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Russian and Chinese Assertiveness Poses New Foreign Policy Challenges

HBO History Makers Series With Robert M. Gates

Speaker: Robert M. Gates, President-elect, Boy Scouts of America; Author, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War; Former Secretary, U.S. Department of Defense; Former President, Texas A&M University; Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency
Presider: Fareed Zakaria, Host, CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS; Editor-at-Large, TIME Magazine; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations
May 21, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations

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ZAKARIA: So I will tell you something Bob Gates told me just as we were coming in. He said that he's here because he was doing an event a few weeks ago at the University Club, as a favor to John Whitehead and that Richard Haass noticed this and said, "what about the Council on Foreign Relations?" But I noticed that even to get him to the Council on Foreign Relations we still had to bring out John Whitehead.

So, John Whitehead, it's a pleasure to see you. It's a pleasure to see all of you. Henry Kissinger says, "Those who need no introduction crave it the most."

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: That would be Henry.

ZAKARIA: I think that that might be more a reflection of the person who said it than a general statement about human beings. And the limited knowledge that I have about Bob Gates tells me that he is not one of those people, so I am going to do him the honor of assuming that everybody knows who Robert Gates is, just remind you that as we talk about these things, Bob Gates has been involved in the making of American foreign policy for about 40 years, about 8 presidents. And so some of this will be based on not just his most recent term in office as Secretary of Defense, but Director of CIA -- Deputy Director of CIA and such.

Let me just say a few things before we being, which is that this is a serious put together by the council of course, but in association with HBO and Richard Plepler, the CEO in particular. And so we thank them for their generous support. And this is also an event open to CFR members around the nation and the world, because we have live stream and teleconferencing, and we will during the Q&A session will try and get questions from people outside.

Bob, let me start with -- we're meant to be talking about history, but history, past, present, future are going to all meld in inevitably. But I thought we'd talk a little bit about something you've spent your whole life studying, which is Moscow. And when you look at what's going on now, there are two sort of narratives that people have, one of which is if only we had tried harder to integrate Russia into the world order, if we had not expanded NATO, if we had given them more aid, we might have a very different Russia.

And there's an alternative narrative that says, you know, this was a fool's errand in the first place. Russia is not a prototypical Western country. A Western country in the making, it defines itself by it's distinction, perhaps even by it's opposition to the West. And that this was an inevitable clash and Putin perhaps represents just a more spirited example.

You were involved in American foreign policy centrally in that moment when the Soviet Union collapses, when NATO expands into West Germany and East Germany, though not in the expansion into Eastern Europe. Reflect a little bit about this debate and the trajectory of Russian history over the last 20 years.

GATES: I think that -- I think both of those narratives are much too simple. There's some element of truth in both of them. I think, and as I wrote in the book, I think that we in the West, and in the United States in particular, dramatically underestimated the degree of humiliation on the part of the Russians with the collapse, not just of the Soviet Union which is a relatively recent phenomenon historically, but the collapse of the Russian Empire, a thousand years in the building.

And then the hoards of Westerners, and especially Americans, businessmen, academicians, government officials, going to Russia in the early 90s and telling them how they should organize themselves. How they should organize their economy. What kind of foreign policies they should follow. And this at a time when Russia was -- was very weak mainly due to the nearly entire collapse of their economy.

And the deprivation -- I don't think we've understood the deprivation that prevailed across much of Russia for some years in the 1990s, the first half or so of the 1990s. And pensioners who didn't have enough food, soldiers who weren't getting paid, and just on and on. Collapse of the health care system. I mean, this was a country in real trouble. And here we were, coming over there, telling them how to organize their affairs.

But the other narrative is that -- is that some Russians, and Putin is foremost among them, he needs to be taken seriously when he says that he thought that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-strategic catastrophe in the 20th Century. I absolutely believe that he believes that. And he -- those -- that humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which far outweighed the resentment at the Westerners coming over.

But the humiliation of the collapse of the Russian empire, he and others like him, I think, have been determined from the beginning to restore Russia as a world power, as a force to be reckoned with, as a thousand year old empire. And this -- I think he believes this protection of Russians who were left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union in Northern Kazakhstan, elsewhere in central Asia, and Ukraine, and Moldova, and in the Baltic States, is a historical calling for him.

