Politics

Transcript: Robert Gates on

The following is a transcript of an interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that aired Sunday, May 22, 2022, on “Face the Nation.” The full interview transcript can be found below.


MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve said that you’ve been disappointed in Republican leaders for not standing up for traditional Republican values. We just had this awful shooting in Buffalo, New York. Liz Cheney, Congresswoman, said, “House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. Republican leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.” Do you think Republican leaders are enabling those things she said?

GATES: I don’t know that I would go that far. I do know that there aren’t enough of them denouncing those things, denouncing white supremacy, denouncing-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why?

GATES: We have too many people who- who are in politics to further their own agendas and to further their own personal prospects rather than what’s good for the country. And I would say that’s true in both parties.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think it is important for the American public to have a full accounting of the events of January 6th with these public hearings that are planned in the weeks ahead?

GATES: I think so. What happened on January 6th was- was a huge blight on our democracy. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You think there is value in having this aired publicly?

GATES: I think so, yes. I think people need to understand. My worry is that people will- that everybody will retreat to their ideological corner. And, and so nobody will- nobody will listen. I think maybe the best thing to do is just to rerun the videos.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Former Trump Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was with us on Face the Nation recently, and he revealed some pretty shocking things about what he witnessed when he was part of the administration. Unconstitutional, illegal, immoral actions. Firing missiles into Mexico. Shooting American protesters in the legs. Did you know that these types of ideas were being considered at that time?

GATES: A few of them. Not, not those specific ones, but, but some others that he talks about. So- and people would call me from the Pentagon and tell me that, you know, we’re- we’re wrestling with how to respond to this. So I had some flavor of it, but none of the kind of detail that- that Mark Esper has in his book.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you believe President Trump running for office again would present that threat to national security?

GATES: It would concern me.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s a very diplomatic phrase.

GATES: That’s and that’s- that’s where I am.


Gates says January 6 was “a huge blight on our democracy”

02:57


ROBERT GATES: I think it’s huge, Margaret. I think it changes the geopolitics in Europe in a dramatic way. Now he’s got NATO on his doorstep, not only in Ukraine and elsewhere, he’s going to have them on his border in Finland. And- and you know, it’s an amazing thing he’s done because he’s- he’s gotten Sweden to abandon 200 years of neutrality. So I think- I think Putin, one of his many, huge miscalculations in invading Ukraine is he has dramatically changed the geostrategic posture of Western Europe. And now that you have the Swedes and the Finns as part of that, he’s really put Russia in a- in a much worse strategic position than it had before the invasion.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But he could still win, Vladimir Putin could still win in Ukraine?

GATES: If winning means taking over the country and absorbing it into Russia, the whole country, I think that’s very unlikely at this point. He has the potential to hold on to a good part of the Donbass. But I think in terms of pushing on to Odessa or trying to bring a change of government in Kyiv or absorb Ukraine, I think if that’s winning, I don’t see that he can win.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What are the security guarantees that the West needs to put in Zelenskyy’s hands, to put in Ukraine’s hands, to actually broker a deal?

GATES: I think access to Western weapons, continued training by NATO countries, including the United States. A promise to have a- keep a large NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe next door to Ukraine, the supply lines. The other thing that I think is really going to be critically important, especially if this conflict drags on for a very long time, is the West has to come together and figure out some way to help Ukraine economically, long term. Both short term humanitarian needs, but then rebuilding

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you have a concern that if Putin is cornered, that he would actually use a tactical nuke?

GATES: I think the probability of him using a tactical nuclear weapon is low, but not zero. There are no large masses of Ukrainian forces that would be taken out by a tactical nuclear weapon. And if it’s not got a military purpose, then the only purpose is as a terror weapon to try and break the will of the Ukrainian people. And I think that moment has come and gone. I don’t think that there’s anything at this point that will break the will of the Ukrainian people. The other thing that I hope somebody around Putin is reminding him is that, in that part of the world, and particularly in eastern Ukraine, the winds tend to blow from the west. If you set off a tactical nuclear weapon in eastern Ukraine, it’s going to- the radiation is going to go into Russia. So I just hope somebody reminds him of that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve called Vladimir Putin a man of the past. But when I talk to officials now, they say he could be around for another decade.

GATES: His invasion has- has weakened Russia and it’s got now long term economic problems. Europe, I think, is very serious at this point about weaning itself away from Russian- dependence on Russian oil and gas. So that will weaken Russia significantly. Where where is he going to find that market around the world for- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: China? 

GATES: China is not going to want to become dependent on Russia for its energy sources. China will want to remain diversified. They might buy some more Russian oil and gas, but nothing like what would be required to replace the European market.Putin will remain a pariah. It’s hard to see Putin ever walking in the door of the White House or number ten Downing Street or at the Elysee. So I-I think Russia- he has put Russia really behind the eight ball economically, militarily, and because now people are going to look at the Russian military and say, you know, this was supposed to be this fantastic military. Well, they give a good parade, but in actual combat, not so hot.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Xi Jinping is watching what’s happening in Ukraine and he is taking notes. What do you think his lesson is so far?

