Robert M. Gates, former U.S. secretary of defense, joins NBC News' Tom Brokaw to discuss civic duty and leadership, and address the future of U.S. national security and defense. Gates begins by describing his experience at the Department of Defense in the Obama administration, and the challenges of managing a complex bureaucracy. Over the course of the conversation, Gates addresses a range of challenges for U.S. national security and defense, including North Korea's nuclear program, China's growing military, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security, established in 2002, is dedicated to the memory of Paul Warnke (1920–2001), member and former director of the Council on Foreign Relations. The series commemorates his legacy of public service, his friendship to the Council, and his unique combination of eloquence, intellect, and pragmatism in the cause of peace and the values of the United States.
BROKAW: Thank you all very much. I’m Tom Brokaw, a member of the Council, recently excised from the Board of Directors—(laughter)—term-limited. I know you know our distinguished guest, Bob Gates. I’ll talk about him a little more in a moment.
We welcome all of you. This is a session that is on the record. We have a teleconference under way as well. We’ll be hearing from those folks when the Q&A session comes. And it is a Paul Warnke Lecture. Many of you are familiar, of course, with Paul Warnke’s distinguished and long career in national-security issues. He was a member of what I call the greatest generation. He served in World War II, became a lawyer. And then in those days, as his generation did, he moved back and forth between his law practice and serving his country.
So it’s very appropriate that we have Bob Gates here today, because he continued that tradition as a son of the Midwest. It turns out he was born in the same hospital as Jim Lehrer in Wichita, Kansas, I just discovered. (Laughter.) There was something about that hospital. He went to William & Mary. And when he joined the CIA at the very entry-level part of it, he was the first member of that agency to rise to the top of the CIA. We also know him, of course, as the secretary of defense.
It’s been a long and distinguished career in public service. He’s now in the private sector but moving back and forth in the public sector as well. He heads the Boy Scouts of America, among other things. And he has never stopped giving back to his country.
His latest book is called “A Passion for Leadership,” about the lessons that he learned as a leader and as someone who was witness to the best of his generation.
So Mr. Gates, let me begin with a question that I’ve been thinking a lot about. We’re roughly the same age. It seems to me that our generation was the last one that felt a real calling to have public service as a part of their life, whether they went into the private sector and then went to the public sector and then came back again. It was an extension of the memories of World War II and the kinds of people who were our mentors growing up. Is that an overstatement?
GATES: I think that’s—I think that’s right. And one of the concerns that I have is that I’ve seen, both in our military but also when I was president of A&M and now as national president of the Boy Scouts, young people are no less idealistic, I think, than we were, and in—even at the college level, no less and maybe even more committed to voluntarism and being engaged.
But once they graduate from college, a lot of that goes away. So we now—there was an article in The Wall Street Journal six or eight months ago that said that 30 years ago, 30 percent of the federal workforce was under the age of 30. And today it’s 7 percent; so a quarter as many young people serving at the federal level.
And I worry. And one of the reasons that I wrote the book is that part of the reason for that is that this generation is less tolerant of bureaucracy than we might have been, less tolerant of hierarchical structure, of the rigidity of a government organization, the lack of opportunity to contribute significantly at a young age, as they can do in many areas of the private sector.
So I think one of the motivations in writing the book is how do we—how do we reform and change a lot of these institutions that we need but that have accumulated a lot of barnacles and no longer deliver the services to people they were created to serve? And how do you use that to get young people more interested?
You have a lot of—you have these schools of government and public service all over the country. You’ve got the LBJ School at the University of Texas, the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. You’ve got the Maxwell program at Syracuse. Most universities, many universities, have these programs of people who are interested in public service. But the disconnect between when they leave those programs and when they—and getting into government is pretty significant. And a lot of young people, I think, get into government and then get frustrated and leave pretty early. And I think that’s a problem too.
BROKAW: Well, with the new challenges before us domestically and internationally, obviously dealing with the upheaval in the Middle East, jihadism, and dealing with—in a war that’s a clash of cultures as much as it is a clash of nation-states, the impact in our country domestically in every conceivable aspect of how we are governed and what we do in free enterprise, the digital impact just cannot be overstated, quite honestly.
This generation is a generation that’s teaching their parents to drive when it comes to that kind of thing. So is that also a component of it that we’re not—there’s a calcification at the institutional level in government, military, and even in the private sector, that doesn’t speak to the young people who are not going to go stand in line somewhere and wait their turn?
GATES: No, I think that’s absolutely right. And, in fact, I was mentioning to you earlier one of the—in the last months that I was secretary I would talk to the chief of staff of the Army and the commandant of the Marine Corps in particular. You know, these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have really been small-unit wars, at least after the initial operation at least in Iraq, and in effect the captains’ wars.