And he also, I think, the other part of his agenda is establishing -- that's fairly new. What's as old as Russia itself is his effort to create a buffer of client states on the periphery of Russia that look to Moscow economically, politically, and for security. But I think that, you know, when he would meet with Condi Rice and I, he would talk about the CFE Treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, consistently as the Colonial Treaty, a treaty imposed on Russia when it was weak. And he would refer -- he would make other references to that period in the first part of the 90s in those kinds of terms, as things that were imposed on Russia, bargains that were broken in terms of NATO moving east, in terms of what would happen when Germany was reunified in NATO...

ZAKARIA: Did he claim that NATO -- that Baker had given him a guarantee, that NATO would not move further East than East Germany?

GATES: Yes. The Russians believe that they had a commitment from the West. I've not seen any documentation to that effect, but they believed that they had a commitment that we wouldn't try and move NATO to the East. And frankly, I think -- I think that they were probably -- they resented the Baltic States, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and Hungary moving into NATO. But I don't think it was a huge deal for them.

I think, in fact, that it was when we tried to move towards Georgia and Ukraine that it was, if you will, a bridge too far. And particularly when you consider Kiev as the birthplace of the Russian empire, back in the 10th Century, 9th Century, and when you consider that Crimea is then part of Ukraine, Russia's only warm water port, and it's only Naval base on the Black Sea, so I think all of those things made Ukraine especially sensitive and I think it's why Ukraine is so sensitive for them right now. And why what's happening there is key.

I think he has -- I think he's playing the long game. He can be -- even under the Russian constitution, he can be president until 2024. The long game in Washington is generally a week from Thursday.

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: And, I think he's willing to be patient. I think he has these strategic goals that I described. But I think he will be very opportunistic and realistic in trying to achieve them. And so he will press forward when he thinks it is okay to do so and safe to do so. And he'll pull back when he thinks he needs to do so.

ZAKARIA: But when you look at the strategic impact, of what he's done, you have to assume that people in the non-Russian part of Ukraine are now more fiercely more anti-Russia than they were. The Poles are more worried about Russia. The Baltic States, of course have always been, but now more -- when you look at Kazakhstan, and I'd love to know your thoughts on this. Nazarbayev, the the head of Kazakhstan, must look at this and say, "Wait a minute. Is the principle here that if there are some Russians in my country, and Kazakhstan is 25 percent Russian, that Mr. Putin can send his army in to protect Russians?" In other words, has he scared or worried his neighbors and caused more kind of a security problem for himself?

GATES: First of all, the Russians have -- Russian Intelligence Services have been very busy in Central Asia, for years now. When I became Secretary of Defense, I would talk with Condi and Steve Hadley, we would talk about -- I mean, we had evidence that Russian agents were in these Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan in particular, when we had the Air base at Manas, but in Tajikistan, in all of these places, trying to build resistance against better relations with the United States, and Western Europe in those states. And not only countering our own efforts to try and improve relations with those countries, but fanning the flames of nationalism and actually working actively against us with a lot of anti-American propaganda.

And so, I think -- my own view is, that in terms of this protection of Russians, that that's a pretty loose term. And you know, as long as Nazarbayev allows the Russians to speak Russian, and is not persecuting them in some way, or acting in a way contrary to their interests, my guess is that Putin will leave them alone. But it's where he feels that Russians are being persecuted or where there is a prejudice against them, or there is -- there are laws or rules that disadvantage them economically, politically, whatever, that he will, at a minimum, have his intelligence officers in there working the problem. And in the case of Ukraine, and particularly Estonia and Latvia, I think squeezing them economically. And he has enormous leverage in a number of these countries in that respect.

So -- so just to circle back to the original question -- so I think this is -- I think the West did make some mistakes in terms of how it was dealing with Russia. And you know, I will say this for one of my very favorite presidents, George H. W. Bush, who refused to dance on the wall, and who in his restraint allowed or facilitated some very good things to happen without violence. It might have been different if he'd stayed in office a second term, in terms of how we dealt with Russia at the time.

That said, the Russians spent a good part of -- the Russian politicians, including Putin, spent a good part of the 90s and most of the 2000's excoriating the U.S. internally. I mean, they ran against the United States and NATO every single day politically every single day inside Russia. They vilified what we were trying to do. They opposed what we were trying to do in a lot of places around the world, and not just Iraq or Afghanistan.