GATES: He and Putin have- have had a common narrative about the decline of the West We’re paralyzed, we’re polarized. We can’t get anything done. The alliance was divided and had lost its purpose and so on. Boom. We totally underestimated the West. We underestimated the United States’ willingness to take the lead again. We underestimated the willingness of the Europeans to come together and of the United States to put this coalition together. And we underestimated how fast and how severe the sanctions are that they could place. So maybe the West isn’t as weak as we thought. Second lesson is looking at the Russian military performance. He’s got to ask himself what if my equipment isn’t any better than the Russians? What if my troops aren’t any better than the Russians? Maybe my military is not as good as they’re telling me they are. The Chinese have given the Russians all kinds of rhetorical and political support. But they are doing very little concretely to help the Russians. My guess is, Putin told Xi before the Olympics, look, I’m going to do this. It’s going to take a few days and it’ll be done I’d wager, that Xi never expected a protracted, brutal conflict that would isolate Russia so much from the rest of the world. And so I think he’s playing it actually very cautiously.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is the rise of China still inevitable?

GATES: China and-and its role as a- growing role as a global power will continue. They do have some real problems. The big issue for Xi where he can’t admit he’s wrong is on the zero-Covid. And you know, when you shut down a city of 25 million people for weeks and people don’t have food, they don’t have water, they don’t have medical care. This has consequences and-and how can he say I got that wrong when you- its resulted in so much economic and and human cost.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were directly involved in and overseeing the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan for so long. The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is in the government. Women on the street have to cover their faces and their bodies now. Girls don’t have widespread access to education. How do you make sense of where we are now?

GATES: Well, I think people predicted every single one of those things would happen if we got out of Afghanistan altogether. I think we made a mistake in pulling everybody out. I think that had we kept a small number of U.S. troops, 5,000, 6,000, something on that order, the contractors would have stayed. The equipment would have been repaired and taken care of. We built- we built a military modeled on our own, which requires a lot of logistical support, a lot of sophisticated maintenance and so on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How was that not known after 20 years of war? How is that dependence not recognized?

GATES: I think people did recognize it. And that’s one of the reasons that people in the military argued for keeping a number of people there, because only if we had some representation in our military would the contractors who take care of those things been willing to stay, so they weren’t at risk. And when you had military, Afghan military suddenly realizing they’re getting no ammunition, they’re getting no food, they’re getting no support and they’re isolated. It’s kind of no wonder that most of them gave up. It wasn’t that they were cowardly or that they were unwilling to fight. It was they had poor leadership. And-and they-they had this dependency on on technical support that went away.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You must have seen the special inspector general report that came out just a few days ago. It blamed both President Trump and President Biden for withdrawing the military and contractors.

GATES: Don’t forget, it started under President Obama. So you have three presidents.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You would add culpability there?

GATES: Yeah. They all wanted out of Afghanistan, the forever war. But that allows for no shades of gray. It’s either all in or out- all out, is the way it was portrayed. And in fact, there were alternatives. And the military put forward some of those alternatives, which was a relatively small number of people that we would plan to keep there for some indefinite period.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mhmm. You admitted your own error there in that model of replicating an American type military style and trying to rebuild it within the Afghan forces.

GATES: Yeah, I mean, it was well along that way when I got there, but I certainly didn’t do anything to change it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You said before, the biggest threat to the United States is our polarization and the distance, the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol building. Do you still feel that way?

GATES: Totally.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You don’t see signs of improvement?

GATES: No. I will say this: there is one glimmer of hope that I see, and it’s in kind of my world. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have done something no other living human beings have done. They’ve actually brought Republicans and Democrats together on Capitol Hill and with the administration. Apart from a handful of isolationist Republican senators, you’ve got a pretty – from left to right – a pretty strong consensus in Washington. But I would say it’s broader than just Ukraine. You have the same kind of attitudes toward China and how we react to China and to Russia more broadly beyond Ukraine. So maybe that’s- maybe that’s a foundation. Maybe there’s a way to build on that. And who knows, if you begin to get it in national security policy, maybe you can get it in some other places.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I’ll take the optimism.

GATES: Well, I’m not sure I’d take the bet, but you might take the optimism.


Full transcript

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time and for having us here again.

FORMER SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: Always a pleasure.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to start in Asia. President Biden is there and the White House has been clear that there is a very real risk that North Korea could test either a nuclear weapon or another missile while the President is in the region, if that happens. What should the U.S. do?

ROBERT GATES: I think that it’s basically for demonstration purposes. It’s sort of you’ve forgotten about me on the part of Kim Jong Un. And, um, you know, you got to pay attention to me. This is what he does when he feels like he’s being taken for granted or being ignored.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Kim Jong Un.

ROBERT GATES: Kim Jong Un. Um, and, and so I think- I think that the best way to respond would be to do nothing, frankly. I think the reaffirmation of our defense ties with South Korea and the other visits that he’s making, it speaks for itself in terms of our position out there and I don’t think we need to respond to the- to the bratty child.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The bratty child. You told me two years ago that North Korea will never denuclearize, in your view. If their program continues to advance, what does that mean for U.S. security?

ROBERT GATES: Well, they’ve had nuclear weapons for some time now and I’ve never- as- as you suggest, I’ve never thought that he would denuclearize. And if- and if that view ever was reinforced, it’s been by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here’s Ukraine, gave up its nuclear weapons 1800 of them in 1994 in exchange for recognition of its borders by the U.S., the U.K. and Russia, and now look what’s happened to them. So as Kim Jong Un looks at that, he’s going to say, why- why would I ever do this? The question is whether there is a- a diplomatic approach that limits the number of nuclear weapons he has and perhaps the missiles, that gets the threat- keeps the threat at a very low level where he has the weapons to deter an attack on North Korea, but not enough to be a serious threat to other countries in Asia or to the United States.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to move now to- to Russia and Ukraine. You’ve said in more than one interview that President Biden, when you knew him, was wrong on foreign policy as a senator, as a vice president for 40 years. Given that, how do you assess how he’s doing now with this threat from Russia?