And I would tell these generals—you know, I would visit a forward operating base in Afghanistan, and here would be a U.S. Army captain commanding 100 U.S. troops, training 100 Afghan troops, bulldozing roads, building schools, negotiating with the tribal elders, and fighting the Taliban, and having the opportunity to be innovative, entrepreneurial, creative, making decisions.
And I would say to these guys, you bring those young people back and put them in a cubicle doing PowerPoints, you’re going to lose them. And that’s part—kind of is all a piece of the same problem. How do you keep these young people, who are accustomed to living at the pace of the digital age, and put them into these big organizations that move at glacial paces?
BROKAW: Let me switch now to the campaign and the issues before the country in the national-security area, where we look to you for guidance and wisdom. You’ve been hearing proclamations like we’re going to carpet-bomb the Middle East and we’re going to build the military to the greatest military that has ever been known. Whatever it takes, we’re going to pour it into the military to make sure we get that job done. On the other side of the spectrum, the president gave the impression the other night in the State of the Union address that we’re doing just fine against ISIS, it’s not really a great threat to who we are or our national identity. As you look at all of that, how well is the country being served by the real challenges that are before us when it comes to jihadism, and now the upheaval and the cultural clash going on in the Middle East?
GATES: Well, I think the—I think middle school kids would be embarrassed by the level of dialogue going on in the national campaign—(laughter)—about how we deal with the problems that we’re facing. I mean, I just—I think that these guys are making these—men and women are making these broad pronouncements. It’s clear they don’t know what they’re talking about. (Laughter.) You know, you quoted them. We’ll make the sand glow and carpet bombing, bombing the shit out of them and things like that that I think one of the—I think the leading candidate said. (Laughter.) This is not a particularly sophisticated level of analysis—(laughter)—of our—of the challenges that we face.
And the thing that I find disappointing, and I realize that politicians have to put spin on things and so on, but they do a disservice in not being honest with the American people that taking on a problem like ISIS and the extremism associated with ISIS is complex, it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to take a lot of time, and it’s going to take some sacrifice. And there are no easy solutions, and there certainly are no quick solutions. Now, the worrying thing is they actually believe what they’re saying. (Laughter.) And if that’s the case, we really are in trouble. So we’re in the situation where the optimistic interpretation is they’re just being cynical and opportunistic.
I think that by the same token—I think that the president has all along underestimated ISIS, has underestimated the degree of fear that they have been able to provoke among a lot of Americans. And you know, I’ve talked to some people here in New York who are in the travel business. And they say that travel to Europe is off, and more New Yorkers are vacationing or going to New England because they’re worried about their safety in Europe. Well, when you consider the statistics and the odds of being attacked, it’s basically a psychological effect. And the president, I think, has completely misread the psychological impact of these lone wolf attacks or of these, quote-unquote, “small-scale attacks,” that result in multiple casualties, that have been sponsored by ISIS or by people radicalized by ISIS and acting as lone wolves.
So I think at the same the administration has underestimated the impact of ISIS and what it’s going to take to deal with ISIS, on the other side of the fence you’re getting these simplistic and, frankly, ridiculous formulas on how they’re going to take care of the problem. It’s inconceivable to me that they really do believe that that will solve the problem.
BROKAW: Take us through our institutions, military and intelligence, and how effectively they have been able to adapt to this new kind of warfare that we’re dealing with. It’s asymmetrical, we all know that, but it’s beyond that. It’s not a nation-state war. We’re talking about a cultural war. We’re talking about a very nimble enemy in that part of the world, which is a lot more sophisticated than a lot of people want to give it credit for being in terms of how it finances itself, how it communicates with its potential members.
Do we have in the government—at the Pentagon and at the CIA—enough people who really grasp the nature of this enemy, have a real sense of the Arab culture and the various players that are out there, because it’s not uniform? You know, when 9/11 happened, there was that startling statistic that we had just a handful of Arabic speakers, I think, in the CIA at that point.
GATES: I remember we—after the fall of the shah in the Carter administration we had something called the Political Intelligence Working Group that met at the White House. And it was to assess, how did we miss a development of such extraordinary consequence? And we went through the level of expertise in the government. And at that time, the Foreign Service—now, this is 35 years ago—the Foreign Service had 2 offices in Riyadh that spoke Arabic. And they spent 40 percent of their time squiring around congressional delegations. (Laughter.) And it hasn’t gotten any better.
BROKAW: Really? Not at all?
GATES: I would say—I would say that in the military and in the intelligence community—and I see Mike here—Mike Hayden—I think we have the skills and the—and the knowledge and the insights. I mean, I think that the military—I’ve stayed away from Washington and really don’t get involved in anything there. But I have the impression that the military has been pressing for many months to do the kinds of things that gradually, and I think reluctantly, the administration has begun to embrace about more help to Sunni tribes that are prepared to resist ISIS, to the Kurds, getting more trainers in and at a lower level in the Iraqi security services, forward spotters and things like that, more special operators.
