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Transcript: Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' Interview With NPR

Transcript of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' unedited interview withMorning Edition 's Steve Inskeep on Jan. 10.

STEVE INSKEEP: I want to begin, though, at the end, in a sense — and it's something you allude to at the very beginning of the book and that you allude to at the end. And it's the reasons that you retired from the job. And you said it had to do with your emotions, in a way. So would you just tell me, in your own words, why did you leave your post as secretary of defense?

ROBERT GATES: Well, one of the factors that played into it was that I realized after two years on — under President Obama and two years under President Bush, every day at war in two wars, that my devotion to doing what was necessary to protect the troops and give them the equipment that they needed to be successful in their mission and to come home safely had become my highest priority. And in terms of my trying to avoid new conflict and in terms of recommending against intervention in Libya, my concerns about going to war in Syria, much less in Iran, really focused on, can't we just finish the two wars we're already in? And I was focused on the strain on our troops and on their families. They'd been at war for 10 years. And I came to realize in the early spring of 2011 that my preoccupation, my priority had become protecting them from further sacrifice, perhaps at the expense of hard-headed objectivity in terms of the use of our military. And I was becoming emotional when I was around the troops and thinking about the troops. And all of that contributed to my decision on the specific timing that it was time to go.

INSKEEP: You are talking about something that is difficult to say outright, but you're essentially saying that if you're going to be a national official in a position of authority, you have to be prepared to get some of your troops killed, maybe many of them, if you feel that serves the national interest.

GATES: Well, and I was prepared to do that. And as I said, I — as I say in the book, you know, if there were an outright threat to the United States or to our interest or our allies, I would be the first in line to argue for the use of military force. It just seemed to me that some of the areas where we were looking at potential conflict were more in the category of wars of choice. And it was those that I was trying to protect the troops from. If there were a threat to the United States, I'd have no hesitation to throw everything we had at our adversary, and including our troops. But it was in these gray areas, where there was no direct threat to the United States, but potentially our interests were involved, where I was leaning hard to the side of not using military force, in part because of the strain on our troops.

INSKEEP: How did you become so emotionally attached to the troops in this way?

GATES: Well, I think — I think partly it had to do with having been a university president at a huge university, at Texas A&M. And for 4 1/2 — almost 4 1/2 years as president of A&M, I'd walk the campus, and I would see these kids 18 to 25 years old walking around in backpacks and flip-flops and shorts and T-shirts and basically having a good time and going to class. And literally overnight I was in Iraq and seeing young people exactly the same age in full body armor carrying assault rifles and living under the most wretched possible conditions. And their sacrifice I think and what they were going through meant more for me or had a bigger impact on me because I had been a university president. And so it really began almost immediately in terms of I am just going to do everything in my power to give these troops and their commanders what they need and to do everything in my power to protect them and to — and to take care of them.

INSKEEP: What happened when you, as any secretary of defense would have to, began sending notes to the families of service members killed in action?

GATES: Well, I was determined that these young people would not just become statistics for me. And so I started out by handwriting parts of the — of the condolence letters. And then — and even then that wasn't enough, I felt. And I so then I started asking that every time one of these packets came to me, that it'd have a picture of the — of the soldier or sailor, airman or Marine who'd been killed, along with the hometown news so that I knew, you know, what their coaches and their parents and their brothers and sisters and teachers were saying about them, so I felt like I had some personal knowledge about each one of them. And I would write those condolence letters every evening.

INSKEEP: And that became difficult after a while?

GATES: It didn't take too long. I think that quite honestly, in the — in those evening sessions, writing the condolence letters, there probably wasn't a single evening in nearly 4 1/2 years when I didn't — when I didn't weep.

INSKEEP: There must have been people in your family who said you need to come up with some other way to handle this.

GATES: No, I actually was very private about it. And, you know, I mean, it's just — for me it was just part of the job and one of those things that I had to deal with. And part of the reason I did the letters at night was, frankly, so that — so that I could have those emotions and do so in private.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if something was different about your tenure as secretary of defense than in some of the other jobs that you had. People will know that you worked for the CIA, that you ran the CIA, that the CIA, although the numbers would not be as large, have — has had people killed in action, that they're involved in wars. None of this was new to you, but it affected you in a different way.

GATES: Well, first of all, I mean, the numbers were significantly larger. There were casualties at CIA and, frankly, have been a lot more since 9/11. But it was a very rare thing. And so there really isn't anything that I think can prepare you for being secretary of defense in wartime.