ROBERT GATES: I think the administration was slow to come to Ukraine’s help last year. I think we could have sent weapons sooner and more of the kind of weapons we’re- we’re sending now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Prior to February 24th and the invasion?

ROBERT GATES: Prior to last fall. That said, I think beginning in the late fall, early winter, when they began releasing the intelligence to demonstrate what Putin’s intentions were going to be, I think they handled this well. I think that they deserve to be commended for the speed with which they put together a coalition. The president put together a coalition. I think it’s extraordinary that you’re getting unanimity on the severity of the sanctions on Russia. The turn of attitudes in- in Europe has been in no small part due to American leadership and American intelligence and Putin’s brutality. So I think that- I think that they’ve handled it properly. I think the president made the right decision on no-fly zone. I think that he’s made the right decision not to react to Putin’s threat of using nuclear weapons, of just kind of cooling it on that. So I think- I think beginning last early winter, late fall, I think they’ve handled it pretty well since then.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden is trying to usher in these two new NATO’s members, Sweden and Finland, into the alliance. That’s a personal project for him. How strategically important is that?

ROBERT GATES: I think it’s huge, Margaret. I think it changes the geopolitics in Europe in a dramatic way. If you go back to last fall and Putin’s demands, one of those demands was to push NATO back to where they were in 1997. Well, instead of that, he’s now got over a hundred thousand American troops in Europe, many of them in Poland, and on other front lines, and more NATO allies in- on those front lines. And now with- if Finland becomes a member, another 800 mile direct border between Russia and NATO, the whole purpose of moving them back to 1997 was to keep that East European buffer between NATO and Russia. Now he’s got NATO on his doorstep, not only in Ukraine and elsewhere, he’s going to have them on his border in Finland. And- and you know, it’s an amazing thing he’s done because he’s- he’s gotten Sweden to abandon 200 years of neutrality. And guess what? The last war Sweden fought was actually against the Russians. And- and both the Finns and the Russian- Finns and the Swedes have terrific militaries. They’re well-equipped. They train. They’re- they’re a real asset. So Putin says the other day, you know, he tells the president of Finland, you know, if you don’t put NATO infrastructure into Finland, we can probably live with this. He didn’t say those words, but it was basically that- that would be a problem for Russia. So a lot of the bluster and so on associated with this was not in that phone call. And- and the truth of the matter is, Finland doesn’t need NATO infrastructure. It already has the infrastructure. We’ve been training with the Finns for years. This isn’t- this isn’t a new thing. So- So I think it’s a huge change. I think the change in Germany, their commitment to increase their defense spending and really make their military work is also huge. So I think- I think Putin, one of his many, huge miscalculations in invading Ukraine is he has dramatically changed the geostrategic posture of Western Europe. And now that you have the Swedes and the Finns as part of that, he’s really put Russia in a- in a much worse strategic position than it had before the invasion.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Russia is weaker now after the invasion?

ROBERT GATES: Yes. Yes, I think they’re weaker in- on a number of counts. Their economy is going to get weaker. Their military is going to get weaker because they can’t import the kinds of precision, the things that are necessary for precision-guided munitions and various other technologies. They’ve changed their strategic deployments. Their military has suffered huge losses. So, yes, I think- I think Russia already is weaker than before the invasion.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But he could still win, Vladimir Putin could still win in Ukraine?

ROBERT GATES: I think that would be a big challenge at this point. If winning means taking over the country and absorbing it into Russia, the whole country, I think that’s very unlikely at this point. Will he succeed in taking a big swath of the Donbass? And he’s now already trying to incorporate that into Russia and actually absorb them. He’s got the land bridge to Crimea by taking Mariupol. And- and so he has the potential to hold on to a good part of the Donbass. But I think in terms of pushing on to Odesa or trying to bring a change of government in Kyiv or absorb Ukraine, I think if that’s winning, I don’t see that he can win.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Biden administration describes its strategy not necessarily as about winning, but about strengthening the hand of the Ukrainians, both on the battlefield now and at a future negotiating table. What are the security guarantees that the West needs to put in Zelenskyy’s hands, to put in Ukraine’s hands, to actually broker a deal?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that- I think that joining NATO is probably still not in the cards. So- so then the question becomes to your point, what kind of assurances can we give Ukraine? And I think access to Western weapons, continued training by NATO countries, including the United States. So there are some things in terms of building a security relationship that actually were going on well before the invasion, which helps explain in part how well the Ukrainians are doing because of all the training they’ve gotten since 2014. So I think- I think there are a variety of security assurances that you can give in terms of access to weapons, a promise to have a- keep a large NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe next door to Ukraine, the supply lines. The other thing that I think is really going to be critically important, especially if this conflict drags on for a very long time, is the West has to come together and figure out some way to help Ukraine economically, long term. Both short term humanitarian needs, but then rebuilding. And- and I think, you know, I think we also have to if- if the fighting basically is concentrated in the east, if there is some sort of tacit cease fire, and if we get to the point of providing assurances, I think one of those assurances ought to be a warning to Russia that if they launch missiles against the part of Ukraine, they don’t occupy, whether it’s Kyiv or Lviv or any place else, that we will provide a different kind of weapon to the Ukrainians so that they have the ability to retaliate. So I think that would be part of assurances once- once the conflict sort of winds down, if you will, at some point, though, that could be one of the assurances.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When I interviewed President Zelenskyy, he said he doesn’t trust pieces of paper anymore. He was referring to assurances his country has been given in the past. You’re deliberate in your language, assurances versus guarantees?