I think the military’s been recommending these kinds of things—which are an alternative to sort of a big massive ground force, that have the opportunity to enable those who are willing to resist ISIS. And I would say even providing weaponry directly to some of these tribes, Sunni tribes, and to the Kurds to help them because of the challenges of working through the Baghdad government. But I do think that we have the talent. I think that the problem more has been a political one in terms of a reluctance to—on the part of the administration—to realize that this is a major challenge and that it does have a big impact around the world.
I would say, though, Tom, that one of the problems that we have that is systemic and has been with us for a long time, really since the end of the Cold War, is that we have also, for many years, starved the civilian talent pool in the government, and particularly those involved in diplomacy, in AID, and in strategic communications. And I remember vividly, you know, in the Cold War, and some of you who are a little older in the audience remember, USIA under Edward R. Murrow and people like that. You had—you had USIA libraries in every major city in the world. You had Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. And in addition to this panoply of things on the overt side, you had CIA covertly sending millions of copies of the “Gulag Archipelago” into the Soviet Union, and magazines, and things like that.
So you had this Wurlitzer of strategic communications that was a big part, I think, of success in the Cold War. That’s all been basically dismantled. And that whole big operation now sits in a small corner of the State Department. Those are the people also that you need to rely on in terms of how do you come up with a—with a digital response to ISIS? How do you counter either directly or through other organizations the messaging that ISIS is sending to the West, to Europe and to the United States, that’s radicalizing some of these people and so on? And we’ve basically disarmed that part of the national security toolkit.
BROKAW: I want to turn now to China, which is a national security issue as well. It’s getting a much higher visibility. I remember the most unsettling thing that you said when you came back from one of your tours of China was the command and control protocol. You would go to these remote outposts and the people who were staffing those remote outposts, with a wide array of very lethal weapons including nuclear, they had control over command. It wasn’t being done from Beijing. Now we hear that Xi is trying to rein that in. Is that what you hear as well?
GATES: No, I think that’s absolutely right. I think—you know, I was very troubled when President Hu was in office because—or in power because we had a number of incidences where we believe the People’s Liberation Army was acting independently of the political authorities in the country. We had pretty good information that the anti-satellite test that took place took place without the knowledge of the civilian leadership, that the interference with the U.S. Navy ship Impeccable took place without the civilian leadership being aware of it. And I know for a fact that when they rolled out the J-20 stealth fighter two hours before I was to meet with President Hu that he didn’t know about it.
And so—but I think one of the big changes that Xi has made is there is no question in my mind at all that Xi is totally in control of the military in terms of they report to him and they don’t do anything that he doesn’t approve of. That’s kind of a good news, bad news story. The good news is command and control’s been tightened up. The bad news is, when bad things happen, it’s not some rogue PLA guy acting, it’s the leadership of the country that’s involved.
BROKAW: How do we get North Korea under control?
GATES: (Laughs, laughter.) I like to say that we’re now in our third generation of Kims, and with each successive generation we’ve been swimming in a shallower and shallower part of the gene pool. (Laughter.) My worry about Kim Jong-un is not only that he’s dangerous, but that he’s stupid. (Laughter.) I mean, we have—
BROKAW: But he’s got a great haircut. I mean, you’ve got to get him that.
GATES: He has a hell of a haircut. (Laughter.)
We know—we know pretty well now that he was behind the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan; that he was a leading figure behind the artillery barrage on the South Korean islands, as he was basically trying to prove his mettle to the North Korean military leadership, that he was tough enough to take on the job. The challenge that we have is the reality that China has influence in North Korea, but it doesn’t have control. And there was an episode during one of the previous famines in North Korea where the Chinese were sending gondolas—railcar gondolas full of food into North Korea and the North Koreans were stealing the railcars, wouldn’t send them back to China.
And so I think—I think this is a very dangerous situation. This guy, he’s developing a road-mobile ICBM. He clearly is on—he wants to develop a hydrogen weapon. I think—my guess is he doesn’t have one yet. And so it’s a very difficult situation. And I think the problem we face with regimes like Iran is that they see how easily Saddam was overthrown because he didn’t have nuclear weapons, how easily Gadhafi was overthrown by a ragtag army with Western air support, but how carefully we deal with North Korea, which has maybe a half or dozen or so pretty crude nuclear weapons. But they keep working at this. They keep—they’re working on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and that capability. And, you know, they have these successive failures, but eventually they’re going to get it right. And that’s going to be a very dangerous situation.
All of which is diagnosis without a prescription for how you solve the problem.
BROKAW: We know that President Putin of Russia has identified Donald Trump as his favorite presidential candidate in America, and Trump was very happy to receive that kind of an endorsement. If the president of the United States now or in the future called you and said, how do we deal with him and with Russia, especially now that its economic situation is getting every more perilous and that’s a prescription at some point for something happening from the ground up, how would you deal with Putin?
