from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Robert Gates on Benghazi, Syria, and America’s Biggest Threat

May 12, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Former secretary of defense Robert Gates is a self-described foreign policy “realist”—in his last major policy address in office, given at the American Enterprise Institute, he noted, “As I am fond of saying, we live in the real world.” However, he also contended that the United States should promote democratic governments—through diplomacy and soft-power—and admitted his “fundamental belief: that America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet." Gates most notably expressed skepticism about using military power for contingencies that were poorly conceived, impractical to execute, or not in support of vital national interests. As secretary of defense he also opposed bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities until diplomacy was exhausted, supporting Israel’s airstrikes against a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, and intervening in Libya’s civil war —though he justified America’s military role in Libya as necessary since it was in the national interest of U.S. allies, and their troops were needed in Afghanistan.

Gates’ readable and combative 1996 memoir From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War, included one of my favorite observations about how civilians and military officials differ in their conceptions of military force:

“It was my experience over the years that one of the biggest misimpressions held by the public has been that our military is always straining at the leash, wanting to use force in any situation. The reality is just the opposite. In more than twenty years attending meetings in the Situation Room, my experience was that the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms. Our military leaders have seen too many half-baked ideas for the use of military force advanced in the Situation Room by hairy-chested civilians who have never seen combat or fired a gun in anger.”

Gates was interviewed this weekend by Bob Schieffer for Face the Nation, and included his normal realist-based, wry commentary. He also made several pointed statements that one only hears from comfortably retired former senior government officials. As a former Air Force officer, long-time intelligence analyst, dedicated cold warrior who really believed the Soviet Union was evil, acting CIA director, and deputy national security adviser, Gates’ voice is worth listening to.

On Benghazi:

Gates: "I only know what I have read in the media. I haven’t had any briefings or anything. And I think the one place where I might be able to say something useful has to do with some of the talk about the military response. And I listened to the testimony of both Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey. And frankly had I been in the job at the time I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were. We don’t have a ready force standing by in the Middle East, despite all the turmoil that’s going on, with planes on strip alert, troops ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. And so getting somebody there in a timely way would have been very difficult, if not impossible. And frankly, I’ve heard ’Well, why didn’t you just fly a fighter jet over and try and scare ’em with the noise or something?’ Well, given the number of surface to air missiles that have disappeared from Qaddafi’s arsenals, I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft, over Benghazi under those circumstances.

With respect to sending in special forces or a small group of people to try and provide help, based on everything I have read, people really didn’t know what was going on in Benghazi contemporaneously. And to send some small number of special forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground, I think, would have been very dangerous. And personally, I would not have approved that because it’s sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces. The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm’s way. And there just wasn’t time to do that."

On Syria:

Gates: "For us to think we can influence or determine the outcome of that, I think is a mistake. I thought it was a mistake in Libya. And I think it is a mistake in Syria. We overestimate our ability to determine outcomes, even if we had intervened more significantly in Syria a year ago or six months ago. I think that caution, particularly in terms of arming these groups and in terms of U.S. military involvement, is in order.

Schieffer: Well what should we do?

Gates: Well, my question back to you is: Why should it be us? There are other powers in the region, Turkey and others, that have military capabilities. You have Europeans that are much closer and whose interests are equally affected. I understand our broad interests in the Middle East. And I understand the risks to us of chaos in Syria and of an ethnic cleansing there once the civil war comes to an end, no matter who wins it. But the question that you asked me is the question we don’t have a satisfactory answer to. What should we do? What can we do? I believe that if we’re to do anything, it is to pick and choose the opposition groups that we think have some moderation and would, you know, espouse what we think is in the best interest of the region-- provide them with intelligence, with basic military equipment, work through Turkey and other countries perhaps in providing some basic military equipment. But I think our direct involvement and particularly our direct military involvement would be a mistake. You know, I oversaw two wars that began with quick regime change. And we all know what happened after that. And as I said to the Congress when we went into Libya, when they were talking about a no-fly zone, ’It begins with an act of war.’ And haven’t we learned that when you go to war, the outcomes are unpredictable? And anybody who says, ’It’s gonna be clean. It’s gonna be neat. You can establish the safe zones. And it’ll be-- it’ll just be swell.’ Well, most wars aren’t that way."

On the biggest threat to the United States:

Gates: "I think that the greatest threat to us right now is the inability of our political leaders to come together on bipartisan solutions, long-term solutions to the very real problems we have. Whether it’s the deficit, whether it’s government spending, whether it’s entitlements, immigration, infrastructure, education, that broad middle band that used to be so strong in the Congress, of members of Congress, center left, center right, people I used to call bridge builders. That’s where the country has always been governed from. The country has moved forward based on great ideas from both the left and the right. But it’s been the centrists that have translated those into law through compromise. That’s the foundation of our political stability and of our political system. The American Constitution is built on compromise and created a political system that demands compromise. And unless we can come together on policies to deal with these problems that can survive one Congress and one Presidency, then I think we’re in real trouble."