ROBERT GATES: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is there any kind of military weaponry, any kind of actual hard guarantee that someone like Zelenskyy could feel confident when sitting across from Vladimir Putin to say, if you do this again in two years, they’ve got my back.

ROBERT GATES:I think that- I mean, one aspect, one- one approach that you might try is- is basically giving him assurances that if Russia launches missile attacks against targets in Ukraine outside of the Donbass, outside of areas Russia occupies, the United States has agreed to give me these specific weapons.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Iron Dome? Or those kind of things?

ROBERT GATES: Whatever.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  U.S. intelligence says there’s no sign right now that Russia is actually looking to use its nuclear arsenal in this conflict. But there are those threats Vladimir Putin has made. Do you have a concern that if Putin is cornered, that he would actually use a tactical nuke?

GATES: I think that- I think the probability of him using a tactical nuclear weapon is low, but not zero. First of all, it makes no military sense the way the Ukrainians are fighting this war. There are no large masses of Ukrainian forces that would be taken out by a tactical nuclear weapon. The only way it makes sense militarily is a series of weapons, the use of a series of nuclear weapons. But even one or a few, at this point, I don’t think can change the military equation on the ground. And if it’s not got a military purpose, then the only purpose is as a terror weapon to try and break the will of the Ukrainian people. And I think that moment has come and gone. I don’t think that there’s anything at this point that will break the will of the Ukrainian people. The two other things that he has to take into account is that I think the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, even one, would be a game changer for the West. And I think we would begin then to do some things we have refrained from doing up to now. I think at that point, a no fly zone becomes a possibility. I think providing more sophisticated and longer range weaponry becomes a possibility. The other thing that I hope somebody around Putin is reminding him is that, in that part of the world, and particularly in eastern Ukraine, the winds tend to blow from the west. If you set off a tactical nuclear weapon in eastern Ukraine, it’s going to- the radiation is going to go into Russia. So I just hope somebody reminds him of that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Maybe he’ll watch your interview. But one of the other arguments here about even just the threat of nukes is that it gets the West to think twice. Do you, in your assessment of President Biden, see signs that he is holding back “self deterrence”, is the criticism?

GATES: No, actually, I think they’ve handled this aspect of this whole invasion well in the sense of not giving into it. The minute somebody threatens to use nuclear weapons and you back off because of that threat, you’ve opened Taiwan to an invasion. You’ve created all kinds of possibilities for Iran, for North Korea, for others. And so you can’t let yourself be deterred by threats, by another power to use nuclear weapons in a situation. Otherwise you might as well give up and go home. So the thing is to make clear what the consequences of using a nuclear weapon would be, the risks of escalation and of things getting out of control. So I think that not being deterred by these threats has been important, and I think they’ve handled that piece of it. I think the president was right when he didn’t raise our nuclear alert level when the Russians did. I think that he has responded appropriately to not giving in to these threats by Putin or them or being intimidated by them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You- I was reading some of your recent transcripts from interviews you’ve done, and you’ve called Vladimir Putin a man of the past. He’s all about lost glory, lost empire, lost power. But when I talk to officials now, they say he could be around for another decade. So he will shape the future. How does the West plan for that? Does he remain a threat to the security of Europe? And how do you build around that?

GATES: Well, I think I think, first of all, his invasion has- has weakened Russia and it’s got now long term economic problems. Europe, I think, is very serious at this point about weaning itself away from Russian- dependence on Russian oil and gas. I was there in the Reagan administration as deputy director at CIA when we tried to persuade the Europeans that letting the Russians build those pipelines was a stupid mistake, and that they would end up politically on the fence, on the defensive with the Russians, that they could use this as a political weapon. And not only did the Europeans want them, they provided the steel, the pumps, the turbines, and they even provided the financing. So they’ve finally done, after 40 years what we told them they ought not do 40 years ago, and- in terms of a reliance on Russia. So that will weaken Russia significantly. Where where is he going to find that market around the world for- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: China? 

GATES: China is not going to want to become dependent on Russia for its energy sources. China will want to remain diversified. They might buy some more Russian oil and gas, but nothing like what would be required to replace the European market. So I think there’s a long term weakening. I can’t imagine these sanctions coming off or most of these sanctions coming off as long as Putin is in power. Putin will remain a pariah. It’s hard to see Putin ever walking in the door of the White House or number ten Downing Street or at the Elysee. So I-I think Russia- he has put Russia really behind the eight ball economically, militarily, and because now people are going to look at the Russian military and say, you know, this was supposed to be this fantastic military. Well, they give a good parade, but in actual combat, not so hot.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Reminder to India as they go through with this Russian military purchases?

GATES: Well, I think – And I hope the administration is telling the Indians. So you want to buy more of that junk from the- from Russia? You know, we have- we have other options for you.

MARGARET BRENNAN:: So I want to ask you about your background in intelligence and how you assess things right now, because U.S. intelligence was spot on about Vladimir Putin’s intention here, even when the rest of Europe doubted it. The U.S. said this invasion is going to happen pretty close on the timing of it. But they overestimated Russia’s military prowess, underestimated the Ukrainian military’s resolve or ability to fight back. How do you bottom line the performance here?