GATES: Well, I—President Bush famously said that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul. After my first meeting with Putin in February of 2007, I reported to President Bush that I’d looked into Putin’s eyes and I’d seen a stone-cold killer. Maybe that was just a CIA-KGB thing. (Laughter.) But I think the—I think the backdrop to understanding Putin is that we have—we gravely—at the time gravely misunderstood or underestimated the magnitude of Russia’s humiliation with the collapse of the Soviet Union, because it wasn’t just the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the collapse of the Russian empire. And Russia’s borders today are roughly what they were before the reign of Catherine the Great, without Central Asia, without Ukraine, and so on. And Putin feels that humiliation very much to the marrow of his bones, and it’s his understanding of that that I think is at the core of his popularity in Russia and his determination to reassert Russia’s role in the world, Russia’s role as a great power, and to assert Russia’s interests. He is determined that no problem will be solved without Russia being at the table, and I would say in Syria without Russia being in the chair, and as is evident also by the chemical weapons proposal that he made a couple of years ago.
So I think—I think the—and then the second piece for Putin is as old as the Russian empire itself, and that’s creating a buffer of friendly states or at least frozen conflicts on the periphery of Russia as a buffer for Russia. And so the actions that he’s taken with respect to Georgia and certainly with respect to Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the pressures that he’s put on—that he’s put on other countries in that region.
So I think that—I think the thing to appreciate about Putin is his determination that Russia be involved in all of these problems. And of course, now the Europeans, seeing the role that Russia might be able to play in the Middle East, there is a growing sense in Europe maybe we ought to lift these sanctions that have been placed on Russia.
How long Putin can continue his policies with growing economic estrangement from the West, I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s—those pressures have to be building. And so you have the pressures with—caused by those sanctions, but then Turkey had become a significant trading partner with Russia, and all of a sudden, after the shooting down of the Russian airplane, Putin say, OK, we’re going to cut off these ties with Turkey. And it reminded me in the scene in that movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where the knight gets an—loses an arm and he says, eh, “it’s just a flesh wound.” (Laughter.) You know, I mean, how many of these flesh wounds can Russia take economically before it really does begin to have an impact in terms of stability at home?
BROKAW: And before we go to questions, Europe, our old alliance. What’s the future of that alliance and the reliability of it as we go forward with these very vexing problems—sanctions with Russia, what we’re going to do about the Middle East?
GATES: Well, I think—I think Europe fits into a broader point that I’d make, that I think we face a multiplicity of challenges in terms of national security and international stability unlike any that I’ve seen in my—since I joined the government 50 years ago just in terms of the number of these problems that are all a-boil at the same time. I think—I think that Europe is facing some huge challenges. It faces significant economic problems. The EU itself is beginning to fray. The EU has, for the most part, always been an elite project in Europe. Most of the time when it’s gone to popular votes it’s lost. And so you have the problem brought on by the refugees. You have the problem brought on by the difference in economic performance between Southern Europe and Northern Europe, between Germany and virtually everybody else. And then—and then the—I think the very difficult question and the real possibility that Britain will exit the EU later this year. So I think the EU faces a lot of challenges, and particularly as a result of the immigration and refugee crisis, the potential that the borderless Europe may soon disappear as countries begin re-erecting border fences and guard posts and things like that. So I think Europe faces some pretty significant challenges, and they have real implications for us.
BROKAW: All right, let’s go to questions. We have some from the teleconference crowd as well, but we’ll begin in the room here. Remember there are microphones. Introduce yourself. And make it a question, if you will, not a proclamation. And try to do it as economically as possible.
Right here in the second row. We have a microphone coming, sir.
Q: Thank you.
Mr. Secretary, following up on your remarks about Iraq—
BROKAW: Can you tell us who you are?
Q: Oh. I’m Roland Paul, a lawyer; been in the government before.
As you know, General Odierno, and presumably other military leaders, wanted to keep 30,000 troops in Iraq in 2011. And I know you did your best to keep 10,000 there. To what extent today, facing ISIS, would the situation in Iraq be different if either one of those levels of troops had been maintained?
GATES: Well, first of all, I felt at the time—I mean, the proposals on the table, while I was still in the government, were 20,000 troops and 20,000 State Department. And I felt both were completely unrealistic; that the Iraqis would never agree to that and the Congress would never agree to pay the bill. So the proposal that we were working on and that General Austin had at the time was a proposal for about 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops.
I think that one of the things people underestimated, even as we drew down from the surge and the large numbers of troops that we had in Iraq, was the political influence our senior military leadership had there. And as long as there was a substantial troop presence, it gave weight to that political influence they had, so that when these different sectarian leaders, the Sunnis and the Shia and the Kurds, would get into one of these knots, as they often did, where they were making no progress on anything, the ability of our senior generals to bring them all together under U.S. auspices for a dinner or a meeting, and in essence force them to talk to each other, and I think helped moderate those conflicts and keep them from getting out of control.