And so their -- and they were, at the same time suppressing their own people, violating human rights, closing down the political system, putting the security forces in charge. So there were a lot of negative things going on inside Russia that I think would have moved them a long way toward where they are today, regardless of how we would have dealt with them through the mid-1990s.

ZAKARIA: Were does -- where do you think this goes? The Ukraine situation. I think, most people now seem to believe Putin does not want to actually want to annex Eastern Ukraine. Presumably, he wants to use it as kind of an internal pressure point to get a Ukraine that is more pliable. Does that mean that this -- that we move into kind of settled space?

But we don't recognize the annexation of Crimea, and when I say we, I mean the whole entire Western world. There are some sanctions in place. How do you see this moving forward?

GATES: I think the last thing Putin wants is to recreate the Soviet Union. He does not want to take on responsibility for so many of those economic basket cases, including Ukraine. I think what he wants, particularly in Ukraine, now that he's got Crimea, is a government that is definitely not moving toward the West, and that is sympathetic to Russia. How sympathetic may be negotiable, and particularly if you end up a more federated Ukraine where the East has a great deal of autonomy in terms of the Russian language, education, business, and so on and so forth, and in fact, can be-- look more towards Moscow than toward Kiev.

I think people sometimes forget the ouster of Yanukovych was a defeat for Putin. Yanukovych was pro-Russian, pro-Putin. Ukraine was still moving toward the E.U. under him. Putin puts a $16 billion dollar bribe on the table with a lot of political muscle. Yanukovych caves in, accepts that, cuts off the deals with the E.U.

He gets thrown out. And a pro-Western government is placed in Kiev. That's when Putin reacts and moves to seize Crimea. He couldn't afford to take the risk of a pro-Western Ukraine that someday could deny Russia that area.

So now I think, as I said, I think where he's headed -- I think he won't rest. He won't be done until he has a relatively pro-Russian government in Kiev. It doesn't have to be as far reaching as Yanukovych. But as long as it allows this federated structure to be -- to take place where the East can look to Moscow and has near independence, and as long as it doesn't move toward either NATO or the E.U., the rest of Ukraine, my guess is he'll be okay. That that's good enough for him, at least for a while.

ZAKARIA: That's a somewhat unstable scenario, isn't it though? Because the -- the rest of Ukraine, particularly if you take -- he's taken Crimea out. So he's taken 4 million pro-Russians out of Ukraine. And then if you look at the rest of Ukraine, there's a lot of those people in the West, who, as you know, historically actually part of Poland, or part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, never thought of themselves as part of the Russian or Slavic sphere, who are not going to be happy with a Yanukovych style president who is making nice with Moscow.

GATES: Well, speaking of revanchist claims, you know, sort of the Western part of Ukraine actually belonged to Poland until 1939. So, I -- I think the thing not to forget is the extraordinary economic leverage that Russia has on Ukraine. And I think that this at the end of the day, this is potentially the most destabilizing thing for Ukraine itself. Because, they are almost wholly dependent on Russia.

And one of the little factoids that has escaped coverage in the press, is that Russia had staked out, before it seized Ukraine, areas for oil and gas exploitation under the 200 mile rule -- law, of about 26,000 square miles in the North Eastern Black Sea that Russia could exploit. With the annexation of Crimea, Russia has just acquired 36,000 more square miles. And the geologists say that whole area could be very productive in terms of oil and gas.

"I think what he wants, particularly in Ukraine, now that he's got Crimea, is a government that is definitely not moving toward the West, and that is sympathetic to Russia."

Now not only does Russia now control that, Ukraine does not. That was potentially the secret to greater energy independence for Ukraine somewhere down the road. That's now not going to be possible. So, it's kind of been a win-win for Putin in that respect, both security and economically. And so I think -- I think it'll be very tough for a Ukrainian government to move westward given the economic leverage that Russia has.

ZAKARIA: Let's talk about something else in the front pages and go backward in history with this one. China and the cyber attacks and the Department of Justice's very unusual decision to indict -- and I would say indict, because I don't think these people are going to be appearing at the Pittsburgh County Court anytime soon...

