Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates walks from an Osprey aircraft after landing at Forward Operating Base Dwyer, June 5, 2011 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates walks from an Osprey aircraft after landing at Forward Operating Base Dwyer, June 5, 2011 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

Robert Gates is making headlines with his new book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” Known for his poker face, the former defense secretary has published a strikingly candid account of his years of service under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The book offers an unprecedented peek into the inner workings of government during some of its most intense debates about national security. These include discussions over the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether or not to set timetables for withdrawal.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from DUTY by Robert M. Gates. Copyright © 2014 by Robert M. Gates. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Robert Gates is making headlines with his new book. It's titled "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." The former secretary of defense has published a strikingly candid account of his years of service under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The book offers a glimpse into the underworkings of the government during some of its most intense debates about national security, discussions over surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether to set timetables for withdrawal.

  • 11:07:36

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about his tenure as secretary of defense, Robert Gates. I do invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome, Mr. Secretary. I'm glad to have you here.

  • 11:08:03

    MR. ROBERT GATESThank you very much. It's a pleasure to be with you again.

  • 11:08:05

    REHMTell me how you're feeling. You've got a brace around your neck. You've carried on this long season of interviews on your book. How are you managing?

  • 11:08:20

    GATESWell, I wish I could say that my -- that breaking my neck had been the result of some backwoods adventure or something. But it's much more prosaic. I just tripped on a carpet in our house and fell. And I'm very fortunate there's no pain. But I do have to wear this yoke, which is inconvenient, shall we say.

  • 11:08:44

    REHMThere's no pain. That's remarkable.

  • 11:08:46

    GATESNo. No.

  • 11:08:48

    REHMWell, I'm glad for you.

  • 11:08:50

    GATESThank you.

  • 11:08:51

    REHMBefore we talk about your book, Iran is very much in the news these days. And the president is urging members of Congress not to impose further sanctions on Iran but to let the negotiation process continue. Are you optimistic that the Congress will listen to Secretary Kerry and the president?

  • 11:09:24

    GATESWell, when it comes to the Congress, as the book makes clear, I'm very rarely optimistic. I happen to believe that the president is exactly right that imposing additional sanctions now is a serious mistake and likely would torpedo any talks that might take place. On the other hand, I do disagree with the administration in that I think, having the Congress pass even more severe sanctions, but sanctions that would be triggered with the failure of the negotiations, would lend negotiating strength to the president and his team, to Secretary Kerry.

  • 11:10:10

    REHMSo you're saying to say upfront if the negotiations continues, say, for six months with no result, say that upfront then?

  • 11:10:26

    GATESExactly. So that the Iranians know that if the negotiations fail -- and I think their tactic will be to roll the timetable. You know, well, we get to six months. Let's take another month. Let's take another two months. I think the administration needs to set a date certain, that six months is six months. And I think it's important to be able to tell the Iranians that we don't just go back to the status quo ante if the negotiations fail but that the economic conditions they face will worsen if the negotiations fail.

  • 11:11:00

    GATESBut, again, I think that all would be triggered by failure of the negotiations. Doing something now, I think, would be a serious mistake.

  • 11:11:08

    REHMAnd now, turning to Iraq, which you also talk about in your book, I'm interested in what's happening in Iraq now with the reemergence of al-Qaida. Did they ever really go away? Or have they just been in wait?

  • 11:11:34

    GATESI think that they largely were defeated and went away. Two things have happened in Iraq since we basically turned over security control to the Iraqis and left. The first is that Prime Minister Maliki has been consistently hostile to the Sunnis. He's tried to arrest his Sunni Vice President, Hashemi. He's tried to arrest other senior Sunni officials in the government.

  • 11:12:01

    GATESHe's not given -- he's not made any investments in the Sunni areas, like Anbar Province, and has generally just advanced hostility to the Sunnis, thereby giving them no reason to be supportive of the government in Baghdad. Now, my hope is that, as the security situation has deteriorated, that this has been a wakeup call from him -- for him and that he will begin to reach out to them, that he will begin to change the way that he's treated them and give them a stake in success.

