you're going to be at that table and he's going to ask your opinion and he's going to seek your counsel, your advice. 

 

                Since you talked about intel earlier, are you comfortable?  Can you tell me and the American people that you're comfortable in 2009 that if, and when, you should be called upon to give that kind of advice, that you are comfortable with the intelligence that you would be sharing and passing on to the president?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think it would very much depend on the circumstance.  I will tell you I've been at this business since 1966, almost 43 years ago.  In very few crises, is the intelligence unambiguous.  Do you have a clear-cut indication of what's going to happen? 

 

                So you take the best intelligence you have and then you have to make judgments about that.

 

                My own experience, President Obama is the eighth president I've worked for.  The one thing we know and seem to have to learn again and again is that war is inherently unpredictable and I believe that we need to be very, very cautious about getting into conflicts because it's always easier to get in than to get out.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Yeah.  Every Defense Secretary I suspect has to answer this question for himself, but given your point about ambiguity, what is the threshold for you, the level at which you feel comfortable sharing intel with the president and making a judgment call about that intel?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, it's the responsiblity of the Director of National Intelligence to be the one to present intelligence to the president after it has been reviewed by the different intelligence agencies, and based on my own experience, I'm prepared to give the president my evaluation of the quality of the intelligence that he's seen and make recommendations based on that.  But it always depends on the precise situation that you're talking about.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  You have made it part of your mission at the Defense Department.  You've been talking a lot about this lately, in your word, to reprogram the Pentagon.  It has been operating under a set of rules and regulations for a long time under certain strategies and you've been talking about reprogramming the Pentagon.  Unpack that word for me, what does that mean?

 

                SEC. GATES:  One of my biggest frustrations here is that this is a building that for a long time has been more focused on planning for a future war than effectively fighting current wars.  One of my concerns is that there is no institutional base inside the Department of Defense where people come to work every morning, asking, what can I do today to help the war fighter in Iraq or Afghanistan be more successful and come home alive?  And most of the innovations that we've had to make, whether it's more heavily armored vehicles or new ways of doing intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, we've had to do outside of the bureaucratic structure of the Department through some ad hoc arrangement. 

 

                What I want to be able to do is have a Department of Defense that can do both of those things, where we have a balance between an ongoing ability to fight the kind of irregular conflicts we're in in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the same time, be prepared for and have the capability to deter, and if necessary, fight a more conventional conflict with larger states.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  While you work, Mr. Secretary, to reprogram the Defense Department, I've seen some bragging of late and I am mad at them, but some bragging of late on the part of the military about recruitment numbers being up, recruitment numbers up.

 

                I guess the question is:  Why are those numbers up?  Please tell me it has nothing to with the lessening of standards.

 

                SEC. GATES:  No.  Actually, the standards we've been able to ratchet up the standards.  I'm happy to report that the Army's latest report indicates that over the last couple of months, the number of high school graduates among their new recruits is now about 92 percent.  It has been at about 80 percent, 79, 80 percent for the last year or so.

 

                So the new recruits are actually beating our standards if you will.  It's obviously very good news.  It's sad to say, I think, part of the reason for it is our economic difficulties.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  You talked earlier, Mr. Secretary, about taking care of our wounded warriors.  On my radio program, my public radio program, I guess, a couple of weeks ago, I did an entire show, an entire segment about the proliferation, if I could use that word of Web sites and reading material, talking about the fact that we are not treating our veterans as we should.  That we still have not learned the lessons of Vietnam and other conflicts of how to treat our veterans.  Some have gone as far to say that there is a war against veterans.

 

                Talk to me about how we ought to be treating our veterans and what you make of the way we are, in fact, treating our veterans as they come home?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think what you cited goes way too far.  I think there have been dramatic improvements in the way that we treat our wounded warriors over the last couple of years.  It may have taken the firing of the Secretary of the Army to get things started, but when you talked about the proliferation of Web sites and papers and things like that, I thought you were going to talk about all the new support groups that have been established, both in and outside of the military, the new facilities that have been created for warrior transition units at our military facilities, the programs that have been initiated to support their families and we got it just right now, no, and nobody in this building would say that.

 

                But we have made enormous strides over the last couple of years, and frankly, with a lot of help from the Congress that has given us the resources to be able to do this and we're going to keep working at it.  They are our heroes.  My mantra here is that after the wars themselves, we have no higher priority than taking care of our wounded warriors.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  A quick word from you about Iran. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  A real problem.  I think it's one of the significant challenges that we're going to face over the next several years.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  I think now of a biblical verse, and I’m not offering this to cast dispersion, but just to provide some back story here, a biblical verse that says we can't serve two masters and I guess the question is:  How you find your own comfort level having worked for one president who had one view about policy, military policy, one world view and another president who has a diametrically different viewpoint about how we ought to engage the world and you're the guy that stays with both of them.

 

                How do you do that everyday?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, as I indicated earlier in our interview, President Obama is the eighth President of the United States that I have worked for.  I have worked for both Democrats and Republicans in the White House on the National Security Council staff.  You only have one president at a time.  This president is the president elected by the American people to protect their national security and it's my job to carry out his policies and help him formulate those policies and I'm quite comfortable with that.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Secretary Gates, I know how busy your schedule is and to give us an entire show, I so appreciate and you being honest and sharing your insights.  Delighted to have you on.  Thank you, sir.  I appreciate it.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Its been my pleasure.  Thank you.

 

                MR. SMILEY:  Thank you, sir.

 

                That's our show for tonight.  Catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International, access our radio podcasts through our Web site at pbs.org and I'll see you back here next time on PBS, until then, good night from LA.  Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. 

 

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