GATES: I think the performance of the intelligence community was-was terrific. You know, how do you- what- what agent what signals intelligence can help you gauge the will of a people? And let’s take the Ukrainian example. You know, you had the Ukrainian army and we’d done some training. We had- we had some confidence in them. But we saw the mass that the Russians were bringing to bear. But- but how do you measure in any way the moral fiber of a people? And and their willingness to sacrifice and courage. And that’s one of those great unknowns in whenever you go to war. And, you know, we can turn the equation around and say, how did we possibly underestimate the performance of the Afghan army? So I think- I just think that those kinds of intangibles are that’s a- that’s too much to ask of intelligence. I think measuring intentions at all is extremely difficult. The U.S. intelligence is very good at measuring equipment, capability- military capabilities, technological capabilities and so on. It’s very hard to measure intentions, and we’ve gotten it wrong as often as we’ve gotten it right. You know, we saw the Soviet armies on the border of Afghanistan. We didn’t think they’d go in because it didn’t make any sense. We saw them on the border of Czechoslovakia in 1968. We didn’t know that they would actually pull the trigger. So I don’t give the intelligence folks any demerits for underestimating will. I don’t know how you- I don’t know how you measure that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden says there’s a genocide underway in Ukraine. He’s described this as this conflict between democracies and autocracies and a battle really sort of for the central values. If those are the high stakes, do you agree that it is not worth using force?

GATES: I think that- I think that what is going on in Ukraine is a cultural genocide. If you look at the places where the Russians have occupied in the east, they’ve looted the museums, they’ve- they’ve- they’re changing things in the schools there. They’re basically doing everything they can to get rid of anything Ukrainian. So I think it is a cultural genocide. I don’t think Putin has a plan to eliminate them as a people, he just wants them to be Russians. I think that you have to be very careful about the way that you deploy military forces. And you have to try and think two or three steps ahead. I think we have- we have violated or we have failed to appreciate too often since the end of the Cold War the unpredictable consequences of the use of military force. And once you begin to use military power, the statesman loses control. It’s an old edict of of Churchill’s once- once the bombs start to drop, the politicians, the leaders are not in control anymore. And- and so I think when you’re facing off with a superpower that is nuclear armed, You need to be very cautious about the role that you decide to take in a conflict. And I think the other lesson we’ve learned since the end of the Cold War is that the use of military force to change a regime, or to try and change a country, Is-is a very long gamble. And- and we have not been very good at it. And there are very few examples of success. So in the case of Ukraine, I think in terms of NATO, you know, the President has been very explicit. He will protect every inch of NATO territory. So where that test could come is what if the Russians launch attacks against some of the supply depots in Poland? I think that could be a game changer. But again, I think it would be more in doing different things to enable the Ukrainians than it is for us to directly intervene.

MARGARET BRENNAN: One global consequence of this war is the added spike in the price of a lot of food, grain. Scarcity of some of that. The UN has warned millions of people around the world will die because Ukrainian grain can’t get out to market because the ports are blocked. Should there be military intervention to allow for that?

GATES: Well, if you want to go to war with Russia, because that’s what it would take. I don’t know how you intimidate Putin into pulling his blockade when our ability to put significant naval power into the Black Sea is- is very limited. And so are you going to use aircraft and just sink their warships? If the Ukrainians can sink them, that’s fine. You know, like the Moskva. But- but I think- I think the use of force to try and break that blockade would be a mistake. And so the question is, can Europe come together and can we provide assistance in helping the Ukrainians get more of that food out by land, by convoy, by railroad, whatever? And it’s a little bit like the Berlin airlift in the sense that we chose not to confront the Russians militarily. We just bypassed their blockade. And so, I think- I think that the likelihood of trying to get rid of that blockade militarily by the NATO’s or the U.S. invites a direct conflict with Russia. On the other hand, perhaps giving the Ukrainians some capability to take care of some of those ships and to make the cost higher for the Russians is certainly worth considering.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because Vladimir Putin, the implication is, can’t be negotiated into it. I mean, he is weaponizing-

GATES: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Inflation and food.

GATES: I don’t think he can be talked into that now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to move on to China. Xi Jinping is watching what’s happening in Ukraine and he is taking notes. What do you think his lesson is so far?