  • 11:12:32

    GATESThe other problem that has happened is the Syrian civil war. And the growing role of al-Qaida and other extremists in Syria clearly has had a spillover effect into the rest of Iraq and into the Sunni areas of Iraq. I think, so far, most of the violence in Iraq has been perpetrated by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists. So far, the Shia extremists have held their fire.

  • 11:13:04

    GATESAnd so we haven't seen a rise in the kind of intersectarian violence that was such a problem in 2006, 2007. But I think, only if Maliki takes the right steps toward the Sunnis will you begin to see any diminution of this kind of violence. But it still leaves the residual effects of the Syrian civil war for Maliki to deal with, for the Sunnis in Anbar Province to deal with because they really don't like this -- the Sunnis out there don't like al-Qaida.

  • 11:13:39

    GATESThey don't -- one of the reasons they rose up at the end of 2006 was because of the violence of -- extreme violence of al-Qaida. So I think the situation isn't lost, but it's clearly difficult and very complicated.

  • 11:13:51

    REHMHmm. And it makes those who serve there feel terrible as though, you know, perhaps they fought for naught.

  • 11:14:05

    GATESWell, my view is you can't freeze history. It is always moving. And I think our service men and women who served can take great satisfaction from the success that we had in stabilizing Iraq in 2007, 2008, in dramatically improving the security situation for the Iraqis, and in working with them to create a fledgling, largely democratic government. We handed the Iraqis a bright future on a silver platter when we left there. And that was the achievement of our men and women in uniform, as well as our civilians.

  • 11:14:51

    REHMDo you think we should be doing anything more now in Iraq?

  • 11:14:56

    GATESWell, I think that we should provide them whatever assistance and training and military equipment that they want. They are not interested in having American troops on the ground, and I believe that I can say with confidence Americans have no interest in having more troops on the ground there again.

  • 11:15:16

    REHMAnd you mentioned Syria. With the extraordinary refugee situation there, with civil war going on there, what more do you believe the U.S. could do to affect the situation?

  • 11:15:37

    GATESWell, first, I think we need to have some humility about how much we can accomplish in this setting. And I was opposed to military intervention in Syria because Syria's closest allies are Russia and Iran. And if Iraq and Afghanistan taught us anything, it is, once we launch a war, we don't know how it will play out.

  • 11:16:00

    GATESWe don't know what the unintended consequences are. So I described it as a military intervention as throwing gasoline on a very complex fire. That said, I think that we can do more in terms of both overt and covert assistance to the opposition. I think that we should be leading other countries in dramatically increasing support for Jordan, in being able to take care of the several million Syrian refugees that are now in Jordan. So I think there's a big humanitarian role we can play.

  • 11:16:35

    GATESI'm not optimistic about the negotiations that will take place in Geneva. But I think there are some things we can do. But I think we need to work more closely -- and we may well be, and I'm just not aware of it -- work more closely with our allies and friends, our Sunni allies and friends in the Gulf area, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the region in terms of trying to bring about some kind of a change in Syria, but one that does not give rise to a Sunni-Shia conflict across the entire region.

  • 11:17:11

    REHMBut what about President al-Assad?

  • 11:17:15

    GATESWell, I think that, for there to be any longer-term solution, he has to go. One of the unfortunate things is about the deal with Putin -- Vladimir Putin of Russia and his proposal on the chemical weapons is that we went from a position of demanding that Assad leave to having to realize that it was important for him to stay to deliver on the chemical weapons agreement.

  • 11:17:45

    GATESSo we got our attention diverted, it seems to me, by 1,400 chemical weapon deaths, as terrible as that is, to a point where we've turned our glance away from the 125,000 other casualties that have taken place as a part of this civil war. So I think Assad has to go. Figuring out how to do that -- when I was CIA director, I wanted to buy an island and build a lot of villas on it where we could send people like Assad and Idi Amin and Ferdinand Marcos...

  • 11:18:20

    REHMTo live in comfort?

  • 11:18:22

    GATESLive in comfort, but get them out of the way, let them know they're not going to be killed by their own people, but I wouldn't give them any communications or anything else.

  • 11:18:31

    REHMFormer Defense Secretary Robert Gates, his new book is titled "Duty." We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk further and take your calls.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is with me. And, of course, you have seen, heard, I'm sure, read about his new memoirs. It's called "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." And, Mr. Secretary, you say that this book is about your more than 4 1/2 years at war, principally in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the coverage of your book has thus far been focused on your criticism of both President Obama and the vice president. What would your own headlines about this book have been?