INSKEEP: You said, Secretary Gates, that your emotions affected your decision to retire. Did your feelings about the Obama administration also affect your decision to retire?

GATES: No, not really. And, you know, the president — there has been a lot in the media and so on that's — portrays me as very critical of President Obama. But the truth is we had a very good personal relationship. We discussed our differences openly. He was always civil and kind to me, gave me a lot of trust and confidence.

And I think that, you know, we — when I first interviews with him, we talked about maybe my staying a year. And then he asked me to stay longer. And in my retirement ceremony, I talked about the fact that he had asked me to stay on and on and on. And even in the spring of 2011, when we had had these differences over the budget and so on, he was still urging to stay on until the end of the first term. So we had a very — a very positive personal relationship. And as I say, he was eager for me to stay even longer and basically made clear I could stay as long as I wanted.

But I just knew that after 4 1/2 — four years, 4 1/2 years, that I was spent. I'd been fighting every single day with the Congress, with the Pentagon, sometimes with his staff and then the two wars themselves, and it just, over 4 1/2, every day at war with all these different elements, I was spent.

INSKEEP: You do describe what you felt was, quote, a total focus on politics by often the president, nearly always Vice President Biden and always from the rest of his staff.

GATES: Well, what I — what I write about in the book was that domestic politics had a role in the debates about national security issues that I had not previously experienced. But I also go on to write that at the end of the day the president made — President Obama made decisions based on what he thought was in the best interest of U.S. national security. So his decisions to increase troops in Afghanistan early in 2009 and then a substantial increase toward the end of 2009, were decisions taken against all of the advice of his domestic political advisers, White House staff and the vice president.

INSKEEP: Although you also recount a conversation discussing the surge of troops in Afghanistan, and the surge of troops in Iraq under President Bush comes up. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the room. President Obama is in the room. What did they say?

GATES: Well, Hillary was a very strong supporter of the Afghan surge. And she turns to the president and says, you know, the reason that the surge worked — that the surge worked in Iraq, in terms of arguing for the surge in Afghanistan — and just commented almost just as an aside that the main reason she'd opposed the Iraq surge has been because of running against him in the — in the presidential — early in the presidential year in 2008.

I will say —

INSKEEP: Oh, he was an antiwar candidate so she felt she had to go against him on that score.

GATES: Yeah, but I will say this about Hillary: In the 2 1/2 years that I served with her as secretary of state, I never once saw her let domestic politics affect her positions on issues. And maybe there's a difference between, you know, a senator who's running for political office and somebody who actually has responsibility, but I just — I never heard Secretary Clinton once bring domestic politics into the discussion as a factor during the 2 1/2 years we served together and when she was secretary of state.

INSKEEP: Why did you include that anecdote then?

GATES: Well, I think partly it was because I was sitting there, and I had been on the other side of that table in the spring of 2007 in terms of arguing for the surge. And our ability to sustain the surge was a very near-run thing in 2007, and because of the opposition to the surge, particularly among Democrats. And so for them to have that kind of a conversation in my presence just had a big impact on me.

INSKEEP: Did it suggest anything larger about the character of either Secretary Clinton or President Obama?

GATES: No, I don't think so. You know, it's a little bit like one of the presidential scholars said. You know, politics intruding in discussion of issues? (Chuckles.) Heaven forbid. You know, I certainly did not see it as a negative with respect to my respect for Secretary Clinton and our working together. It's just — it's just part of the Washington political scene. And it was just the fact that we had been on opposite sides of that issue and that candor that struck me.

INSKEEP: I sense, in listening to you talk, Mr. Secretary, and having read this book, that you're trying very hard to give a nuanced portrait of the president and others around him. So I want to stipulate here you do speak highly of his decision-making ability. You actually compare his decision-making process to that of Abraham Lincoln. You say that he was very kind to you personally, that he made many very strong decisions. But at the same time, even on occasions when he agrees with you, when you recount stories in the book of inside meetings you seem to be bothered by his attitude, the way that he phrases things when it comes to the United States military. What was the problem that you saw between this president and the military?

GATES: Well, I think that — first of all, I think that the president's approach towards the military, particularly right after he was elected and initially, was pitch perfect. He — and I will say also Mrs. Obama's interactions with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with troops and so on, was exactly right, and there was never any question of their support, their affection, their respect for the troops.

I think that — I think that what got things a little bit — well, what started to get things off track was the military leadership pressing for a substantial increase in the number of troops literally days within — after the inauguration. And the feeling on the part of the vice president and others that the military was trying to box the president in and, as they would put it, jam him into making a big decision in terms of an increase of nearly — of some 20,000 troops --

INSKEEP: In Afghanistan.