GATES: Or showing up at Disney World.

ZAKARIA: Or showing up at Disney World. Five people -- how should we think about cyber warfare, these cyber attacks, and is this China's, you know -- is this the most worrying part of the challenge from China that you had -- that you think about when you look back over the attacks -- cyber attacks at the Pentagon, the potential for this kind of stuff going forward?

GATES: I -- I think that you need to sort of take apart cyber writ large and look at the different aspects of cyber. What -- what we have accused the Chinese of doing, stealing American companies' secrets and technology is not new, nor is it done only by the Chinese. There are probably a dozen or 15 countries that steal our technology in this way.

In terms of the next capable next to the Chinese are probably the French. And they've been doing it a long time.

I often tell business audiences, "How many of you go to Paris on business. Hands go up. "How many of you take your laptops? Hands goes up. "How many of you take your laptops to dinner?" Not very many hands. I said for years, the French Intelligence Services have been breaking into the hotel rooms of American businessmen and surreptitiously downloading their laptops, if they felt those laptops had technological information, or competitive information that would be useful to French countries -- French companies.

France has been a mercantilist country. The government and business have operated hand-in-hand since the time of Louis XIV. This is not exactly a new development in France.

The difference is, and it's hard for people to believe this, but you'll have to take my word for it. We nearly are alone in the world in not using our intelligence services for competitive advantage of our businesses. I was telling Fareed over lunch, when I was the deputy -- when I was head of the analytical side of the CIA, and the the Deputy Director of the agency, and Director, the CIA produced an enormous amount of information, either low-classification or unclassified on the infrastructure of other countries, the electrical grids, the water supply systems, the roads, the weight bear -- what the weight of the bridges could handle, and things like that, that any country wanting to build a factory in a foreign country would love to have.

I worked with five or six different Secretaries of Commerce, and I never could get one of them interested in being the facilitator of getting that kind of CIA information to American companies. So -- so this is something we don't do. The Chinese probably have the most pervasive system of collecting against us of any country. But I think it's important to remember that they're not alone.

So that's one piece of the cyber world, and that's -- that's really old. It's been going on for a long time. The Soviet Union did it. They had a very structured, very detailed program, run by the KGB that came after U.S. technology and West European technology very aggressively, for many, many years.

Then there's the national security part of cyber, of collecting information that has national security implications. And we all do that. Many countries do that. And I would say, without getting into it, we're pretty damn good at it, as has been revealed. We're not as good at it as we were two years ago. But we're very good at it.

The third sector of cyber is denial of service or destruction of infrastructure and capability. This is the most dangerous part of cyber. And -- and frankly, a number of countries are building this capability, and it is a worry. But frankly, short of an all-out war, it's hard for me to see a nation state using it against the United States. Because, although attribution can be difficult, eventually, we figure it out, where the attack came from. And there's a home address, if the Chinese, or the Russians, or somebody else does it to us.

So I think that short of all-out war, where these tools might be used, that the biggest threat to infrastructure and to denial of service, is global organized crime and terrorists. And -- and when it comes to terrorists, we've seen they can be pretty sophisticated, and have use of computers And who is to say that if we have self-radicalized terrorists like Major Hassan at Fort Hood, who engages in a physical attack, that there won't be a self-radicalized terrorist who can engage in a cyber attack. So that would be my biggest worry, short of a major war between major powers when it comes to cyber.

But there's no question about it. The Chinese are by far the most aggressive. We're talking about it -- I think, what so -- what do I think the administration did this for? Because I -- it's not only rare, I think it's unprecedented. I don't know of any precedent of indicting foreign intelligence officers while they're still sitting in their home country, and not likely to visit. I think partly it was a wake-up call for American companies that this is real and it's big and it's very well organized, coming from the Chinese.

Second, I think it's a shot across the bow at the Chinese in that they may have gone too far and there will be broader ramifications for the relationship And -- and I, you know -- those are -- and frankly there's probably a little P.R. value here at home, at showing we're aggressively trying to deal with this problem. But kind of where it goes from here, I don't know.

It's one thing when you arrest these guys in this country. In fact, when I first saw the header on the news, I thought, "My God, they've picked up Chinese officers here in the United States." Then I see these guys are still sitting back in their building in Shanghai, or wherever they are. And so it's an interesting development. But it's not clear what the next step is.