  • 11:21:03

    GATESI think it would have been the difficulty of waging war in two places, given the political paralysis and polarization here in Washington and how hard it was to get anything done and sometimes even to do the right thing for the troops in terms of protective equipment and a variety of other things.

  • 11:21:40

    REHMYou knew going in you were facing a tough situation when you had finished with the Bush Administration. You had questions in your own mind, perhaps, about Dick Cheney. But then you were asked to come back to serve President Obama. Why did you take that job?

  • 11:22:09

    GATESWell, I stayed on under President Obama for exactly the same reason that I agreed to do the job in the first place for President Bush. And it was, when I was asked, pretty simply, with all those kids out there fighting and dying and doing their duty, how can I not do mine? And I came to have -- feel a very personal sense of responsibility for those young men and women. And when I was asked to stay on by President Obama, the -- my sense of obligation to them led me not to hesitate at all when the president asked me.

  • 11:22:58

    REHMAnd how did that sense of responsibility and really very emotional feelings about those men and women at war affect your decision-making process?

  • 11:23:15

    GATESI think, first of all, that seeing these young people at war may have had a bigger impact on me than it might have on others because I had been the president of a big university. And so on one day, I'm walking around campus, and I'm seeing young men and women, 18 to 25, in backpacks and T-shirts and shorts and flip-flops, going to class and having a good time.

  • 11:23:44

    GATESAnd, literally overnight, I see young people the same age in full-body armor carrying assault rifles, living in horrible conditions, and putting their lives at risk. And so that sense of responsibility for them became very powerful. And toward the end, I came to believe -- one of the reasons I opposed the intervention in Libya was because I knew how tired and stressed our force was.

  • 11:24:13

    GATESAnd I said at one point in the situation room, can we just finish the two wars we're already in before we go looking for another one? And I began to feel, at the end, that, as I tried to be self-aware, that my efforts to protect our men and women in uniform from further sacrifice was probably clouding my judgment in terms of being objective about our national security needs and that I was more focused on protecting them than on giving hardheaded advice to the president that might involve putting them in jeopardy in other military operations.

  • 11:24:58

    GATESAnd I felt at that point that that was an important signal, that it was time to step down.

  • 11:25:03

    REHMYou talk about how tired and stressed those young people were. What about you? How tired and stressed were you?

  • 11:25:16

    GATESWell, I think that there was a cumulative effect. I made dozens of trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. I went to a lot of forward-operating bases. I went to a lot of combat outposts. I met with the young troops. I would have sandwich with them, talk to them. They would talk to me about the issues they were having at home. They would talk to me about things that they needed there in the field.

  • 11:25:48

    GATESI would see the conditions they lived under. And then every night, when I was at home, I would be writing condolence letters to families of those who had been killed. I was visiting the hospitals all the time. I was attending funerals at Arlington. And I think there was a cumulative effect on that. And somebody -- people would fairly routinely ask me if I was enjoying the job.

  • 11:26:19

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:26:19

    GATESAnd when I think of all the things that I was just talking about and then add to that that every week, I was signing orders, sending more young men and women in harm's way, I think it did have a cumulative effect. I think most of us who serve at that level in government -- I mean, I've talked to others, like Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen and others, and you don't really realize how exhausted you are until you actually leave government. And then you sort of sleep for two months and realize how you had spent yourself.

  • 11:27:00

    REHMWhat were the signals that you had that finally made you want to write this book immediately? There are those who question whether the anger that you felt sitting in hearings in Congress, for example, feeling as though those guys up there -- I mean, you really express a fury within yourself that almost made you speak out, holler out, scream out at them, what the hell do you think you know about all this? So people have always said to me, Diane, if you're really furious, sit on it for a couple of days. You had this mounting fury that lasted so long, and then you left office and began writing. Why so quickly?

  • 11:28:18

    GATESWell, I've been out of office for 2 1/2 years. And my fury at the inability of the Congress to get things done and the polarization and the paralysis is no less today, after 2 1/2 years, than it was when I left office. And one of the reasons that I've wrote the book now is that I've worked for eight presidents, and I have a perspective and experience based on that, particularly on questions of war and peace.

