Exclusive interview: Former defense chief Robert Gates on wars and Washington

Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, front, stands with President Barack Obama as they listen to the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps during an Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of Gates at the Pentagon on June 30, 2011.

Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates talked to Stars and Stripes on Thursday about his new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," and ongoing national security challenges. Here is what he said:

Stripes: You said in your book that Obama hasn’t spoken publicly enough about the importance of the mission in Afghanistan. Having talked with a lot of troops during your visits to Afghanistan and elsewhere, did you get a sense that they don’t believe that their commander-in-chief is fully supportive of them and their mission?

Gates: I basically would hear that indirectly. And frankly, as much as anything, it was my own perception that if you’re going to send troops in harm’s way, you need to be vocal about why the mission is important, why the cause is just, and … why it’s worth the potential sacrifice for the troops who are carrying out the mission … I agreed with all of his decisions in Afghanistan, but on several occasions told his White House chief of staff that [Obama] needed to take ownership of the war in Afghanistan in light of his decision to send 60,000 additional troops there.

And you felt Obama didn’t take ownership of the war?

Gates: Correct.  Most of the time when he would speak about Afghanistan, it was when he was announcing a new strategy or a decision to deploy more troops or to begin drawing down troops; in other words, his public statements were linked to actions he was taking as opposed to appearing in groups – in front of groups of troops, or… [sending] a message to the American people of why the war was important. He would make these courageous decisions, and then nobody from the White House, including him, would go out to defend those decisions and say why they were important and why they were the correct decisions.

Do you think that Obama’s seeming reluctance to speak out about the importance of the mission had a negative impact on the morale of the troops?

Gates: All I have is just anecdotal information. I think based on everything I saw that they were committed to the mission and they did their jobs and often with great courage. But I think that it just can’t help but have an impact if the person who is asking you to make the sacrifice isn’t telling you why it’s worth doing.

In your book, you said you were brought on as secretary of defense to salvage the Iraq War. Ultimately, do you think the Iraq War was worth the cost in lives and treasure?

Gates: I think that more time has to pass and we have to see how this period of conflict and turbulence in the Middle East sorts itself out. If in 15 or 20 years Iraq is a relatively democratic stable society, then I think people will look back and say, well, this was worth the cost. But the other piece of it that I think is more near term is I think that our troops succeeded in their mission in 2008 and 2009 in handing over to the Iraqis a relatively democratic, relatively secure, relatively stable country that had enormous opportunity in front of it because of the oil wealth. And I think our troops should be very proud of the kind of Iraq that they passed over to the Iraqis when our troops began to depart. The fact that the Iraqi government made mistakes after that … particularly in the way that Maliki has dealt with the Sunnis and so on, I think does not diminish the achievement of our troops in having brought Iraq to the point that it was by the end of 2008 and in 2009.

You were a Russia specialist early in your national security career. How concerned should the U.S. and the West be about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine? What would the strategic consequences be?

Gates: I think an actual invasion would be a very critical matter and a source of great concern.  But I think — I think it’s a concern for the same reason that the invasion of Crimea or the seizure of Crimea is a concern.  And there are really two broad principles that Putin has violated and that ought to worry the West a lot.  One is that he is upending the post-Cold War order which basically acknowledged that border changes in Europe would only be done by negotiation, by consent of all the parties involved … [which was] a huge step forward in preserving the peace. The second principle that’s been violated is this settling of an old revanchist score by force … The idea that you can settle these territorial disputes or old claims to territory by force is a huge problem when you consider all of the kinds of disputes there are like that not only in Europe but in Asia and elsewhere. So you have disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands. What Putin has done basically is to give the go-ahead to the Chinese and say, well, just take them by force if you think they belong to you. And I think that’s a very bad message as well and is likely to lead to future crises and potentially armed conflict … One of the reasons that I think we should have reacted more strongly [after Russia took over Crimea] is because once you let those principles go by the wayside, you’re probably in for more crises and conflict.

In light of budget constraints and growing personnel costs, do you think that pay and benefits for servicemembers and veterans are too generous? If so, how do you think they should they be changed?