ZAKARIA: Do you think that the Chinese present the most difficult intelligence challenge both offense and defense to the United States going forward?

GATES: Well, I think that -- I mean the toughest intelligence challenge that I think we face is probably, particularly in that part of the world, is probably North Korea. That's still pretty opaque to us. But you know, China is an important -- it's a tough -- it's an important target. It's a tough one.

ZAKARIA: Let me open it up to questions. If you'll just be sure to actually ask a question that would be -- and identify yourself if you would.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the council. My name is Roland Paul (ph). I'm a lawyer. I'd like to ask you a question about the Iraq war. You wrote in your book, in one chapter, that you thought it was important for the United States to have a long-term military presence in Iraq, and even warning of very grave consequences for not doing so. And I understand that the Army wanted to keep 30,000 troops in Iraq after 2011.

On the other hand, in the end of your book, you say that the end of the war in Iraq was not a strategic defeat for the United States, or a failure of global consequence. So, I just -- did you think it was a mistake or not to withdraw our troops from Iraq?

GATES: I -- first of all, from the very beginning, when the proposal made by the state department and by the generals was after December 2011, to have 20,000 civilians, a number of whom would have been security for the embassy and...

"I think partly it was a wake-up call for American companies that this is real and it's big and it's very well organized, coming from the Chinese. Second, I think it's a shot across the bow at the Chinese in that they may have gone too far and there will be broader ramifications for the relationship."

QUESTION: Twenty thousand soldiers, you mean.

GATES: Twenty thousand civilians.

QUESTION: Oh, I see.

GATES: And 20,000 troops. And I just said it right then and there in the situation room, there's no way in the world the Iraqis are going to agree to 40,000 Americans staying, much less the U.S. Congress, and paying for it. I -- I think what we had hoped for was somewhere around 10,000 troops that could remain and provide training and help on counter terrorism. But there was a piece of it that never got the attention that it deserved, and it was the extraordinarily constructive role that our senior commanders played in Iraq, in mediating among the Iraqi factions.

They could convene, with the Ambassador, all of the leaders of the factions and get them in the same room together and work out deals. And I think that had we been able to continue even that modest a presence, a senior American military officer could have played a constructive role in bringing together some of these factions, and in persuading Maliki to reach out more to the Sunnis, particularly in Anbar, and so on. So I think it was an opportunity lost in that respect.

QUESTION: Is it -- would it be fair, If I can ask a follow up...

GATES: And for the same reason, I believe that it is critically important that we do the same in Afghanistan. That this strategic agreement -- and it's -- and it's -- it's not the numbers so much as the message, that we're not turning our backs on the country. That we'll be there to help, to advise, to help them on counter intelligence, help them -- or counter terrorism and intelligence.

It's also a signal to the Taliban, to the Afghans themselves, and to the neighbors that the United States, after all this time and all this sacrifice, is not simply going to turn its back and walk away. And my hope is, if Abdullah Abdullah is elected president, that he will do as he says, and sign that agreement posthaste.

ZAKARIA: A senior military commander, U.S. military commander, said to me about the Iraq situation, he said that ultimately the blame for this lay pretty square with Maliki in the sense that the U.S. could not put the troops in without the status of forces agreement. That if they had done so, that every other place where we have bases or where we have troops stationed there would be calls, you know -- if U.S. troops are not exempt from local laws in Iraq, why are they in South Korea? Why are they in Japan? And that Maliki never -- just simply didn't want to defend the American military presence publicly and in parliament in his country, and that that proved to be the stumbling block.

GATES: I think to -- I was -- I was gone by the time this was negotiated in the summer of 2011. But you have to go back to November-December 2008, and realize what an incredibly close call getting Iraqi Council of Representatives approval of the strategic framework agreement with the United States, under President Bush, had been. It truly was signed at the 11th hour.

And part of it was that every Iraqi leading politician wanted it, but none was willing to be the first to go out in public and say they wanted it. We tried to orchestrate, you know, kind of, can we get you all together and you kind of go out there and fill out like a -- like a rugby team all together and then everybody say all at once, "we favor this." So nobody -- so it couldn't be used against anybody.