  • 11:28:54

    GATESAnd as we look at the Syrian civil war, as we look at the potential for military action against Iran if the negotiations fail, if -- as we look at China becoming more aggressive in the South China Sea, as we look at Russia and a variety of problems, it seems to me there are some lessons in this book, lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that have contemporary importance and meaning...

  • 11:29:23

    REHMThat need to be stated now.

  • 11:29:24

    GATES...and that need to be part of the debate in Washington and in the country today. And there are also other aspects that I think need to be part of the dialogue today. What should be the shape of our military forces right now because of the diverse kinds of threats we may face in the future in our complete inability over the last 40 years to predict where we'll use military force next?

  • 11:29:56

    GATESWhat -- do you we need more ships and aircraft? And where would we deploy them? What is the impact of a polarized, paralyzed Congress on the ability of the president to conduct a coherent national security policy? These are not issues that can be kicked down the road to 2017. They are part of the contemporary dialogue. In terms of the issues and policies that -- one of the criticisms has been, how can you write about this stuff when they're still current issues?

  • 11:30:32

    GATESAnd my argument is, whether it's Iraq or whether it's Afghanistan, the president's made all those decisions. The truth is, I agreed with all of those decisions, including going for the strategic agreement with the Afghan government that would leave a residual force there. So it's not as though I'm influencing the direction of those wars or the decision-making process on those wars. Those decisions are set. It's in these other areas where the outcomes are still unknown and where the debate is still going on, where I wanted to have my voice heard.

  • 11:31:06

    REHMWhat is, was, still is your greatest disagreement and disappointment in President Obama?

  • 11:31:18

    GATESWell, I think there are two things. I think that the message of the book, the narrative has been hijacked to make it sound like it's a very anti-President Obama book. It's not at all. If you read the book, it's full of praise for President Obama. And I make it...

  • 11:31:34

    REHMI agree.

  • 11:31:34

    GATESI make it very clear that I've agreed with all of his policy decisions. The two things that troubled me the most were, first, particularly on Afghanistan, his suspicion of the motives of his senior military leaders and his belief that they were trying to force his hand in adding significantly more troops in Afghanistan.

  • 11:32:03

    GATESI tried to allay that suspicion, and, frankly, we -- some of the public comments by senior military officers, I -- as I say in the book, I can see where it fed that suspicion. I tried to allay it, but largely without success. The second is that while I give President Obama for a lot of courage in making very tough decisions on Afghanistan, including the Afghan surge -- and, as I said, I think all those decisions have been correct.

  • 11:32:32

    GATESThe -- his unwillingness to publicly tell the troops, as well as the American people, why success in Afghanistan is important, to tell the troops why their cause is noble and why their sacrifice is justified. I think men and women in uniform want to hear that from their commander-in-chief, and they didn't.

  • 11:33:04

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You express criticism in the book of President Obama for being too focused on domestic areas during the years when you served from 2008 to 2011. Considering that there was this deep freefall in the economy at the time, didn't the American people want the president to be clearly focused on the economy and perhaps somewhat less focused on what was happening abroad?

  • 11:33:48

    GATESAbsolutely. But every president has to deal with the reality that most Americans, most of the time, are going to be focused on what's happening in our lives here at home and whether we have a job and whether we're moving forward. That does not alleviate the president from responsibility for national security issues where many Americans, frankly, have not much interest and think that the money spent in that arena is a waste and would be better spent at home.

  • 11:34:21

    GATESBut that doesn't relieve the president of responsibility. But the point I make in the book about domestic politics and discussion in the Obama Administration is, first of all, I served in the last two years of the Bush Administration. President Bush was never going to run for re-election again, neither was Vice President Cheney. And so most of their political gurus were gone by that time.

  • 11:34:46

    GATESAnd -- but I served in the first 2 1/2 years of a president who clearly was focused on re-election. But what I make clear in the book is that while domestic politics were a part of the discussion and a part of the debate on national security issues, and particularly on Afghanistan, while people like Vice President Biden and White House Chief-of Staff Rahm Emanuel were, as I say in the book, driven by the politics, the president was aware of the politics, but in fact made decisions, particularly on the Afghan surge, that essentially set aside the domestic politics.