GATES: — in Afghanistan within days, if not weeks, of becoming president. And I think that that attitude of suspicion of what the military was trying to do had its roots in that — in that discussion in February and March of 2009. And when it came to Afghanistan, and Iraq for that matter but mainly Afghanistan, fed a suspicion that the military was always trying to box the president in and force him into significant troop increases and so on.

And so there was this feeling — and because of various public comments made by senior military officials, by the chairman, by General Petraeus later, by General McChrystal and others, the feeling that they were trying publicly to put the president in a position where he had no alternative but to approve what they wanted. And as I write in the book, looking back I always tried at the time to persuade the president that this was no plot, that the military didn't have a plan, if you will, to try and box him in. And, frankly, I don't think I was ever able to persuade him that that was not the case, again primarily when it came to Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: It's remarkable this exchange that you record here on page 369. You're in a private meeting with the president and Admiral Mike Mullen, the president's top military adviser, and you quote the president asking a number of really direct questions: What is wrong? Is it the process? Are they — meaning the military — is the military suspicious of my politics? Do they resent that I never served in the military? Do they think because I'm young that I don't see what they're doing? That's a remarkable series of questions to hear from a man who outwardly has always been quite confident.

GATES: Well, I think he was trying, you know, with this suspicion and this concern — you know, I hesitate to try and interpret his — what he was thinking or what was behind it, but I can only speculate that he was trying to figure out why the military was trying to put him in this position, trying to box him in, in terms of these troop numbers. And I think that was — that was sort of his exasperated response to it.

INSKEEP: We should explain to people that at this time there were generals giving interviews and testimony indicating that more troops were needed, particularly the commanding general in Afghanistan at the time. That's what we're talking about when we talk about the president feeling boxed.

GATES: Well, and basically saying publicly that no other alternative would succeed, so that the other alternatives that were under consideration by the president and the national security team for fewer troops — several different options along those lines — that the impact of the public statements was to suggest publicly that none of the other options, including one being pushed forward by Vice President Biden, would work at all.

INSKEEP: So was the president reading the military entirely wrong?

GATES: I think that this is one of those unfortunate circumstances where a series of unconnected events gave the impression of a pattern. And I write in the book that I felt that the senior military had come to speak too often, too publicly about issues that were under consideration in a way that could only increase tensions between them and the president. And to tell you the truth, as I make clear in the book, President Bush had the same problem with some of the senior military in terms of their comments with respect to Iran and Afghanistan versus Iraq and so on. So this was not unique to President Obama.

INSKEEP: You seem considerably less respectful of the president's staff than you were of the president himself.

GATES: Well, I had a lot of battles with those folks. And frankly, my attitudes were shaped by the fact that I worked in the White House on the National Security Council staff and as deputy national security adviser for nearly nine years under four presidents. And I had certain ideas about how the national security staff and how the White House staff ought to comport themselves in discussions on national security and military issues. And let's just say that the way it worked under — in the Obama White House was not anything like I had seen before.

I had worked for probably three of the most significant and toughest national security advisers in our history: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. And there were things that went on in the Obama White House that, under those three guys, I am confident would have been a firing offense, such as direct calls from NSC staff members to four-star generals and so on. That just wouldn't have been allowed.

INSKEEP: Oh, they should have gone through the chain of command you think, or through the hierarchy?

GATES: Absolutely — absolutely.

INSKEEP: And they were effectively giving orders or going around their own nominal bosses on the staff? That's what you're saying?

GATES: Well, I think the key is what you said. They were going outside the chain of command. It's not appropriate for somebody on the National Security Council staff to be in direct contact with combatant commanders.

INSKEEP: You felt that there were too many young guys in there who just didn't know very much about national security. Is that a fair summary?

GATES: Well, I make the point in the book that during most of my career, most of the people involved in — at senior levels in the National Security Council and so on had considered — although they might have associated themselves with one or another political party or candidate, generally had long experience in foreign policy or national security. That was certainly true of General Jones, who was Obama's first national security adviser.

INSKEEP: Jim Jones, right.

GATES: Jim Jones. And it was certainly true of, you know, people like Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell and a variety of others who had served in the past. And I — you know, there just were a lot of — as I write in the book, some of the people — some of the young people in senior positions on the White House staff and the National Security Council staff had probably been in college or even in high school when I was the director of CIA. So we just had a different world outlook and a different experience.