Once we fully withdraw, there was no governor on those kinds of conflicts. And so they could just run unconstrained. And so I think having no troops there certainly had security implications. But I think the political implications in terms of harnessing to a degree, at least at the government level in Baghdad, some of the sectarian conflict is underestimated. And we lost that. And once we were out, Maliki in particular was allowed to essentially follow his own instincts, which were all bad.
And I think, for example, on the military side, we had trained and I think probably had some influence in the selection of a lot of the senior officers in the Iraqi security services. And they were pretty good. They were pretty competent. All those guys Maliki replaced, and they were all replaced by a bunch of political, incompetent, corrupt hacks. And so if you ask why the soldiers wouldn’t fight in Mosul, they were not going to fight for these leaders in their own military.
So I think it’s the—I think one of the big impacts of our having nobody there, very, very few people there and no really senior officer, was the moderating effect we were able to have on Iraqi politics.
BROKAW: We have a question from Kristina Wong of The Hill in Washington. Why has the president had such a difficult relationship with the Department of Defense? He’s had three defense secretaries leave office—you, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel—all of whom had fairly similar critiques of the administration, which they didn’t hesitate to go public with.
GATES: Well, I will say, first of all, that I had my issues with the White House, but my decision to leave was—I mean, I stayed longer than I intended by a long shot. When he and I—when President Obama and I first talked, it was with—I put on the table, well, why don’t we just say a year? And as I wrote in “Duty,” I put a period on that sentence and he put a comma. (Laughter.) And I stayed for a year and a half after that.
And as recently—I mean, as close to my departure as maybe three or four weeks out, he said are you sure you won’t change your mind and stay? I’d like to have you stay through at least the end of the first term, and for as long as I’m president if you’re willing. And I would—by that time I’d done the job for four and a half years. That was longer than all but four of my predecessors. And I was exhausted. We’d been four and a half years at war, and I was ready to leave.
In the four and a half years since I left—so I was there four and a half years. In the four and a half years since I left, as you point out, there have been three secretaries. One of the problems that I faced and that I wrote about, as did Leon and Chuck Hagel talked about, is micromanagement from the White House. And I think that—you know, I think a good example—and I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d be willing to wager that I’m pretty close to being right—I think the White House was very much involved in the delays and in the handling of the freedom-of-navigation exercise in the South China Sea.
We should have sent a ship into those waters long before we did. And I would bet anything that the White House said here are the rules of engagement that made it look more like innocent passage rather than a freedom-of-navigation exercise.
There was a direct line to a White House staffer when I visited a Special Operations command center in Afghanistan. There was a direct line to a White House staffer. And I stood there and I said you rip that out while I’m standing here and watching. And I told our commanders; I said if you get a call from a White House staffer or an NSC staffer, you tell them you’re not authorized to take the call and refer them to my office and tell them I said to go to hell. (Laughter.)
I worked on the NSC under Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft. And I will tell you that had I called a four-star commander as an NSC staffer, I’d have been gone the next day. I’d have been fired instantly. So this micromanagement is a problem. And, I mean, my view—and frankly, one of the main lessons in the book—is you have to choose your subordinates carefully, but then you have to empower them, hold them accountable, and if they don’t do the job, get rid of them. But above all, you can’t micromanage them.
BROKAW: Question from the audience; right back here. Yes. Remember, tell us who you are.
Q: Joel Mentor from Barclays. Thank you.
My question is about the Russian-Iranian relationship. So we know in Syria their interests are aligned but not necessarily identical. And now with Iran coming back on the market, they’re actually competitors for supplying energy to Europe, and also with Iran and possibly working greater economic cooperation with Turkey and so forth. So I just wanted your thoughts on what you think. Are there any fractions there, things that we can probably take advantage of?
GATES: I think that there are some long-term potential problems between Russia and Iran. But right now they seem to be cooperating pretty closely. The Russians have—you know, they had promised President Bush—Putin had promised President Bush not to sell this new air-defense system, the S-300 or 400, to the Iranians, because it obviously would have seriously complicated any military operation to try and take out their nuclear capabilities. And Putin agreed not to sell them and then subsequently broke the contract.
Well, they’ve now reversed that and are selling those systems, and probably other weapons, to Iran. And now that the sanctions are being lifted, my guess is that that flow will increase pretty dramatically, given how starved the Iranians have been for new military equipment for a very long time.
I think that—and so you have the Russians now aligned with the Shia-dominated Iran and the Shia-dominated government in Syria. And I think that, you know, the administration keeps talking about Putin getting himself into a quagmire. He’s made a terrible mistake, and so on and so forth. I think in the short to medium term that totally underestimates the effectiveness of what Putin has done.