  • 11:35:29

    GATESHe overrode the objections of Vice President Biden and his other political advisors and did what I thought was the right thing in terms of our national security. So the politics were a part of the dialogue in a way that I hadn't heard before. But on virtually every occasion, I -- the president's decisions, as far as I was concerned, were made aware of -- in awareness of the politics, but he was willing to set them aside to do what he thought was in the best interest of the country.

  • 11:36:01

    REHMYou talk about a conversation you had with Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about her vote on the surge. And many people are suggesting that, because she said she made her vote politically and not necessarily in what she believed, that that is going to hinder her chances of running for president. I wonder if you feel that that was a breach of confidence.

  • 11:36:50

    GATESWell, two things. First of all, I think one of the reasons it caught my attention was that I had been on the other side of that debate in the spring of 2007, defending the surge. And so for her to say that with me in the room, I thought, was kind of surprising. But the other thing I would mention is that, after -- I spent 2 1/2 years with Hillary as secretary of state. I never, ever heard her bring domestic politics into the discussion or make it a part of her recommendations during the time she was actually secretary of state.

  • 11:37:30

    REHMAnd we'll take a short break here. When we come back, time to open the phones. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Michael in Tampa, Fla. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:17

    MICHAELThank you, Diane. And thank you, Mr. Gates, for your service. Mr. Gates, I was wondering if you understood the anger of the families who had lost loved ones or soldiers who returned, having lost limbs, and trying to rebuild their life, that you're now profiting off their experience by writing these books, especially when the war is still going on?

  • 11:40:41

    REHMSecretary Gates.

  • 11:40:43

    GATESWell, first of all, I've already decided that, if there is any income from this book that I will give it away, including to organizations serving wounded warriors and veterans, so I think that's not an issue. I do understand that anger because I've spent a lot of time with the families of those who have been wounded and those who have been killed. And I think that it's important that they know that the sacrifice was worthwhile.

  • 11:41:23

    GATESAnd I think it's important that they know that those in leadership positions were very mindful of the risk that they were at and of the sacrifice that they made. And that was certainly part of my conversation with many, many of these families over the last 7 years.

  • 11:41:43

    REHMAll right. To Jim in Chicago, Ill., it's your turn.

  • 11:41:48

    JIMYes. Speaking as a Vietnam veteran, I would respectfully say to Secretary Gates, your book has already been pre-empted by a man in a similar position, Robert McNamara, called "Fog of War." And so my question to the secretary is, how many more post-regret books do we have to read to realize the uselessness and the senselessness of these ridiculous wars?

  • 11:42:15

    REHMThat's an interesting question.

  • 11:42:17

    GATESWell, first of all, this is not a book like McNamara's because I do not express regret. I think that there was a common belief in 2001 that we had to go into Afghanistan. This is the place from which we had been attacked. What I say in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- or what I say in the book about both is that initial victories in both countries were squandered by some significant blunders, and that resulted in years of grinding warfare. And I think history will probably be pretty tough on those who made those mistakes.

  • 11:43:01

    GATESMy role was, in fact in both cases, trying to salvage those conflicts and create an environment in which we could draw down and withdraw our troops and put these wars behind us without them being a long-term, global catastrophe for the United States.

  • 11:43:19

    REHMShould we have gone into Iraq in the first place?

  • 11:43:23

    GATESWell, I think that, you know, that's one of those questions that historians will have to answer. I think the war will always be tainted by the fact that we launched the war based on wrong information. And in terms of the consequences, I think it'll take some time to see whether or not the entire enterprise was a mistake.

  • 11:43:48

    REHMDo you blame George Bush in any way for that mistake?

  • 11:43:55

    GATESWell, I think first you have to decide it's a mistake. And what I've said in the book -- and what I've said all along -- is that I think you're going to have to wait several decades to learn.

  • 11:44:07

    GATESI mean, the only way that I think this war in Iraq comes out looking -- having positive aspects from the standpoint of history is that -- is if it is seen 20 or 30 years from now as the first crack in the wall of authoritarianism in the Arab world, if in 20 or 30 years, you have a multi-sectarian state in Iraq that is more or less democratic and where political freedom and human rights are respected, and that has spread to the rest of the region. But I think that drawing judgments now is a very complicated business, and I think that most Americans are just glad that we're out.