INSKEEP: Some of the same staffers are still there — some of the staffers that you criticized. Denis McDonough, for example, is now the White House chief of staff.

GATES: Well, you know, interestingly, I read that in a review — that I had been critical of Denis — and I went back and I looked through the index and all the entries under Denis. And I don't think there's actually a critical word of Denis in there. Where — what's been interpreted as criticism is when Denis was sent down to Haiti to try and coordinate communications with respect to the Haitian relief effort. And what I write in the book is that when somebody is sent from the White House into a zone where the military is basically running the show, they're — just in terms of appearances — somebody who is there who is from the White House and speaks for the president can't help but confuse things. I don't think Denis created that situation; Denis was put into that situation.

So I think — you know, there's been — there's been suggestion in some of these things that I've — that I was very critical of both Denis and Ben Rhodes, and I've talked about — who is deputy assistant to the president for national security — and I don't think I say anything negative personally about Ben. It's just that, again, he's young, and when he came to the job, certainly a lack of real experience in governance when it came to national security.

And I think, as I say in the book, Ben had a — and still does, probably — what I felt was an exaggerated sense of the impact of President Obama's rhetoric to change the circumstances on the ground, whether it's the Cairo speech in the beginning of the administration --

INSKEEP: To the Muslim world in 2009.

GATES: — or in — or in other areas. So I don't — I'm not critical of either of these guys personally. It's just the circumstances that they were in.

INSKEEP: Are you confident with the staff that president has now?

GATES: Well, I — you know, I think there have been a lot of changes in the 2 1/2 years since I was there, so — but I — you know, I worked with — Susan Rice was the — was the U.N. ambassador when I was secretary, and she was very tough-minded. Frankly, I was surprised by that based on what I had read about her before. And so, you know, as far as I can tell, it's a — it's a pretty strong team.

INSKEEP: Have you been surprised by the strong response to the early reviews of this book, which — you haven't said everything that's in the book, but have noted your criticism, in some cases, of the president, the vice president and others?

GATES: Well, frankly, I guess the thing — the only thing that has really troubled me a little bit is that some people who have a narrative on Obama and the war got out there early with their take on my — on what I've written, and I think shaped their discussion of the book to support their narrative of what had taken place without taking into account some of the more measured and counterbalancing discussion that's in the book. The book is about a lot more than just Afghanistan and about the Obama strategy in Afghanistan, although obviously, the wars both in Afghanistan and Iraq are central to the book itself.

INSKEEP: Well, you do write --

GATES: I think that — I think that as the days since those first stories came out — and frankly, other journalists, I thought, had a more balanced and nuanced approach to discussing the book, and I think as the days have gone along, some of that nuance and balance is beginning to come into the reporting.

INSKEEP: You're talking about the fact that you wrote that you felt the president lacked passion about the war in Afghanistan. Is that the comment you think was seized upon?

GATES: No, I think — I think it was — I think it was more focused — was the reporting that I — that I felt he came to have doubts about whether his own strategy could succeed, and I think that some of the early reporting suggested that he made the decision in December or November of 2009 believing it wouldn't work. I don't believe that for a second. President Obama would never do that, in my view. I think when he made that decision in November of 2009, he believed that strategy would work.

I think, through the course of 2010, largely due to — or in significant part due to continuing pushing on him by the vice president and by others in the White House, his doubts about whether this strategy could succeed would grow, and leading ultimately, in March of 2011, to the comments that I made that I felt that the president didn't trust his commander and didn't trust — didn't like Karzai and had lost faith in his own strategy.

INSKEEP: I've taken too much time on this part of the discussion, but I want to ask one more question and then move onto a couple of other things and then let you go. The one more question is this: Why did you write that Vice President Biden, in your view, has been wrong about every major foreign policy issue for 40 years? That's a pretty scathing line.

GATES: Well, two things. First of all, I think it's fair to say that particularly on Afghanistan, the vice president was my — he and I were on opposite sides of the fence on this issue. And he was in there advising the president every day. He was, I think, stoking the president's suspicion of the military. But the other side of it is, frankly, I believe it. The vice president, when he was a senator — a very new senator, voted against the aid package for South Vietnam, and the — that was part of the deal when we pulled out of South Vietnam to try and help them survive. He said that when the — when the Shah fell in Iran in 2009 — 1979, rather — that that was a step forward for progress toward human rights in Iran. He opposed virtually every element of President Reagan's defense buildup. He voted against the B-1, the B-2, the MX and so on. He voted against the first Gulf War. So on a number of these major issues, I just — I frankly, over a long period of time felt that he had been on the wrong — he'd been — I think he had been wrong.

