Ex-defense secretary Robert Gates discusses Iran, Syria, potential military-budget cuts
By FRED MANN | The Wichita Eagle | Published: October 14, 2012
Former Defense Secretary and Wichita native Robert Gates has served under eight U.S. presidents from both major political parties, and he isn’t endorsing either of this year’s candidates.
Known as a bipartisan pragmatist, he is wary come election time.
“Harry Truman said, ‘Every four years in our elections, we sometimes take on the characteristics of a primitive people at the time of a full moon,’?” Gates said.
But he will be in Wichita less than a week after the election to speak at the Wichita Metro Chamber’s annual meeting on Nov. 12 at Century II in celebration of Veterans Day, and, among other topics, Gates will talk about the consequences of the election.
The event will honor the nation’s veterans and recognize U.S. military forces, specifically McConnell Air Force Base. Gates’ appearance is fitting. In May, the Kansas Air National Guard 184th Intelligence wing’s complex at McConnell was named after him, and he attended the ceremony.
Gates, who was born in Wichita and graduated from East High in 1961, has been in Wichita many times, he said. He often arrives unannounced to visit family, including his 99-year-old mother, Isabel.
“I try to get back whenever I can,” Gates said by phone from his home in the Pacific Northwest.
He stepped down as Defense Secretary 16 months ago and is working on two books, including one about his time as Defense Secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He already has authored one book, “From The Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War.”
Gates also has joined in a consulting partnership with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley.
At the chamber event, Gates said, he plans to talk about the troops and what they have accomplished, and about global events.
Some of those events, particularly violence in Libya and Syria, have become central to the presidential race and will be among the likely topics of Tuesday’s debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
In his first major foreign policy speech, Romney on Monday said the U.S. should put Iran on notice that this country and its allies would stop Iran from making nuclear weapons, beginning with a show of military force, including restoring the presence of aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
Gates said that most of what Romney proposed in the speech isn’t new. There has been a significant naval presence in the Gulf since he was secretary, he said.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions against Iran and they keep getting tighter, he said. Recent demonstrations in Tehran show they are having an impact.
“In terms of specifics, most of what he was suggesting already has been done,” Gates said. “The president has said we won’t allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. That’s pretty clear.”
Gates declined to comment on the Sept. 11 raid on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, a State Department computer specialist and two former Navy SEALs. The raid has spawned a congressional hearing and drawn criticism from Romney and the GOP about the Obama administration’s handling of security at the consulate, and for the way it described the attack first as a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim Internet video, and later as a terrorist act.
“I learned a long time ago not to take a position until hearing all the facts, and I don’t know what all the facts are,” Gates said.
As for Syria, where a revolution against President Bashar Assad has increased instability in the Middle East, Romney said Monday that the U.S. must join other nations in helping arm Syrian rebels to oust Assad. Romney cast Obama’s efforts as weak and part of a broader lack of leadership in the region and the world.
“I’m not being cute in saying this, but the truth is we don’t know what, if anything, the Obama administration is doing,” said Gates, who wasn’t in office when the rebellion in Syria began.
Any action underway is probably covert and unlikely to be trumpeted by the administration, he said.
“We need to work with the Turks, who are right there and most affected by what’s going on in Syria and a close NATO ally,” Gates said.
Gates said the opposition is extremely fragmented, with as many as 100 different groups involved, including al-Qaida, which, although a player, isn’t dominant.
“I think some caution is required in terms of who you provide assistance to, and the nature of that assistance,” Gates said.
While sentiment in Washington and elsewhere is building for the creation of a no-fly zone over rebel-controlled territory in Syria, Gates again is cautious.
“I just like to remind people that no-fly zones begin with an act of war. It begins with an air attack on a country, and you’re just crossing your fingers that they don’t react and you get yourself in a third war in the Middle East in 11 years,” he said.
The defense budget has become another political football as the candidates debate ways to cut spending and trim the nation’s deficit. Plans call for lopping $900 billion from defense over a decade, with trims recommended by Gates before he left office accounting for $400 billion of that total.
Gates said those cuts are manageable and there’s a plan for how to deal with them.
“We can do that without wrecking our national security,” he said.
But the additional so-called “sequestration” cuts — automatic $1.2 trillion across-the-board reductions to domestic budgets and defense spending over the next 10 years — will take effect in January unless lawmakers can make a new deal. The cost to the Pentagon would be another $500 billion.
Those cuts would put troops at risk, Gates said. They would result in less flying time for pilots, less troop training in tanks and equipment, and would also mean cancelling or stretching out modernization programs, such as Boeing’s tanker project, until they actually end up costing more.
“I hope there are enough adults left after the election that they can get this thing fixed before sequestration comes into effect,” Gates said.
Gates said the defense budget accounts for only 15 percent of federal expenditures, yet would absorb half the sequestration cuts, a situation he called “crazy.”
He called sequestration “the most mindless possible kind of cut because it’s across the board.”
“The whole sequestration scenario reminds me of the scene in ‘Blazing Saddles’ where the sheriff holds a gun to his head and says, ‘Don’t make me shoot this man,’?” Gates said.
Gates, who was respected by leaders of both parties while he was in Washington, D.C., didn’t sound optimistic that today’s gridlocked lawmakers could strike a deal and stop the cuts. Although bitter partisanship in Washington is nothing new, he said, “What’s disturbing is, in the past, we have always, in times of trouble, overcome that partisanship to get things done.”
The last time U.S. lawmakers allowed their bitterness to bring the basic business of the nation to a halt led to the Civil War, Gates said.
“The question is whether our politicians can get beyond their partisanship and do the right thing for the country,” he said.