  • 11:44:55

    REHMHere's an email from Anne who is a former state department officer with experience in the Middle East. She says, "In my view, inserting a military presence in countries with underdeveloped government systems, even in advisory role, puts the U.S. in the middle of what are often local conflicts we do not understand.

  • 11:45:26

    REHM"Even those we ally with are often conflicted about a U.S. role in their internal politics, as we see in the case of multiple militias in Libya. To avoid the long-term blowback that our military actions are causing, we must put more stock in diplomacy and less in armed force." Could you give your reaction?

  • 11:45:59

    GATESWell, I totally agree. And, in fact, this is one of the reasons I wrote the book now is because there is a lot in this book, and particularly toward the end, on questions of war and peace. And I state in the book that I believe that over the last few decades, American presidents have been too quick in confronting a foreign problem or challenge, too quick to pull a gun, that we have not focused on the other tools of American influence, and particularly diplomacy and development.

  • 11:46:31

    GATESI think that we too often simplify issues. We make wrong assumptions, such as wars will be short. We assume we know more about our potential adversaries than we do -- and by potential adversaries, I mean other countries, other cultures, and their tribal and other connections. I think we didn't know much about that when we went into Afghanistan. We didn't know much about it in Iraq either.

  • 11:46:58

    GATESSo I think, if anything, this book is a cautionary tale about the use of force. And I basically come down saying that, unless our vital interests are at stake, unless those of our closest allies are at stake, we ought to be extremely cautious, far more cautious than we'd been over the last few decades in deploying American military. We overestimate our ability to shape events in other countries.

  • 11:47:30

    REHMTo John in Dallas, Texas. You're on the air.

  • 11:47:36

    JOHNHey, there. Mr. Gates, first off, I want to thank you for all that you've done. I actually served in the military while you were in and went over there quite a few times and did what I had to do and gone out since. And you're expressing your emotions for our military men and women and everything in that -- and I can't even imagine what your level of emotions are doing what you had to do.

  • 11:48:01

    JOHNAnd I had no idea until just now listening to part of the radio show. But I wanted to ask you, now that you've written this book, you got it out, what are your plans moving forward for, you know, helping out the military? What are you wanting to do?

  • 11:48:16

    GATESWell, I want to get involved in helping wounded warriors and their families in particular.

  • 11:48:24

    REHMThere's an organization called Wounded Warriors.

  • 11:48:26

    GATESThere are -- yeah, and there are multiple organizations.

  • 11:48:29

    REHMYes.

  • 11:48:29

    GATESAnd whether it's working with the Fisher Foundation and Fisher Houses, there are a number of these. I have also agreed to write a second book on leading change in big public institutions, big public bureaucracies, a kind of how do you actually do this since I did it in the Department of Defense, despite all the problems in Washington. But I certainly intend to remain engaged.

  • 11:48:57

    REHMDo you believe that putting into your book conversations that took place in the Oval Office between you and the president and the secretary of state and the vice president are in any way violations of national security?

  • 11:49:24

    GATESNo, I don't, and for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you actually read the book, the conversations that I recount, I think show both presidents in a positive light because they are asking tough questions, they are pushing back on the military, they are skeptical, they are not allowing themselves to be spoon-fed information, and I think they are acting as people would like to believe commanders-in-chief behave.

  • 11:50:00

    GATESAnd so I think it is -- these conversations are positive. The other aspect of this is, you know, I think, let's not kid ourselves. For example, on Afghanistan, all through 2010, there were routinely leaks out of the White House from senior White House staff and others about what the president said in meetings, about the president's reservations about this or that, about the president's conversations with people.

  • 11:50:31

    GATESI mean, this was common currency in 2010, so it's not like this is some kind of dramatic departure. What's different is having a name attached to it instead of being on background or something and saying, yeah, this is actually what happened.

  • 11:50:46

    GATESBut I think what I wanted to do in this book, particularly for men and women in uniform and for those who served, was to describe for them in real terms what the Washington battlefield looked like during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what the contending arguments were, and the passion that was involved, and the care that people were taking in trying to make the right decisions.

