Robert Gates Speaks on Defense Policy
Issue   |   Wed, 04/29/2015 - 01:25

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates participated in a discussion with Professor of History and American Studies Frank Couvares at Johnson Chapel on Tuesday, April 28. The discussion centered on the United States’ role in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East, and Gates’ experience working as secretary of defense under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Prior to serving as the 22nd secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, Gates worked for the Central Intelligence Agency beginning in 1966 and remained in the organization for 27 years. During his career at the CIA, where he eventually became director, he was also a member of the National Security Council and worked in the White House. Gates has received numerous awards of honor, including the National Security Medal, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal and most recently the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

The event was divided into two parts: a conversation between Gates and Couvares and a question and answer session with the audience members.

Couvares’ series of questions were based on Gates’ most recent book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” which was published in January 2014. The book is Gates’ personal account of his time working for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Couvares’ first question targeted U.S. military strategies on counter-insurgency in different regions. Gates drew parallels between American military action in Vietnam and recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said the U.S. military has forgotten how to carry out effective counter-insurgency after Vietnam.

When Couvares commented that counter-insurgency did not work in Vietnam, Gates responded, “Actions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan … came late. I think it was in the last few years in Vietnam that we provided service for people and worked with local officials. The same thing happened in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There seemed to me after Vietnam that first, we need to get away from counter-insurgency as fast as possible.”

Gates also said that when he first started working closely with U.S. government officials, military leaders were only focused on the next war. “I asked, ‘What are we going to do to help the troops fighting today?’ And I got no answer,” Gates said.
He added that the U.S. government was ready to plan wars, but not necessarily wage them.

Couvares then spoke about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, specifically Gates’ approach of minimal presence and impact. Gates responded that he was most concerned about the limited timeframe given to the White House to create a sustainable government in Afghanistan during the war.

“I believed that we vastly overestimated our ability to shape outcomes in countries with very different cultures and histories,” Gates said. “My objective [then became] how do we narrow the goals to the point where they are actually achievable within two, three or four years before the patience of the American people and the Congress runs out.”

Gates said that his specific objectives in Afghanistan were to degrade the Taliban as much as possible, build up Afghanistan’s forces, focus on three to four Afghan ministries that actually mattered to the conflict and pay more attention to provincial and state governments rather than the national government.

The discussion then moved to the U.S. relationship with Iran, which is referred to only briefly in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. When asked about his thoughts on the U.S. and Iranian nuclear agreement, Gates first acknowledged Hillary Clinton’s achievements as secretary of state in imposing tougher sanctions on Iran than the government ever had before. “I think it is those economic sanctions that brought Iran to the bargaining table — it was not out of goodwill,” Gates said.

Gates said that now that Iran has agreed to a deal on nuclear control, he has several concerns. Gates pointed out that the Iranian government claims that all foreign sanctions will be terminated following the deal, while the American government has yet to clarify whether it would gradually lift sanctions based on Iranian compliance with the terms of the deal.

Gates then asked how much of the nuclear material would be moved out of the country and questioned the extent to which the U.S. can verify nuclear control. “Are all facilities in Iran, including military facilities, going to be available for inspection? Would we be able to carry out no-notice inspections?” Gates asked.

After the discussion on the U.S. and Iran relationship, the event transitioned to a question and answer session.
One student asked, “What is an effective strategy [for the U.S.] going forward with terrorism and insurgency in the Middle East?”

Gates said that he believes the U.S. is in for a “generational conflict” in the Middle East, and one of the concerns is the future of artificially created countries, such as Libya, Syria and Iraq, and whether they would withstand government repression.

“At this point, I think that they are all headed in the way of Yugoslavia,” Gates said. “I think these conflicts will continue and my concern is that no one in Washington is stepping back and saying, ‘What is our long-term strategy? What is our equivalent of the containment strategy?’”

“In my view, we need to decide on what we want to support,” Gates added. He said, however, that the White House is shortsighted and is very focused on dealing with problems on a daily basis.

Another audience member asked, “Given the counter-insurgency nature of our military involvement in the past 30 years, do you think the military will or should move towards special operations?”

“I think our military needs to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Gates said. “We need the versatility to deal with big nation-state conventional forces, but also to deal with smaller scale conflicts which we’ve been predominantly in for the past 40 years.”

Gates ended the event by claiming that the United States government must be more selective about when to deploy American soldiers.

“The use of the military has become too easy for the presidents,” Gates said. “My view is that we engage in our military operations when our vital interests are affected. We must not become the world policemen. The American people’s toleration is very limited, and if you send them into every conflict that happens in the world, we will become isolationist because the American people will rebel against this kind of philosophy.”