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Gates: 'Long, difficult' time ahead in Mideast

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of January 17, 2013)
Photo: Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will go down in history as the man who saved the U.S. from the morass of the second Iraq War, will be in Vero Beach on Feb. 3 and 4 to visit friends and give the first talk in Riverside Theatre's 2013 Distinguished Lecturer Series.

According to Riverside, Gates – defense secretary from 2006 to 2011 – will share “his candid insights on global politics and world affairs, U.S. intelligence and defense strategies, leadership and leading change in a large institution, and the global challenges of the 21st century.”

It is hard to imagine anyone more qualified to address those topics.

During a 45-year career, Gates served as a CIA operative, Air Force officer, member of the National Security Council, deputy director of the CIA, deputy national security advisor, director of the CIA and secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The Iraq War was going badly in late 2006 when Bush tapped Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief after Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in the November election, partly because of public dissatisfaction with conduct of the war.

Infrastructure in Baghdad and other cities was in ruins, American troops were getting chewed up daily by snipers, IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades, al-Qaeda and Iranian operatives were wreaking havoc and a full-scale civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims was raging.

Chaos was increasing and thousands of civilians and combatants were dying each month.

Gates is candid when asked if he was confident of his ability to reverse the war’s disastrous course: “Absolutely not,” he said in a phone interview with Vero Beach 32963 last week.

Gainfully employed as president of Texas A&M University, Gates knew he was taking a huge professional and psychological risk when he returned to Washington but said he was not hesitant.

“My attitude was I was not taking any bigger risk than the kids on the front line,” he said. “I immediately said I would do it. If we have kids fighting and dying and the President thinks I can do something to help, then I am going to do whatever I can.”

Strongly backed by Bush and brilliantly served by his top commander Lt. General David Petraeus, Gates bolstered American forces with five Army brigades totaling 20,000 troops, shifted to a more counter-insurgency-focused strategy, made common cause with Sunni tribal leaders disillusioned with al-Qaeda, and, almost miraculously, began to reduce violence and stabilize the country, turning around a situation many then deemed hopeless.

In December 2006, the month Gates took over at the Pentagon, 115 U.S troops were killed in Iraq, the most in any December during the nine-year conflict. Another 706 soldiers, sailors and Marines were wounded that month, many of them grievously.

In July 2011, the month Gates left office, five troops were killed and another 17 wounded. The following month not a single American died in Iraq.

In September 2007, as American casualties began to decline, Gates expressed ambivalence about whether the war should have been launched. “If I’d known then what I know now, would I have done the same [as President Bush did]? I think the answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” he told New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Three years later, in Iraq to mark the official end of the U.S. combat mission, Gates said answering the question of whether the war was worth fighting “really requires a historian’s perspective” and depends “in part on whether Iraq emerges as a democratic anchor in the Middle East.”

Asked last week about prospects for long-term stability and civilized society in Iraq, Gates said, “I think it remains to be seen. I wish we still had a bigger presence there. But that was not to be. The good news is they are arguing with each other, not shooting each other. So maybe they will work it out.”

He said the momentous decisions he had to make as defense secretary, such as ordering young soldiers into combat, were difficult.

“It weighs on you,” he said. “But you can’t always be second guessing yourself. You get the best possible information you can from the best possible advisors and make what seem like the best choices.

“Once you are at war, you need to be successful. You can argue about whether we should we have gone to war, or how the war was fought before, but when you come into office you have to pick up the ball where you find it and run with it.”

Looking around the world today, a year and a half after retiring, Gates sees a range of threats to American security and he mentions Iran first.

“I think you have to look short-term and long-term [when considering threats],” he said. “In near-to-middle term, the Iranian nuclear program is a big challenge. That is difficult to deal with.

“The cycle of revolutions in the Middle East is another challenge. I think we are right at beginning of that process. I think it will be a long, difficult process that is likely to be ugly.

“Managing the relationship with China is another challenge, and of course we are still at war in Afghanistan. People tend to forget that, but it is certainly at the forefront of consideration and planning [at the Pentagon].

“And we face a continuing worldwide struggle with terrorism. That hasn’t gone away.”

He elaborated on the Iranian threat: “First of all you have an Iran with ballistic missile capability. They have a missile that can reach Israel now and will have one soon that can reach all Western Europe. If they are able to put a nuclear warhead atop those missiles you have a threat to existence of Israel, a very close ally of the United States.

“A nuclear Iran likely would spike a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, one of the most volatile areas in the world. Some of the Sunnis would certainly go after those weapons, too.

“And [if it had a nuclear weapon] Iran would be emboldened to act more aggressively in Lebanon and Syria and other places [contrary to our interests].”

Despite his sober assessment of Iranian threat, Gates, who has been described as a military leader who understands the limits of military power, generally opposes a strike against Iran to stop its nuclear program.

Speaking in Norfolk, Va., in October, Gates said a military strike “could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world. Such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable.  They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert.”

“I think the best possible outcome is that the sanctions put enough pressure on the regime and the Iranian public to force the regime to have a civil nuclear program not military one,” Gates told 32963 last week.

“Sanctions are having an effect. The Iranian oil minister came out the other day and said oil exports are down 40 percent. The question is, will the sanctions bite hard enough and fast enough [to force a change in policy before Iran complete a nuclear bomb]?”

On other topics, Gates said the U.S. remains unique in the world in its need for a robust military with global reach, and warned against ill-considered cuts to the Pentagon budget in a world he believes will become increasingly turbulent in upcoming decades.

“We are the only nation left with [the level of] global interests and responsibilities we have. For instance, we have had the role since World War II of protecting freedom of navigation on the seas.

“Our needs for defense are contrary to the trends in Washington. As I told President Obama, these cuts people are talking about in sequestration are driven by math, not strategy. And that is the wrong way to plan for military readiness.

“We have been through these draconian cuts before. We almost never get it right; we need to make cuts in a gradual and thoughtful way.

“Yes, the Pentagon budget is bloated and not managed well. We need to make it more efficient and convert more overhead into military capability. We should spend less on bureaucracy and headquarters operations and more on ships and equipment. That is what I tried to do as Secretary of Defense.”

Gates said one reason budget cuts must be made with care is the nation doesn’t know what kind of war it will have to fight next, which makes it imprudent to fund only weapons systems and training for trendy conflicts. The military can’t afford to choose Special Forces over tanks or vice versa. Readiness demands both.

“Here is the problem when it comes to predicting how and where we will use force next: Since Vietnam we have a perfect record – we have never gotten it right. In Haiti, in Panama, in the Balkans, in Iraq twice and in Afghanistan we have gotten it wrong.

“In not one of those places did we think we would be using military force six months before we were using it.

“To think we aren’t going to fight a certain type of war is just whistling past the graveyard. Our adversaries and future presidents have a vote on that. When it comes to planning equipment and forces we will need, we need a balanced force with maximize flexibility and capability.”

Gates said President Obama is doing a good job on national security.

He said the same word comes to mind when thinks about George W. Bush and Barak Obama: “Decisive. Bush trusted more in his instincts and operated on gut feeling. Obama is more analytic. But both of them could make the tough calls.”

Gates, who has one earned and two honorary Ph.D.s, said he does not mind being out of power. “I am happily retired and working on a book,” he told 32963.