Gates: I don’t think that most of the benefits are too generous. I think when it comes to housing, when it comes to subsistence, when it comes to healthcare [inaudible], I really don’t think any of the benefits for the active force are too generous, and I wouldn’t change any of that … There are two areas that I have concern. One is on retirement benefits. And it’s not that the retirement benefits are too costly.

It is that 80 percent or so of the people who serve leave the military before they are eligible to retire. So you may put in 5 or 10 or 15 years, but under the current system when you leave you have nothing. And so it’s the retirement system is geared entirely to those who stay 20 years or longer.

What I would like to do is see some kind of a — something comparable to a 401(k) that allows the younger troops, both officers and enlisted, to make a contribution [and] to have the government make a contribution, and then when they leave the service after 5 or 10 years, they have something they can take with them that’s portable to their civilian employment, just like people who change civilian jobs today do. So I’m looking at a change in the system that would allow the 80 percent who don’t retire to have some benefit for their service when it comes to retirement.

The other concern that I have, and frankly went to the Congress about several times, was the Tricare for working age retirees; so people between 42 and 62. And, you know there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of companies agreeing to hire somebody after they leave the military but only if they stay on Tricare because it’s so much cheaper for the companies. They — basically it doesn’t cost them anything.

The problem with Tricare is, you know, most members, most retirees think they were promised lifelong medical care at no cost. Well the Congress changed that in 1997 with the creation of Tricare and when they established a premium for it. But the problem is that there hasn’t been an increase in that premium since 1997 — so 17 years — and that premium for a family of four is $460 a year.

That compares with premiums 10 times or more for … nonmilitary federal retirees. I still think that military retirees ought to get a huge discount. All I was trying to do is raise that premium $5 a month, so $60 a year from $460 to $520. The problem the Pentagon has is that the cost of the healthcare system, including Tricare, have gone from about $12 billion in 2000 to about $60 billion now, and that kind of increase in cost is unsustainable.

So again, this is only for working age retirees between the ages of 42 and 62, nearly all of whom go on to other jobs. So those are the two changes that I would like to see: One that provides a retirement benefit for those who serve less than 20 years that they can carry with them; and then second, a modest increase in the Tricare premium for working age retirees …

The other thing that I would say about retirement — the retirement benefit — is I think that the country has a contract with the members of the military — a moral contract — not to change the terms of the deal during their service. So any changes to the retirement system I would grandfather so that everybody who is on active duty or retired today would be unaffected by the change. It would be all future servicemembers who would be subject to the new system.

Do you think that the veterans service organizations and their supporters on the Hill will block any efforts at meaningful compensation reform when it comes to retirement benefits or other things like that?

Gates: I think they will make every effort to do so … I really applaud a lot of the things the VSOs do. But it seemed to me that when I wanted to make some changes that would benefit the troops who are on active duty, but it had any impact on veterans or retirees at all, the VSOs would oppose it. And that’s what got under my skin. When I was trying to help the people on active duty, it seemed like they were of secondary importance to the VSOs compared to their constituents.

With all the budget cutbacks, combined with continued force requirements and crises in other parts of the world, is the military pivot to Asia still viable?

Gates: “I think so … But it depends on how — I mean the problem is it makes it sound like we’re sending, you know, the bulk of what we have to Asia. And the reality is you cannot ignore the crisis with Russia right now, you cannot ignore the instability and the risk in the Middle East right now, you can’t ignore the Iranian nuclear program. So the idea of significantly weakening our presence in Europe or in the Middle East today in order to send more forces to Asia concerns me, and that’s why the budget cuts concern me.

And I’ve got it that, you know, ships have new technologies and new capabilities, so maybe you don’t need as many as you had 40 years ago, but the reality is you can’t defy the laws of physics. And an aircraft carrier that’s deployed in the South China Sea can’t also be in the Persian Gulf. And so you get involved in the reality of the numbers in terms of the forces that you can actually have deployed. And that’s my concern … For a country that has global interests, I think that we’re going too far in these budget cuts. By the same token, I think a lot of those — a lot of additional military capability could be paid for by significant reform of the Defense Department’s budget and cutting overhead and wasteful programs.

