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Gates reflects on debates waged behind the scenes of war

January 14, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
In his new book, "Duty," Robert Gates tackles his time as defense secretary and as witness to how different presidents wrestled with questions of war and peace. Gates sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss the difficulties of doing business in Washington, the legacy of the Iraq war and nuclear negotiations with Iran.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the most talked-about and controversial books of the new year went on sale today. Its author, Robert Gates, has served eight presidents, held key posts at the White House, was head of the CIA and secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

The book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War,” sparked a frenzy of headlines ahead of its official release for his public criticism of the administration he recently left.

I spoke to him earlier today. He was wearing a neck brace after falling at his home last week.

Secretary Robert Gates, welcome to the NewsHour.

ROBERT GATES, former U.S. Secretary of Defense: Thank you very much, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you created a bit of a firestorm with all the publicity over this book. It has gotten a lot of attention. Has that been helpful to what you were trying to do?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think so.

I mean, my — the book is dedicated to the men and women of the armed forces. And I really wrote it for them and for their families and, as I like to put it, the America that sent them to war. And, really, it’s kind of on two levels, first of all to show the difficulties of getting anything done in Washington under the current environment and how I did it, but also to show how both presidents wrestled with these questions of war and peace and life and death, to try and humanize it and personalize it by somebody who was sitting in the room and saw them dealing with these issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Someone wrote that, in the book, you are, in essence, painting a picture of a broken foreign policy process in the Obama administration.

Is that what you think exists today?

ROBERT GATES: No. And I don’t think that the book portrays that either.

I make very clear in the book that the Obama team, certainly until the early spring of 2011, a few months before I left, there was — there was broad accord in that team on virtually every major foreign policy issue facing the president and facing the country, with the exception of Afghanistan and that strategy.

I thought that the amount of time that President Obama devoted to trying to figure out the right path forward was exactly the right thing to have done.

Now, what I do complain about in the book is the micro — once he has made the strategic decisions, all of which I agreed with, the execution of that, and particularly micromanagement from the White House and things like that, did give me heartburn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you do complain that the president lost faith in the strategy behind the Afghanistan war.

But he said yesterday something different. He was very gracious towards you, but said he has continued to have faith in the mission. Is he not leveling?

ROBERT GATES: I think presidents having reservations, gauging regularly whether or not their strategy is working is not an unusual thing.

And I think that that — he did have reservations about whether it was going to work, and I talk about that. But I think you have to take it in the context of the decisions that he made and the fact that he stuck to those decisions. I think that one of the things that I show in the book is — and it’s one of the reasons that I cite some of the personal conversations that have caused some people to criticize me for that.

But I think what those — what those personal conversations show is a president doing exactly what he ought to be doing, pushing back, asking tough questions, not being spoon-fed information, and, you know, bringing some skepticism to the conversation in terms of whether things are working or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn the corner and ask you about a couple of things you raise. One is actually pretty big. It’s President Bush. You praise him for having no second thoughts about Iraq.

How do you think history is going to judge him on that decision?

ROBERT GATES: Well, Judy, I think — as I have said before, I think that the war in Iraq will always be tainted by the fact that it began based on wrong information, in terms of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.

I think, in the longer term, whether or not the war — or how the war is regarded will depend largely on whether the removal of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a foundation of a democratic state, whether or not it turns out that way, that it really depends on how events there and in the rest of the region turn out over the next several decades.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Iran, of course, plays a major role throughout this book, and it continues to very much today.

What do you think of the deal Secretary of State Kerry is working on to negotiate tentative nuclear agreements with Iran?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that the United States had no choice but to sit down at the table with the Iranians once they offered to negotiate.

The question is, what kind of an agreement comes out at the end of it? And I think that’s the hard part is still in front of us. First, I think there ought to be a firm deadline at six months. I think the Iranians are world-class experts in slow-rolling their negotiating partners or adversaries, in terms of, well, let’s take another month, let’s take another two months, let’s take another three months.

So, I think there’s a risk of this negotiation dragging out as the Iranians continue certain parts of their nuclear program. The other piece of it is whether the negotiations roll back enough of the Iranian nuclear program that they are not a nuclear weapon threshold state.

So I totally support going to the negotiating table, but everything depends on a successful outcome to those negotiations six months from now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do you think of the Senate efforts to impose new sanctions to increase the pressure on Iran right now?

ROBERT GATES: I think that the idea of imposing new sanctions right now is a terrible mistake and would be a strategic error.