INSKEEP: Did you have any moment when writing this book or preparing to publish it of wondering if you really wanted to make all these remarks about a sitting president, particularly while a war is still underway?

GATES: Well, I think — you know, I did think about that, but the reality is if you look at the book as a totality, it's about war. It's about getting into wars, how you get out of wars, about the risks of launching military operations whether it's in Libya or Syria or Iran. It's about dealing with China. It's about relations between the president and his senior military. It's about defense reform and how we ought to be spending our defense dollars. It's about the role of the Congress in all of this and the impact of the dysfunction in Congress in all of these areas.

These are all contemporary issues. And having worked for eight presidents, and being a historian, I felt I had a unique perspective. And these issues are with us today. These are not issues that can wait to be written about in 2017. And so that's the reason that I decided to go forward with the book.

INSKEEP: Did you have some of the sharper lines — and, yeah, you're very media savvy. You must have known some of the lines that would get attention. Did you have a moment of hovering over the delete key and almost deleting them?

GATES: And actually did on several occasions.

INSKEEP: Oh. Well, I guess we can wait for that commentary to come out at a later time. (Laughter.)

I want to ask about that broader question of the cost of war that consumed you during your time as secretary of defense, because you write about one decision you were involved in that you felt — although it was hard to prove — that it had life-or-death consequences for people: extending troop deployments in order to continue to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What was the decision you faced?

GATES: Well, it was really when the surge was launched there were — there were two choices. We didn't have enough troops, so the question was whether you shorten their tours at home or whether you lengthen their tours in the combat zone. And it was one of the toughest decisions I made as secretary — (audio break) — combat for 15 months, and I knew what the costs of that would be for the troops and their families. And I think those costs were real, looking back.

INSKEEP: And let's be explicit about the costs. You linked this in your mind to the increase in suicides, or the problem with suicides in the military.

GATES: Well, I think — I have no statistics to prove it, but I believe that those 15-month tours had to have aggravated the post-traumatic stress problem and probably the suicide problem.

INSKEEP: Previously it had been a year or 13 months or six months, depending on the branch of service, and it was just a little longer. And you think that made a difference in wearing people down?

GATES: I think, as one of my junior military assistants put it, 15 months brought into play the "law of twos." You miss two Christmases, two birthdays, two anniversaries and so on, and I think that had a consequence.

Excuse me, we probably need to wrap up here.

INSKEEP: Yeah, just one more question about that —

GATES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: — and I'll let you go. And I know your time is — I know your time is short.

GATES: I'm just headed for a doctor's appointment.

INSKEEP: I understand.

What do you think about that decision in retrospect?

GATES: Well, I think I had no choice, and — well, the choice was to shorten the time at home from a year to eight or nine months. And I believe as hard as the 15-month tours overseas were, the shortening the time at home would have been worse.

INSKEEP: What is the lesson then of decisions like that that you had to make that future decision-makers should take away from your experience?

GATES: I think it goes back to the very beginning of our discussion, and that is you do have to be prepared to make the hard decisions, knowing what the consequences will be for the troops, whether it's sending them into battle or extending their tours. Part of the job of being secretary of defense in war is having to be strong enough to make the decisions that are important in terms of achieving our national security objectives and protecting us.

INSKEEP: Is there any decision you'd take back from those 4 1/2 years?

GATES: Well, I'm as critical of myself in the book — this is one thing that only a couple of people have pointed out — I'm as critical of myself in the book as I am of anybody else. I fault myself for delaying in solving a command — a chain of command problem in Afghanistan. I did not — I did a lot to try and help wounded warriors, but some of the things that I wanted to do I was unable to achieve. I think I made a mistake in — when I appointed General McKiernan as commander in Afghanistan. I did him a disservice as well as our war effort because that just wasn't a good fit. So, you know, I think throughout the book there are some mistakes.

And I will say, at the end of the book I also point out that I think we all did a disservice to President Obama, because the debate on Afghanistan became so divisive that the opportunities to reach across those differences I think were missed. And I fault myself for not reaching out more to the vice president to see where we could find common ground, because at the end of the day, in a number of important respects, I don't think our positions were that far apart. But because of the environment, because of the suspicion, because of the — just the flavor of the debate and the difficulty between the Department of Defense and the National Security Council staff, I think that those edges were sharper than they needed to be, and that's partly my responsibility.

INSKEEP: Secretary Gates, thanks very much.

GATES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: His new book is called Duty.

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