As Condi Rice and I wrote in an op-ed some months ago, diplomacy is determined by the facts on the ground, not vice versa. And the Russians are helping the Syrian government change the facts on the ground. Now, they’re not—Putin is not at all a sentimentalist. If he finds another Syrian who will maintain the close relationship with Russia, who will continue to give Russia access to the naval base at Tartus, I think he’d dump Assad in a heartbeat. But the point is that I think—I think his collaboration with the Iranians, with the Syrian regime is working pretty well for him right now in terms of diplomacy, in terms of what I was saying earlier about Russia asserting its role and its influence.
But long term, I think he has made a mistake, in the respect that most of the Russian Muslims are Sunni and most of the Muslims in the world are Sunni. And he’s aligned with a minority element of the Islamic world. So that may come back to bite him sometime in the future. But I believe in the near to medium term, the relationship with Iran will continue to grow. I don’t think that the oil competition issue will be a major one between them. And I think that you will see Putin continue to play the kind of role he has, particularly in Syria.
BROKAW: A place where you once worked told me recently, someone there, that they have other issues in Russia as well, that the jihadist movement under the banner of ISIL is moving out of Central Asia up into Russia, and of course they’re putting a lot of pressure on the Western border of China.
GATES: I do think that the Russians and the Chinese are both worried about ISIL and about Islamic terrorism. I don’t think—I do think that Putin would like to see ISIL controlled and contained and destroyed. I think they do see ISIL as a—as a danger to them. I remember the Soviet defense—or, the Russian defense minister once told me, he said, you know, the Iranians don’t need a missile to get a nuclear weapon into Russia. And the terrorists don’t need—it’s not as hard for the terrorists to get into Russia, as it is for them to get elsewhere—into other countries. So I think—I think Putin—I don’t doubt Putin’s desire to see ISIL destroyed. But he’s pursuing a path where I think he thinks the way to do that is to empower Assad.
BROKAW: Edwin Smith from University of Southern California Gould School of Law wants to take our attention back to China.
The evolving conflict in the South China Sea bears serious attention because it reflects the conflicting national interests of at least seven states over the security of $5 trillion in international trade, plus the potential development of hundreds of millions of barrel-equivalents of oil and natural gas in that part of the world. How does that evolve?
GATES: Well, this is—and I will say, I think China’s the one area where at least up until now the United States has had a pretty good strategy, and it has had substantial bipartisan support. So the linage, if you will, from Nixon’s trip to the normalization of relations under President Carter, President Reagan embracing the relationship as it was handed to him, and then up to the present. It’s difficult to tell what the current crop of candidates might do—(laughter)—but it seems to me that—I don’t believe that China has any intention of engaging in a global arms race with the United States. I do believe that they intend to establish regional dominance and believe that that is—that comports with their history and their role in the world.
As I like to say, people talk about the emergence of China. I prefer to talk about the reemergence of China. It was a great civilization and a great power for a couple of thousand years. Granted, they had a couple of bad centuries, but—(laughter)—let’s just say, they take the long view. And I do worry, on the military side, by 2020 the Chinese will have about 350 surface warships and submarines. And the United States will have about 70 in that region. And as someone once said, at a certain point quantity begins to take on a quality all of its own. And so I am concerned about that.
But I do believe that with careful management of the relationship, and given the Chinese interest in avoiding an out-and-out conflict, that we can assert our rights—if we’re firm, and if we have enough military presence out there to be credible, that we can assert our rights at the same time that we acknowledge China’s influence and role in the region and in the world.
BROKAW: A question from the audience. Let’s go way to the back. Yes, sir. Yes, stand up. There you are. Tell us who you are, please.
Q: Jason Sherman, from Inside Defense.
Mr. Secretary, I’d like to ask you a question about the Pentagon’s modernization program. The next administration is going to face some major challenges, particularly with regard to recapitalizing the nuclear triad. The Pentagon’s acquisition executive Frank Kendall earlier this spring estimated that DOD is going to need something on the order of $10 to $12 billion more in its base budget, beginning in 2021, to pay for that portfolio of capabilities. With the defense budget right now at about $525 billion in the base budget, I’m just wondering how you think the—that portfolio—or how do—you know, just how DOD is going to—what the way forward is, given that under the sequester DOD has—is on track to absorb about $800 billion in cuts over the 10-year period, and if you see any room for the defense budget increasing in the timeframe that DOD needs it?
GATES: Yeah, I think we need to actually see—the situation for defense is actually worse than you describe. (Laughter.) So I—in 2009, 2010, I cut about 3 dozen major procurement programs that had they been built out fully over time would have cost about $330 billion. We then launched what we called an efficiencies exercise in 2010 and identified about $180 billion in overhead that could be cut. Now, I agreed to give—I told the services: You identify overhead that can be cut, headquarters that can be consolidated and so on, and then if you can identify real military capabilities where you would like to invest the money, I’ll give you the money back. But it’s got to be for tooth, not tail.