In your book you talked about the need to maintain a full spectrum of military capabilities. Current plans to shrink the Army to 450,000 troops — or as low as 420,000 if sequestration goes back into effect — may preclude the U.S. military from doing large counterinsurgency or stability operations. Is this huge force level cut a bad idea?

Gates: Gen. [Ray] Odierno says publicly that the Army can fulfill its mission with 450,000 troops, and so I take him at his word. I think where I agree with him is that anything below that, and particularly going down to 420 [thousand] or something like that, is very dangerous …

Everybody talks about we’re not going to do insurgency anymore, we’re not going to fight certain kinds of wars anymore. And I always smile when I hear that because that’s exactly what I heard after Vietnam: We’re not going to do any of that anymore. And yet we did [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. And when it comes to predicting where and how we’re going to use military force next over the last 40 years since Vietnam, we have a perfect record: We haven’t gotten it right once …

If you had asked anybody in the United States in July of 1990 the likelihood we would have half a million soldiers in Saudi Arabia by the end of the year, they’d have had you locked up. So you just can’t predict these things, and we need to recognize our inability to predict them.

You are in a unique position of having served two presidents of different parties as secretary of defense. How would you rate President George W. Bush and Obama as commanders-in-chief, respectively? 

Gates: I think they both were very decisive. Both of them never hesitated to make tough decisions. They both were willing to make decisions that they knew would be unpopular politically. They also were willing to make decisions that went against the advice and recommendations of the senior military leadership.

Virtually all of the senior officials and most of the senior officers opposed Bush on the surge in Iraq, and most of the directly involved senior officers opposed [Obama’s] decision on the surge in Afghanistan — not in terms of being against it but in terms of the troop levels that he approved. So I think both have been resolute commanders-in-chief in that respect.

But … I think President Bush was much more personally committed to the success of the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan than President Obama. President Obama came in [to the White House] obviously opposed to the mission in Iraq, and that’s understandable [because] that was his political position and he had held that position consistently from well before he became a candidate for president.

And, although he approved decisions to send additional troops to Afghanistan, I think he came to believe that or to have doubts about whether … the strategy he had approved would actually work.

So that’s the only area in which I saw a difference between the two. They both neither ever had second thoughts about decisions they made or ever expressed any regret about an earlier decision that they made. They made a decision and then they moved on … [But] they both were very respectful of senior military officers. They both were willing to give senior officers all the time they wanted to express their views. And they were willing to have senior officers disagree with them. But by the same token … both presidents were willing to disagree with those officers in return.

Some people are critical of the fact that you published a memoir that criticizes a sitting president who took you into his confidence. What is your response to that criticism?  Do you think it’s fair?

Gates: It’s a legitimate question … [But] there are ample precedents for it. And I would just point to the fact that [former State Department] Secretary [Hillary Rodham] Clinton, [former Treasury] Secretary [Tim] Geitner [and former Defense Secretary] Secretary [Leon] Panetta are all going to be publishing memoirs in the next year or so well before President Obama leaves office. So I don’t think that I’m standing out there by myself in this respect … I think that most of what I say in the book is actually supportive of those presidents …

But more importantly, the book is about issues and problems that are right on our plate today: The Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, how we deal with Russia, how we deal with China, how we deal with Iran, how we deal with Syria, how do you reform the defense budget with a parochial Congress that won’t let programs in their districts be cut, how do you go ahead and make those cuts, how do you make government work. I did that.

So I think sharing how I was able to cut all the programs that I did and reduce overhead – these are all lessons that I think are relevant to the public debate today, and not in 2017 [after Obama leaves office] … I think I’m very respectful and almost entirely supportive of both presidents in the book.

In your book, you talked about the military-industrial complex. Do you think the current system essentially countenances corruption when it comes to defense contractors making campaign contributions to members of Congress or the so-called “revolving door” between the Pentagon and the defense industry? 

Gates: I don’t think it countenances it. I mean, it happens. But I think that can largely be dealt with through strong leadership. After all, I cut three dozen major military programs that affected almost every state in the Union and most members of Congress. And yet I was able to get the Congress either to acquiesce or support every single one of those. So I think you can do the right thing. It just takes some guts and the support of the president.

Twitter: @JHarperStripes


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