  • 11:51:14

    REHMBut isn't what you've just said somewhat contradictory to what you said earlier about the president and the vice president in regard to the generals? Here, you've just said that the president did push back, that he did question thoughtfully, intelligently. Earlier, you seemed to be saying -- and correct me if I misunderstood. You seemed to be saying that he was far too focused on politics as was Vice President Biden. Aren't those contradictory statements?

  • 11:51:58

    GATESI don't think so at all because one of the points that I made is that, while the president was aware of the politics and the politics were discussed in the situation room, the president's decisions were not driven by politics. He was always able to set aside the politics and do what he thought was in the best interest of the country, including overriding the advice of his vice president and his political advisors. So I think that there isn't a contradiction there.

  • 11:52:25

    GATESAnd it's -- there's also no contradiction between a president pushing back and disagreeing with his generals and whether or not a president is suspicious of their motives. President Bush pushed back against his military. He came to realize in 2006 that the Iraq strategy wasn't working. And, at the end of the day, he disagreed with the entire joint chiefs of staff, the theater commander, and the combatant commander for the entire region and changed the policy.

  • 11:52:57

    GATESSo disagreeing with the military, deciding against their recommendations, is exactly what presidents do. And I've seen all eight presidents that I worked for do that. The question that troubled me, the narrow question that troubled me was the suspicion of their motives, that they were trying to box him in, trying to force his hand to do something. And I just didn't believe it.

  • 11:53:20

    REHMHow do you know that? Did he say that?

  • 11:53:24

    GATESAbsolutely.

  • 11:53:25

    REHMHe said...

  • 11:53:25

    GATESAnd, well, and not only did he say it. It was being said almost every day in the newspapers by White House staff, that that was the belief in the White House of what the military was trying to do.

  • 11:53:34

    REHMBut did you hear the president say, I am suspicious of their motives?

  • 11:53:42

    GATESIt was clear from the way he reacted to the public remarks that they made that he was suspicious that they weren't just presenting him with options, but that they were trying to force him to choose one option over another.

  • 11:53:56

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Is history going to judge President Bush and President Obama in terms of how they handled the war years? Is one going to be seen, in your view, as having dealt with war better than the other?

  • 11:54:29

    GATESI think it's way too early to say that. You know, I always liked the answer that Mao Tse-tung gave when he was asked about the French Revolution. And he said, it's too early to tell. And I think that it's way too soon to judge these presidents. My guess is that history will give more importance to President Obama's policies in pulling us out of a near-Depression and our economic disaster in 2008 perhaps than some of these tactical decisions with respect to these wars.

  • 11:55:07

    REHMSo your duty going forward is to, in whatever way you can, help these young men and women who have served.

  • 11:55:21

    GATESI think I have a responsibility to do that.

  • 11:55:24

    REHMHow far will that responsibility take you?

  • 11:55:28

    GATESWell, I think it's too early to tell. But I can tell you for sure it won't involve anything with the government.

  • 11:55:34

    REHMNo more government service at all?

  • 11:55:37

    GATESI think I'm done, and I think if there were any question about it that this book would have settled that.

  • 11:55:44

    REHMYou think that you are sort of persona non grata at this point?

  • 11:55:51

    GATESWell, we'll see. But I wanted to give a very candid description to the men and women in uniform and their families and the America that sent them to war about what the situation really was like here in Washington with respect to decision making about those wars and other potential military conflicts so that they have as good an understanding of the difficulties imposed by the problems we have in Washington in fighting wars as in dealing with some of our domestic issues.

  • 11:56:30

    REHMAnd what do you do with your anger that was with you for so long?

  • 11:56:37

    GATESWell, I think it's not -- I mean, others will make their own judgment. I don't think it was so much anger as it was just deep frustration at how difficult it was to get anything done, even for the best purposes, here in Washington? The other part of the story is that I actually did it, whether it was cutting major defense programs that -- you know, my predecessors, if they were able to cut two or three, that was a big success. I cut three dozen and made a number of cuts in the Pentagon bureaucracy. But everything was a fight.

  • 11:57:13

    REHMRobert Gates, former secretary of defense, his new book is titled "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." I thank you for being here. And though I've been told not to say it to the military, I do thank you for your service.

  • 11:57:37

    GATESThank you very much, Diane.

  • 11:57:38

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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