GATES: I hope that he’s taking at least three lessons out of this. The first is he and Putin have- have had a common narrative about the decline of the West and-and-and that the- the arc of history, if you will, is on his side and the side of the authoritarians. We’re paralyzed, we’re polarized. We can’t get anything done. We can’t build infrastructure. We can’t deal with any of our big problems, and we’re divided internally. The alliance was divided and had lost its purpose and so on. Boom. So first lesson is we totally underestimated the West. We underestimated the United States’ willingness to take the lead again. We underestimated the willingness of the Europeans to come together and of the United States to put this coalition together. And we underestimated how fast and how severe the sanctions are that they could place. So maybe the West isn’t as weak as we thought. Second lesson is looking at the Russian military performance. He’s got to ask himself, you know, Putin and I both spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the last 15, last ten years or so, 15 years. Russia and China have spent all this money on our- our militaries. And what if my equipment isn’t any better than the Russians? What if my troops aren’t any better than the Russians? What if my commanders aren’t any better than the Russians? Chinese haven’t fought since they fought the Vietnamese in 1979. So second question is maybe my military is not as good as they’re telling me they are. And then the third question, the third point or lesson that I hope he’s taking is looking at the way the Ukrainians have defended their country and the resolve and the courage they have shown. And what if the Taiwanese fight like that? What if the United States and the others give the Taiwanese the kind of weapons that enable them, as the saying goes, to become a porcupine? Very difficult for us to take. And by the way, we’ve never done an amphibious landing. So maybe that’s something to think about. So I think- I think there are at least those three lessons. The interesting thing to me about the Chinese response and, you know, before the Olympics, they pledged that this was a limitless partnership or friendship or whatever. The Chinese have given the Russians all kinds of rhetorical and political support. But they are doing very little concretely to help the Russians. Their banks are complying with the sanctions on Russia. They don’t want to end up at the other end of secondary sanctions that affect their banks at a time when Xi is facing some real economic pressures of his own. He doesn’t want to get cross threaded on or any of the sanctions, not just the financial sanctions. I don’t think we’re seeing any evidence of the Chinese providing military equipment or supplies to the Russians. I don’t think- I think they may buy some more food and some more oil and gas, but they’re not going to buy a lot of it. So I think Practically speaking, the Chinese have been very cautious about this. My guess is, Putin told Xi before the Olympics, look, I’m going to do this. It’s going to take a few days and it’ll be done, and we’ll be in an even more powerful position. I don’t think I’d wager that Xi never expected a protracted, brutal conflict that would isolate Russia so much from the rest of the world. And so I think he’s playing it actually very cautiously.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So China’s has some of its own economic problems. It’s got a real estate bubble. It’s got these continued rolling Covid lockdowns, the zero-Covid strategy. So given what you just said, plus that. Is the rise of China still inevitable?

GATES: I think- I think that the continuing growth of China and-and its role as a- growing role as a global power will continue. They do have some real problems. I mean, Xi’s line that we’ve read about is telling his advisors, I don’t care what you do, but our growth rate has to be higher than the Americans this year. That’s a pretty interesting comment. And, you know, he’s just looking toward this Congress in November and this fall when he’ll get his third term or president for life or whatever, and he can be up there in the pantheon with Mao. So I think he’s not likely to do much disruptive. They’ve already seen that in the restrictions and the regulations they put on their tech companies, they’re killing the golden goose. So they’ve started to lift those sanctions and some of those restrictions so that the tech people can kind of get back at what they were doing best, which was making money. And- and so I think that they are self-correcting some. I actually think Xi and Putin are both an example right now of what happens when a country has one man rule and nobody around them to tell them, that’s a terrible mistake you’re about to make. And so she has put you know, he’s a real ideologue and he’s put all these Communist Party representatives on company boards and, you know, watchdogs in the- in the companies and so on, and that’s deflating Chinese growth. Those are easily reversible decisions. And so the question is whether he sees that as-as something necessary, it’s already apparent that he does because he’s as I said, they’ve lifted some of these restrictions. But there – the question is whether there are some growing voices inside China that are cautioning him about some of these things and that some of his decisions have led to the economic problems that they’re having. The big issue for Xi where he can’t admit he’s wrong is on the zero-Covid. And you know, when you shut down a city of 25 million people for weeks and people don’t have food, they don’t have water, they don’t have medical care. This has consequences and-and how can he say I got that wrong when you- its resulted in so much economic and and human cost.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We are on the cusp of Memorial Day. You were directly involved in and overseeing the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan for so long. The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is in the government. Women on the street have to cover their faces and their bodies now. It’s regulated and enforced. Men in their homes have to enforce it. Girls don’t have widespread access to education. How do you make sense of where we are now?

GATES: Well, I think people predicted every single one of those things would happen if we got out of Afghanistan altogether. And-and I think- I think we made a mistake in pulling everybody out. We’ve had small numbers of U.S. forces in a number of countries for many years and have prevented things from getting worse or have staved off bad consequences. I think that had we kept a small number of U.S. troops, 5,000, 6,000, something on that order. The contractors would have stayed. The equipment would have been repaired and taken care of. We built- we built a military modeled on our own, which requires a lot of logistical support, a lot of sophisticated maintenance and so on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How was that not known after 20 years of war? How is that dependence not recognized?

GATES: Well, I think- I think people did recognize it. And that’s one of the reasons that people in the military argued for keeping a number of people there, because only if we had some representation in our military would the contractors who take care of those things been willing to stay, so they weren’t at risk. So in a way, a small number of U.S. forces enabled the support structure to continue to exist. When we pulled everybody out, we- we took the props out from under the Afghan military. And when you had military, Afghan military suddenly realizing they’re getting no ammunition, they’re getting no food, they’re getting no support and they’re isolated. It’s kind of no wonder that most of them gave up. But I think- I think it’s important to remember that over the years, tens of thousands of Afghan men served and a lot of them died. A lot more Afghans died in that war against the Taliban than Americans or other allies did. So it wasn’t that they were cowardly or that they were unwilling to fight. It was they had poor leadership. And-and they-they had this dependency on on technical support that went away.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You must have seen the special inspector general report that came out just a few days ago and it said, what you just put your finger on there? When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up. But it blamed both President Trump and President Biden for withdrawing the military and contractors.

GATES: Don’t forget, it started under President Obama. So you have three presidents.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You would add culpability there?

GATES: Yeah. They all wanted out of Afghanistan, the forever war. But that allows for no shades of grey. It’s either all in or out- all out, is the way it was portrayed. And in fact, there were alternatives. And the military put forward some of those alternatives, which was a relatively small number of people that we would plan to keep there for some indefinite period.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mhmm. You admitted your own error there in that model of replicating an American type military style and trying to rebuild it within the Afghan forces.