The bottom line is, that in that—those two years, we cut the defense budget by about $400 billion over a 10-year period. President Obama in April of 2011, as part of the budget exercise, said: I want you to do that again. So that was another $400 billion. That ended up being more like, I think, $485 billion rather than 400. So before sequester, the defense budget had been cut by about $850 billion over a 10-yer period. Sequester then put another $500 to $600 billion worth of cuts on the table. So it’s more like a trillion and a half dollars over a 10-year-or-so period.
The first thing that’s wrong with the way we do defense budgeting is the lack of predictability. In the last 10 years, the Department of Defense has had a defense appropriations at the beginning of the fiscal year twice. And that was nine and 10 years ago. Every year they have begun with a continuing resolution and/or sequester. So one of the problems in figuring out how to fund long-range investments in defense, whether it’s shipbuilding or whether its modernizing the triad, is predictability in the budget. And here, Congress is basically at fault.
And until they can provide some predictability in terms of not just getting appropriations in a timely way but on what the rate of growth will be looking out five or 10 years, it’s going to be very difficult to manage these modernization programs. I think that there is still a lot of overhead in the department that can be cut. And one of the points that I make in the book is that actually times of austerity are great opportunities for the reformer because it provides an incentive to change the way you’re doing business. So whether you are consolidating combatant commands or doing a lot of things differently, these kinds of budget circumstances provide an opportunity for somebody who’s bent on changing and reforming the system.
But I think that you—the American people and the Congress has to realize, for example, on the Navy side, that the ships that were built in the Reagan era are aging out, and so there’s a—there’s a modernization process that has to take place in the Navy. The Air Force is operating with the oldest planes we’ve ever had in our inventory—our bombers, our tankers, our fighters, you name it. Now, we are building the F-35. We are building a new tanker. But we’re just getting—really beginning to get those programs moving.
So I think, you know, you can debate how much the defense budget needs to grow. I think the Defense Department, if given the opportunity and the flexibility, could find money internally by cutting overhead to fund some of this modernization. But I also think there needs to be a predicable rate of growth, whether it’s 2 percent or 3 percent a year. And if you gave the Defense Department that and you promised and delivered, that they could count on that for 10 years, I think they could manage these modernization programs.
BROKAW: Other questions? Yeah, right behind the pillar—or right in front of the pillar, I’m sorry, right there. You’re walking up to him. Yeah.
Q: Thank you for your service in government, Secretary Gates. I’m Amit Sharma, Empowerment Capital and former U.S. Treasury Department.
I was intrigued by a statement you made earlier on the underinvestment or lack of investment in empowering agents, USAID and others. If you could comment on how do we reverse that trend—how do we look at strategic investments not only within the part of the U.S. government—USAID, Ex-Im Bank, OPIC, and other institutions—but also to enable commercial endeavors in areas of high risk, conflict, post-conflict, that can then complement our broader security and foreign policy objectives?
GATES: Well, it’s fundamentally political. I mean, it’s—there is no thought behind it. It’s just, we don’t want to fund those things. And everybody here knows that foreign aid has a dirty—is like a dirty word on Capitol Hill. And, you know, if you want to—if you characterize it as just shoveling money at foreign countries, then that’s probably deserved, but I think we’re a lot smarter than that.
I think it’s a—I think it’s a vicious circle. I think presidents and OMB don’t agree to increases in the State Department budget because they’re convinced the Congress won’t approve it, so why put the—why take money away from something else to add to the State Department numbers when the—when the Congress will just take it away? It’s a lot easier to put more money in a failing program in the Department of Defense than to give these guys anything. So I think what it requires is really some committed, visionary leadership in some key roles on Capitol Hill, and a president with the courage of his convictions.
Now, the State Department did get some significant budget increases, as I recall, during the Bush administration, and they were able to add some additional Foreign Service officers and so on. But, you know, as Condi Rice used to remind me, I have more people in military bands than she had in the Foreign Service. (Laughter.) Or, to put it another way, if you took every Foreign Service officer in the world, you wouldn’t have enough people to crew one aircraft carrier. So, you know, the disproportion in what’s spent on the military and what’s spent on the civilian side of the toolkit is vast, and that’s easy to explain. But the reality is marginal investments on the civilian side could yield, in my view, disproportionate benefits. But it’s going to require somebody on the Hill being willing to take some leadership and understand the importance of that.
BROKAW: In our digital world, how confident are you that we’re able to secure our most important secrets? Mike Hayden’s sitting here in the front row.