But because of that, it was a very near run thing in December 2008. And I think because of that experience, I -- I -- I always thought it would be tough to get a follow on agreement with the Iraqis. I thought we could do it. But based on our experience in 2008, I was pretty convinced it would be really hard, and we'd have to figure out a way to help the Iraqis give each other cover.

The reason it's so hard in Iraq, that I think sometimes was overlooked here in Washington, is that in contrast to most Afghans, the Iraqis have never ceased to see us as occupiers. And so the American -- the Iraqis basically wanted the Americans out as fast as possible. And -- and so the politicians, in effect, were going against public opinion in the country, in terms of a residual U.S. force.

And I think we never fully appreciated the strength of the feelings of most Iraqis toward us and the negative feelings. Not that we had given them a gift, but that we had imposed a great deal of suffering on the country.

ZAKARIA: Joe?

QUESTION: Jerry Cohen (ph) from NYU and the Council. Could you tell us how the U.S. should meet the evolving dangerous situation in North and Southeast Asia?

On the one hand, our allies need our help and are increasingly nationalistic about Chinese assertions of their ownership, supposedly, of territory and maritime areas. On the other hand, China claims it has legal basis for these arguments. The U.S. wants better mill to mill relations and other relations with China.

But what guidance can you give the current administration and future ones about how to handle this? As you know, this is a very dangerous situation.

GATES: I think that -- let me -- let me back up and broaden the question a little bit. Withdrawing from wars, especially where there is not a clear cut victory, is tricky business, to avoid sending the signal, that you're disengaging, not just from the wars, but from your broader international responsibilities. Nixon and Kissinger, were able to bring it off with our loss in Vietnam, because of their initiatives in the early 70s in reaching out to the Soviet Union and to Maoist China.

Gestures or maneuvers that made it clear that the U.S. intended to remain the big dog in international affairs. We were not only going to be engaged, we were going to be in charge, because we had better relations with the Soviets, and better relations with the Chinese than they had with each other.

There are no such opportunities now. And my belief is that as the -- with all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, and so on, that the perception has grown increasingly around the world, that in fact the United States is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades now. I believe Russia and China, among others, see that void, and are moving to see what advantage they can take of it.

Of that -- that -- they're not going to challenge us in the way that would produce a conflict, but as they perceive our unwillingness to commit overseas, our unwillingness to make tough decisions as in Syria, our failure to carry out our threat with the red line in Syria and so on, I think they see opportunities to pursue their own nationalist ambitions. And to take other actions that are self aggrandizing. It's in this context that I place what I see as a significantly more aggressive Chinese approach, over the last 18 months to 2 years, the declaration of Air Defense Zone, the increasingly aggressive approach to the Japanese at the Senkaku -- over the Senkaku Islands including, not just ships now, but combat aircraft, challenging the Japanese, and then finally the confrontation, or most recently the confrontation with the Vietnamese, in the South China Sea and moving that oil rig, that big oil rig in.

You know, two years ago, no one -- let me put it this way. I don't think two years ago, the potential for a true military conflict, of any size between China and Japan, was on anybody's radar. The fact that it is now, is a measure, I think, of how far we have come. And so, I say that only to underscore your point that the area is becoming increasingly dangerous. What we always tried to do in our participation in the Asian -- in the various Asian forums, was to support ASEAN and the expanded ASEAN numbers to work to get a code of conduct in the South China Sea that was agreed between the Chinese and all of the other ASEAN nations.

There is agreement in principle on that. The Chinese have done so -- just a few weeks ago. The question always was would they -- would it have any practical effect? So far, the answer seems to be no.

But the one thing that does seem to work with the Chinese is -- is when a number of those nations react collectively to Chinese claims. And this first happened when Hillary was at the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi and seven or eight different Southeast Asian countries went at the Chinese in terms of their aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. And the Chinese -- you may remember the foreign minister was absolutely furious and beside himself.

And I think because the Chinese like to deal with these countries one on one. It's pretty easy to pick them off that way. But when you have a bunch of them, that's harder. Then I went to a -- that was in a Phnom Penh meeting, and then I went to a similar meeting, ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus, in Hanoi a few months later and the same thing happened. About eight different countries spoke up, and this time the Chinese Defense Minister just kept quiet. He didn't say anything.