GATES: Yeah, I mean, it was well along that way when I got there, but I certainly didn’t do anything to change it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did you know that at the time? Did you see that there was the risk for this scenario?

GATES: I don’t think- I don’t think early on I fully grasped how dependent that- that our ability to get out was contingent on figuring out how to- how for them, how they could be self-sustaining. In a way, the same thing happened with the Iraqis, with ISIS. You know, they had a bunch of corrupt generals. When we left, we had trained and helped pick many of the Iraqi generals within a relatively short period of time. After we had left, Maliki and others had removed all the generals we trained and put in a bunch of political hacks. And these young men in the Iraqi armed forces weren’t going to fight and die for these guys. And the generals were the first ones to run. So it’s a similar situation. And I- you know. But I do think that that was an error and I talked about it early on that we needed to create- I couldn’t understand why our Afghan troops weren’t as self-sustaining as the Taliban, and it was that we had created a different model. Instead of creating an Afghan army that reflected Afghan military strengths and capabilities, we created a Western model, and I think that was a fundamental error.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you agree that the Trump deal with the Taliban, the February 2020 deal that Mike Pompeo helped broker, that that was a strategic mistake?

GATES: Yes, I do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The report came to that conclusion as well.

GATES: Yes. And I think President Biden’s decision to reinforce it–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –To stick with it–

GATES: –was a mistake as well- To stick with it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: He’d argue it was a US agreement, had to be recognized and stuck by.

GATES: Well, so is the Iraq- So is the Iranian nuclear deal. We didn’t have a problem reversing that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden’s trying to reenter that one. 

GATES: True. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But for Americans who- who lost a loved one in combat over those 20 years of war, these are painful things to hear right now and to think of the people that they lost. How do you personally process that? How do you say it was worth it?

GATES: Well, what I tell them is that they- they bought the Afghans 20 years of development, of opportunity for women, of the opportunity for freedom of the press. People who weren’t in Afghanistan never realized how much of a free press Afghanistan had while we were there. The schooling for girls. The- the building of- of health centers within an hour’s walk of villages. We accomplished a lot in Afghanistan for the Afghans. We kind of gave them the same chance we gave the Iraqis. The Iraqis have taken better advantage of the opportunity we gave them. It’s an- Iraq has a very flawed democracy today, but it’s the only democracy in the Middle East. And the politicians are at least shouting at each other, not shooting at each other. And- and we presented the same kind of opportunity with the surge in 2010 in Afghanistan. And we- we basically pushed the Taliban mostly out of the- out of Kandahar, out of Helmand and places like that. But we couldn’t hold it forever without the Afghans doing their part. And that meant the politicians in Afghanistan and- and they simply failed to take advantage of the opportunity we gave them. So I tell the young men and women who served, you did an amazing thing. You did your job. You accomplish the mission, your mission, which was to get rid of- get-push the Taliban out and keep al Qaeda out. They did that. And- and you gave the Afghans tremendous opportunities. That- that was an extraordinary achievement.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You said before, the biggest threat to the United States is our polarization and the distance, the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol building. Do you still feel that way?

GATES: Totally.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You don’t see signs of improvement?

GATES: No. I will say this: there is one glimmer of hope that I see, and it’s in kind of my world. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have done something no other living human beings have done. They’ve actually brought Republicans and Democrats together on Capitol Hill and with the administration.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On this one issue. 

GATES: On this issue. On Ukraine. And you have really, you know, apart from a handful of isolationist Republican senators, you’ve got a pretty – from left to right – a pretty strong consensus in Washington that we have to do what we’re doing with respect to Ukraine. But I would say it’s broader than just Ukraine. You have the same kind of attitudes toward China and how we react to China and to Russia more broadly beyond Ukraine. So maybe that’s- maybe that’s a foundation for once again figuring out how to have a more bipartisan foreign policy or national security policy. Maybe there’s a way to build on that. And who knows, if you begin to get it in national security policy, maybe you can get it in some other places.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I’ll take the optimism.

GATES: Well, I’m not sure I’d take the bet, but you might take the optimism.

MARGARET BRENANAN: Because, I mean, you’ve said that you’ve been disappointed in Republican leaders for not standing up for traditional Republican values. We just had this awful shooting in Buffalo, New York. Liz Cheney, Congresswoman, said, “House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. Republican leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.” Do you think Republican leaders are enabling those things she said?

GATES: I don’t know that- I don’t know that I would go that far. I do know that there aren’t enough of them denouncing those things, denouncing white supremacy, denouncing-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why?

GATES: Um, I think- I think they, you know, my- my concern- my broader concern, Margaret, is- is that we just- we have too many people who- who are in politics to further their own agendas and to further their own personal prospects rather than what’s good for the country. And I would say that’s true in both parties. They- they both seem to have forgotten that the only way democracy works is through compromise. And- and when you lay down the law and say, “We’re not- not one single vote is going to go for this or that, whatever it is.” If- if compromise is impossible, then progress is impossible. And- and that’s one of my biggest worries. And, you know, it kind of comes from American people, American students no longer taking civics in school about how the system works. And, and, you know, this is where the founders were so brilliant. They created this system where, you know, if- if you don’t compromise, you can’t- you can’t move forward.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think it is important for the American public to have a full accounting of the events of January 6th with these public hearings that are planned in the weeks ahead?

