“Usually the Washington book is ‘If Only They’d Listened to Me,’” said former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum Wednesday evening. “Frankly, I can’t write that book, because they mostly did listen to me.”
Gates, also the former president of Texas A&M University, has served in the administrations of nine U.S. presidents, most recently as Secretary of Defense under former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
In his prepared remarks, Gates sketched various international security threats to the United States, but he suggested that the U.S. government itself might pose the greatest threat to American interests.
“As a result of several polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the most basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing our country,” he said, going on to lament an alleged demise of bipartisanship in American politics.
As a remedy, Gates called for an overhaul of the Congressional redistricting process. He pointed to the Golden State as an example of progress in this regard.
“By taking redistricting out of the hands of the state legislature, the voters of California are leading the rest of the country in this respect,” he said.
Gates cautioned against hawkishness regarding the perceived threat of Iran.
“If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would be, in my opinion, a catastrophe.”
However, he described a nuclear-armed Iran as an equally catastrophic possibility. He advocated sanctions, “diplomatic isolation” and U.S. military readiness as the best methods for dealing with this threat.
Gates also expressed doubts about the democratic gains of the Arab Spring.
“These examples show once again that real freedom, freedom that endures, is not the result of simply holding one free election,” he said. “It is the result of building democratic institutions, enforcing the rule of law and building civil society. No Arab state has these building blocks.”
But Gates also expressed skepticism about the efficacy of U.S. intervention in the region.
“Getting involved militarily in Syria means going to war with the Syrians,” he said in response to a student question about the possibility of U.S. military involvement in the turbulent nation. “Are you ready for that?”
Gates lambasted the use of “euphemisms” for what might be considered acts of war by the United States, such as the establishment of a “no-fly zone” in Libya.
“We head down these paths as though there is a clearly defined end goal, as though it will be surgical and it will be short,” he said, noting his opposition to the intervention in Libya. “That’s what happened in 2003 in Iraq.”
“All of these situations are a hell of a lot easier to get into than they are to get out of.”
The event was not without its lighter moments. Gates said that former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter had “no discernible sense of humor.” And, when asked about the differences between the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Gates pithily replied, “How much time do I have?”
Yet Gates focused on the similar national security strategy pursued by both administrations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He noted that, with regard to the campaign against al-Qaeda, President Obama could be considered “more aggressive” than President Bush.
Gates also described the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as “a manifestation of presidential courage” in response to “a highly ambiguous situation.”
“The truth is that we did not have a single piece of hard data that said that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound,” he said. “Not one shred.”