"With all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, and so on, the perception has grown increasingly around the world, that in fact the United States is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades now."

But I think having these nations act together, along with us, is one way to try and blunt what the Chinese are trying to do. I don't think they want a military conflict with anybody. But they are clearly going to be aggressive in pursuing as what they regard as their interests.

There's one thing that's changed under President Xi from President Hu. Under President Hu, when Chinese ships harassed the U.S. Navy ship Impeccable, when they launched an ASAT test, when they rolled out the J-20 stealth fighter three hours before I met with President Hu, we had good reason to believe that in all three of these cases, the civilian leadership of China did not know those things were going to happen, that this was the PLA acting independently.

That is not the case now. President Xi is clearly in charge and these things are clearly being done with his approval.

ZAKARIA: Jacob?

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sir. My name...

ZAKARIA: I've asked Jacob Franco.

QUESTION: Oh, I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. You touched on Syria by passing. May I come back to it for a minute? Initially the focus was on the atrocity that is happening there. And then the entire focus moved to the chemical weapons. The question I have is, the shift of the focus only on the chemical weapons seems to have increased the prominence of Putin in this role, and also seems to have secured the position of Assad who is the only one who can deliver the chemical weapons. So my question is, is this a true -- a correct assessment, and second, while we are focusing on the chemical weapons, do we do anything about the other atrocities?

GATES: Well, that's a very good question. One I've been asking. I will say I think that last fall was a real low point in foreign policy for the administration. First the red line that we crossed, and the one piece of advice I always tried to give presidents is, if you're going to cock the pistol, be ready to fire it.

And the other is, that in the space of a week, we went from Assad must go, in effect, to Assad must stay. And it was because of Putin's proposal, whether he got it from -- the idea from John Kerry, or where it came from, but his proposal that we get rid of the conventional -- the chemical weapons -- 1,400 people at that point had been killed in a single attack.

And we latched on to the possibility of getting rid of the chemical weapons in Syria. And -- but by accepting that proposal, we implicitly conceded that Assad had to stay. Because only he could effect the agreement. Only he could deliver the chemical weapons.

Personally, I've always been skeptical about that deal. The notion that Syria would not -- first of all, you don't need a room half this size to do chemical weapons. And -- and second, the notion that they would not -- what -- what safeguards were there -- some of their stockpile wouldn't be given to Hezbollah to hold, or sent to Iran to hold, or simply hidden in Syria, and what about their capability to make more once they handed over whatever stockpile that they had?

But more worrisome, we got so focused on this atrocity using chemical weapons against 1,400 people -- to kill 1,400 people, we kind of lost our perspective entirely on the 150,000 or 160,000 that men killed by conventional weapons. And so we're kind of nowhere right now. Negotiations in Geneva have collapsed, and the world is all kind of just standing back.

The problem -- one of the reasons that I think that the Middle East will be a cauldron of trouble for a long time to come is that there are multiple conflicts going on simultaneously. Suni Islam, led by Saudi Arabia against Shia Islam, led by Iran. Secularists versus Islamists. Authoritarians versus Reformers.

And then in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, can states -- can artificially -- can states with artificially drawn boarders that encompass historically adversarial tribes, religions, and ethnic groups, be held together without repression? Or are they more like Yugoslavia? Libya would suggest that the answer is no.

All four of those things are going on at the same time. And in a way, all of them are found in Syria. And the longer it goes on, I think, the more destabilizing it is for the region as a whole.

Do I have a solution at this point? Absolutely not. There maybe was an out -- maybe a solution very early. But I think at this point, if I were sitting in the situation room, I would not have any good ideas to offer the president.

ZAKARIA: If you look at the four main Syrian opposition militias, they are all deeply, deeply anti-democratic. They are, you know -- one is tied to Hezbollah. One is tied to the Kurdish terrorists. One is tied to, essentially Al-Qaeda. And so you look at that and it certainly gives one pause.

Ma'am, I didn't give you the...

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Major Raven Bukowski (ph). I teach up at West Point in the Department of Social Sciences. My question is about the future of land power. I was hoping you could share your thoughts on the regional aliment strategy that the Army is moving toward. Do you think that small missions, small units partnering with other nations doing training and other types of enabling projects will effectively prevent conflict and shape the conditions in these regions? And also, what do you think are some risks of this approach?