On the other hand, I do disagree with the administration in this respect. I think that the Senate or the Congress voting severe new sanctions, but sanctions that would be triggered only by failure of the negotiations, would strengthen the president’s negotiating hand.

You know, I hear the argument that that would strengthen the hand of hawks in Iran and opponents of the negotiations. Well, maybe the Iranians ought to worry about the potential consequences of strengthening the hawks in the United States.

But I think — I think any new sanctions need to be conditioned and triggered by the failure of the negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Gates, you make it clear you care so deeply about the American troops. You are fiercely supportive of them. You’re not at all worried, though, about affecting the morale of the troops with a book like this that questions the commander in chief’s commitment to the war?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think — I think that underscoring that I agreed with all of the president’s strategic decisions on Afghanistan and the fact that he has stuck to those decisions, the decisions with respect to the war have all been made. We know we’re coming out the end of December of this year.

We know that the U.S. would like to have a residual force. The president has decided that. The agreement has been negotiated. We’re just waiting for the Afghans to agree to it. So I think that all of the fundamental decisions to Afghanistan have already been made. And, frankly, in terms of the environment in Washington and so on, I mean, the troops know the score. They read the newspapers. They watch — they watch television.

And it’s not like they’re living in a cave over there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You spent most of your career working in intelligence.

And, of course, there’s been a lot of criticism at home and abroad over the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, especially since the Edward Snowden revelations. Do you think that the NSA in many of its programs and practices has gone too far?

ROBERT GATES: The question is whether NSA developed capabilities and applied those capabilities that went beyond the guidelines or the left and right curves, if you will, that the president and the Congress expected and were briefed on.

And that’s why I think that the White House review and the congressional review are so important. And if the program did go beyond those guidelines, did go beyond those limits, to get it back within those limits and if, in fact, there were people who knowingly went beyond what the president had approved, that they be held accountable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much damage do you think these revelations have done? And do you think Snowden is a traitor or a hero?

ROBERT GATES: I think that the revelations have done a lot of damage.

They — it sounds like they have the potential to do a lot more. I think he is a traitor. You know, we built — we spent 40 years building institutions of oversight for intelligence since the mid-1970s in the Congress and the executive branch and in the judiciary.

There are multiple avenues for people who believe that the rules are being broken or that the law is being broken to pursue in order to bring those problems to authorities who can evaluate whether or not somebody is breaking the law in the intelligence community.

And for a 29-year-old basically to take it upon himself to ignore all of the institutions that have been built up by Republicans and Democrats in Washington over the last 40 years, I think, is an extraordinary act of hubris. And then to flee to the protection of that notorious protector of human rights and privacy and civil liberties, Vladimir Putin, I think, speaks volumes.

If he truly is as highly motivated and as idealistic as he says, then he should come home and face the music, much as earlier whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg and others did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question. The late Sen. Pat Moynihan, among other things, used to rail against what he called tell-all books by insiders. He said it was a disservice to the free exchange of ideas, that it made people hold back, because they thought they might be quoted somewhere in a book, and thus it was a disservice to history.

ROBERT GATES: Well, I — I think that books to settle scores, kiss-and-tell books, I have — I have the same view as Senator Moynihan. I don’t think this book is either of those.

I criticize myself as much, if not more, in the book than I do anybody else. I think I’m fair — fair in my treatment of both presidents. I think, overall, the book is very positive about both presidents. And, frankly, there are things in the book that are of contemporary relevance and in the face — in problems that we’re facing today, whether it’s whether to use military force in Syria, whether it’s to potentially use military force against Iran and its nuclear program, how to deal with the Chinese and the Russians.

I have been at this under eight presidents. I bring a perspective and experience that I don’t think anybody else has. And, frankly, to wait until 2017 makes any contribution that I could make irrelevant. And I think that what I have in this book, when people do finally read the book now that it’s available today, is provide some perspective on these issues and hopefully some guidance.

It also — it also lays out how, in a polarized and paralyzed Washington, I got things done, in terms of canceling programs in the Department of Defense, in terms of cutting overhead in Defense, and how — and holding people accountable in Defense.

I would just add, as an afterthought, I hope that the same question will be asked of Secretary Geithner, Secretary Panetta, Secretary Clinton, and others, all of whom are writing books that will be published before the end of this president’s terms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we promise to ask all of them that question.

Secretary Robert Gates, we thank you.

ROBERT GATES: Thank you, Judy.