GATES: I think so. I do. I think, I think that those- the- what happened on January 6th was- was a huge blight on our democracy. And- and if you don’t think that the Chinese and the Russians are trumpeting what happened on January 6th to everybody in the world through their propaganda networks, people aren’t paying attention. It’s a- it’s a big win for them in arguing that democracy doesn’t work, that our authoritarian approach is actually the only system of government that actually works. Because look at what we’ve accomplished and look how messed up these guys are.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But there’s a school of thought that says this is a political circus. Let the Department of Justice prosecute people who carried out the violence. Don’t go ahead with these public hearings. You think there is value in having this aired publicly?

GATES: I think so, yes. I think people need to understand. My worry is that people will- that everybody will retreat to their ideological corner. And- and the Democrats will, a lot of Democrats will say, see, this proves how terrible these people are, and everybody. And all the- all the Republicans- and the Republicans will say, you know, this is just a political show trial. And, and so nobody will- nobody will listen. I think maybe the best thing to do is just to rerun the videos.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Former Trump Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was with us on Face the Nation recently, and he revealed some pretty shocking things about what he witnessed when he was part of the administration. Unconstitutional, illegal, immoral actions. Firing missiles into Mexico. Shooting American protesters in the legs. Did you know that these types of ideas were being considered at that time?

GATES: A few of them. Not, not those specific ones, but, but some others that he talks about. So- and people would call me from the Pentagon and tell me that, you know, we’re- we’re wrestling with how to respond to this. So I had some flavor of it, but none of the kind of detail that- that Mark Esper has in his book.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think, though, that the American people deserved to know that these things were happening and being discussed at that time?

GATES: Sure.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There’s criticism of Esper and other former officials for not speaking out. And that in that moment.

GATES: You know, Margaret, this is one of the toughest. Toughest decisions a public servant has to make. Do you when you’re faced with a terrible situation? I joined the Nixon administration. I went to the NSC staff from CIA a few months before Nixon resigned. And I always like to describe it that it was like signing on as a deckhand on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. But you’re always faced with a president making.

decisions that you disagree with or even find abhorrent. And and for the most senior people, the question always is, ‘do I stay and try and mitigate it? Or do I leave and make way for somebody who will be who will be, who may support those things or who will just do what he or she is told?’ And figuring out that line, I think, is is very tough. Sometimes 

MARGARET BRENNAN: There is that other option of the 25th Amendment of trying to remove the president from office.

GATES: Well, that requires. I can’t remember the percentage of the cabinet that has to sign on, whether it’s two thirds or or whatever. But, you know, you what I would call the power ministries, the secretary of state, secretary of defense, attorney general, secretary of the Treasury. You might actually get those people on board. But when you start talking about the secretary of Health and Human Services and the secretary of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development and so on, they have, I think, sometimes a different calculus, I think. I think trying to and absent a president who is clearly physically or mentally incapable, I think it would be almost impossible to get the 25th Amendment to work.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So that backstop really isn’t there?

GATES:I don’t think so. I don’t think in practical terms, I don’t think it’s there, again, absent obvious disability.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mark Esper says that the former president is a risk to national security. Do you believe President Trump running for office again would present that threat to national security?

GATES: It would concern me.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s a very diplomatic phrase.

GATES:That’s and that’s that’s where I am.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It would concern you?

GATES:Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you see reason for optimism, or signs of leadership within the party right now?

GATES: You know, I Margaret, I worked for eight presidents over almost a half a century and, uh, and the way I was able to do that was keep my personal politics to myself. And- and I frankly just don’t want to go down that road.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You don’t see you don’t want to name names, is what you’re saying in terms of leadership and inspiration. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: We are headed towards a potentially historic Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade and whether to uphold it. When you heard about the leak of that draft decision, did that concern you? Do you see this as a threat to another U.S. institution?

GATES: I do. I went to Washington 56 years ago and I cannot ever recall a leak like that coming out of the Supreme Court. And it destroys the thing about leaks as they destroy institutional trust. George Shultz always used to say trust is the coin of the realm. And- and, on- on so many really significant decisions in the past, there have been no such leaks. And I’m- I worry it’s just a reflection of the continued deterioration of the political climate in this country that now it’s even affecting the Supreme Court.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why should it be different than those other branches of government where leaks happen all the time?

GATES: Well, and I would argue that that leaks are very destructive and particularly of really sensitive things. For example, I think you have to- you have to be careful about discussing leaks in general. So, for example, the Pentagon leaks like a sieve when it comes to weapons programs, decisions on big dollars going places. I don’t recall any- any leak of consequence the entire time I was secretary on military operations. Everybody knows, lives are at stake. Young men and women may die because you leak something. Same thing with very sensitive intelligence sources. And on the other hand, you know, if there’s an internal battle over something, the internal politics, those- those things are just part of the- part of the furniture in government. But this kind of a consequential leak on such an important matter, I think undermines trust in the institution. And one of the things that I worry most about now is the level of mistrust on the part of a lot of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats and independents, for that matter, in almost all of our institutions now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Justice Thomas said, I wonder how long we’re going to have some of these institutions at the rate we’re undermining them. That raised some eyebrows given his wife’s support for overturning the election. But the sentiment itself, ‘wonder if the institutions that we’ll still have them?’

GATES: I think I think the institutions will survive. But what do they look like? 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah. 

GATES: What kind of people can you get to come staff those institutions. That’s what gets undermined. That and the effectiveness of those institutions.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mhmm. 

GATES: That’s what gets undermined.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time.

GATES: My pleasure. Thanks again, Margaret. 

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