GATES: Well, I certainly think it can help. I don't think that there are any assurances that it can prevent conflict in places. And I've felt it was very important for the regular Army to have these capabilities.

One of my initiatives that never got publicized, but that I liked a lot, maybe because it was because I'd been at Texas A&M, was we needed, you know -- language training in our military has largely been confined to the special forces. And yet, our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that we had lieutenants, and captains, and NCOs out there in the villages, and having to use interpreters. Where, it would have been a lot better if they had been able to speak the language.

So, with a list of nine languages that the department considers important, I instituted a program where we would pay ROTC students at universities, they're all under contract, and we would pay them. I don't know exactly what we would pay them, but my notional approach was, if you're going to take Arabic or Dari, we're going to pay you $50 dollars a month more the first year you take it, $100 dollars a month more a month the second year you take it, $150 dollars a month more the third year you take it. My own experience is, once you've taken a language for three years, you can pick it up again pretty fast. A lot cheaper to send an officer to language school full immersion for a year or something.

And both, by the way, even at Texas A&M, that's real beer money.

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: And there are now several thousand ROTC students who are signed up for those languages. So I think this kind of program has real merit.

But it needs to be seen against a fundamental backdrop of the fact that our record, in predicting where we will use force next over the last 40 years is perfect. We have never once gotten it right.

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: Not even six months before. If you had told George H. W. Bush in July of 1990 that by December, he'd have half a million troops in Saudi Arabia, he'd have probably had you committed.

Given that record, it seems to me, and particularly in a period of budget stringency, that our mantra in the military should be, to have the most, in terms of training and equipment, to be as versatile as possible for the widest possible range of conflict, because we can't predict. And sometimes those may be big conflicts. And sometimes, probably more often than not, based on the last 40 years, much smaller.

But if you don't -- my worry is, clearly when we went into Iraq, we had forgotten everything we had learned about counter-insurgency in Vietnam. And we had to relearn it at great cost. We have revolutionized war and special operations -- through the real time fusion of special operations and intelligence. I don't want those things to get forgotten. Those are skills we will need in the future at some point.

And so the key is to institutionalize all of that in the services, and particularly in the ground forces, so we have the versatility we require in a world where we frankly don't know where we're going to deploy our forces next.

ZAKARIA: Final question. I'm going to give it to somebody from Washington, Matthew Kroneig (ph) from Georgetown. What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: At the beginning of my career? Everything.

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: That's a very difficult question for me to ask -- answer, because I didn't intend to have a career. I intended to teach in college. And I just gave the commencement address at Georgetown for the School of Foreign Service on Saturday.

ZAKARIA: Which is why...

GATES: I was not -- I was not one of the disinvited.

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: And...

ZAKARIA: And that's where you got your Ph. D, right?

GATES: Where I got my Ph. D and that's -- and literally two weeks after I got my Ph. D, I got my first invitation from Kissinger and Scowcroft to join the NSC staff. And I told my wife, "Well, I'll do that for a couple of years and then I'll go teach." And they just kept offering me interesting things to do. And then it was nearly 30 years later.

I think that the one lesson that I always tell young people, and they don't much like it, I often get the question, sort of, "How do I get from where I'm sitting to where you're sitting?" And I say, "You know, I've got bad news for you. You have to do all the hard work of preparation. And then you have to understand that a lot depends on timing, luck, and being willing to take risks. And -- and chances are, if you take the safe choice, you're not going to have as exciting a career as you otherwise might."

When I first went to the NSC in 1974, my bosses at CIA told me there probably wouldn't be a job for me when I came back. Interestingly, one of those great ironies, most of them still worked there when I became Director.

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: And I instituted a policy that you couldn't be promoted beyond a certain level if you had not served a stint in a policy agency, the State Department, AID, or Defense, or someplace. I said, "You're supposed to be supporting the policy maker, and you haven't got a clue about how policy gets made. So you gotta go see the sausage being made, because then you'll be a better intelligence officer." So we went from your career's at risk if you go, to your career's at risk if you don't.

ZAKARIA: Well, a rare treat for everyone here. Bob Gates, thank you so much.

GATES: Thank you.

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