GATES: Well, I—you know, Mike may disagree with this, but I think—I think we do a pretty good job of protecting the classified networks in the Defense Department. And we have—we started a program where we extended that umbrella to defense contractors on a voluntary basis because they had to give us some information so that we could help protect their networks. I think that—and I’m in dangerous ground here because Mike was not only director of CIA, but director of NSA—but I think that—I think we have the technical capabilities to protect ourselves, but the government and the privates sector are completely wrapped around the axel in terms of figuring out how to make it happen.
And it’s not a partisan issue. It’s one of the few issues that’s not partisan. You’ve got Republicans that disagree with each other, Democrats that disagree with each other. You’ve got differences within the executive branch, both in the Bush administration and the Obama administration. You have major differences between private business or business and the government in terms of how much information business is willing to share. And the result is we’re kind of nowhere.
Now, I cut a deal in July of 2010 with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in the—in the belief that, you know, a lot of puritans, civil liberties and privacy puritans, say, well, we’ll wait for a civilian NSA to be created, and that’ll protect our networks. And my attitude? It ain’t ever going to happen. There isn’t enough money, there isn’t enough time, and there isn’t enough human capital. So, how do we use NSA to protect our domestic networks?
So what Janet and I came up with was I allowed her to nominate and appoint a deputy director of NSA who would have his or her own general counsel and would have the authority to task NSA real-time if there were a threat to domestic networks. We got the president to agree to this. We did it all in about three weeks. We ignored the rest of the bureaucracy. It goes to a point in the book. By ignoring the rest of the bureaucracy, we probably guaranteed failure—(laughter)—because, even though the president had approved it, the bureaucratic forces came back and, as I like to say, we parted the bureaucratic waters momentarily. And it was only a few months before they closed back over again and were basically back where we started.
But we have to figure out a way to arrive at some consensus in the government, both the executive branch and the—and the Congress, and also the business community, before we’re actually going to be able to use the tools that we have to protect our networks.
BROKAW: One last question, and if we can make it as economical as possible. Right here on this side. We haven’t gotten to this section yet. No, right here.
Q: My name is Donald Shriver. I’m the former president of Union Theological Seminary, and I’m also a World War II draftee.
One of the great changes that has happened since my being drafted is that this country is now on a kind of permanent war footing, and I should think that the morale of both our troops and our civilians depends a great deal on the possibility that there can be an end to the war. It would seem that the conflicts we are now engaged in have no end. What would passionate leadership require, both toward us as civilians and toward the morale of our troops, in order to deal with this problem?
GATES: Well, I think part of the problem is the—is the nature of the—of the threat, the threats that we face. Most of our—most of our military activities today are not in combat. They are deterrence. They are presence. Where we are in combat today is in very limited numbers in dealing with the lingering extremist problem in Afghanistan and the problem of ISIS that is mainly located in Syria and in certain parts of Iraq. The numbers of our forces that will be engaged directly in those conflicts I think will, in the foreseeable future at least, be a—be a pretty limited number of people. But there is no denying the enduring threat that these extremists pose to the United States and to Europe and to others.
You know, one of the—one of the differences between post-World War II and pre-World War II is that war and no war were pretty much black and white. You were either at war or you weren’t at war. But the kind of challenge that we face from terrorism and other extremists today is more like a public health problem or crime that we are going to have to battle on an enduring basis, and there won’t be a moment when any of these groups say we surrender or we quit. And so we’re going to have to deal with this, I believe, on a long-term basis.
I think we have to be very careful about drawing this line between exercising our leadership in the world, and leading from the front, and having a credible deterrent, and having our allies and friends know that we are a dependable ally; and drawing the line between accomplishing those objectives and, in effect, as the term goes, becoming the world policeman. And it was one of the reasons why I opposed the intervention in Libya. I did not see our interests directly engaged. And I said in the Situation Room—I said, can I just finish the two wars I’m already in before you go looking for another one? So I think—I think we can and we must draw that line. But we have to—we have to accomplish the mission of the first part of that that I described, and we do have to continue to fight these extremists that pose a very real threat to us.
BROKAW: I want to thank you, Mr. Gates, for this really enlightening hour. And I just want to conclude, if I can, with this one observation. I’ve long admired Secretary Gates’ commitment to public service, the intelligence that he brings, the strength of his ideas. There was just one pause in this book that did give me a moment of second thoughts.
As the director of the CIA, he saw on his agenda that he was going to be speaking at Indiana University, which is one of his alma maters. So he invited Lee Hamilton, who was a congressman from Indiana and a highly regarded national security authority in the Congress of the United States, to join him on the CIA plane for this appointment. They got onto the plane together, the plane turned north: they were going to Indiana University in Pennsylvania, not in Indiana. (Laughter.) But I give him all kinds of credit for putting that in the book. (Laughter.)
BROKAW: Thank you all very much. (Applause.) That was really good, Bob. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.