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Robert Gates on US action in Iran, Afghanistan and China

Over 100 days into the Biden administration, how is the president dealing with national security issues? Judy Woodruff explores the question with former Defense Secretary, and former CIA Director, Robert Gates. He served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and authored "Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been over 100 days since President Biden was sworn in.

    In addition to combating the pandemic, the president has sought to rebuild relations with allies in Asia and Europe, and punish Russia for election interference and cyber-espionage. The administration has also decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and attempts to root out extremism in the military.

    How is the president doing dealing with these national security issues?

    We turn to former Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Robert Gates. He's served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He's the author of "Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World."

    Robert Gates, it's very good to see you again. Thank you so much for talking with us.

    And I want to start with a story in the news today, and that is what is going on inside the Republican Party, with the efforts by House Republicans to punish Congresswoman Liz Cheney.

    You have served four Republican presidents. What is your thinking about this?

  • Robert Gates:

    Well, I think the Republican presidents that I served would be hard-pressed to recognize the Republican Party of today.

    It is very different. That's for sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, are you, in essence, saying they're making a mistake by pushing her out?

  • Robert Gates:

    Well, I'm not going to get into — I have never done domestic politics, and I'm not going to start now.

    I will say this. I have not met Liz Cheney, but I obviously know her father very well. I have — based on everything I have read, I have a lot of respect for her integrity and for her patriotism. So, I guess you would — you would have to say I'm an admirer of hers.

    But, beyond that, this is internal Republican Party politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you now about the reason we invited you originally to be on the show, and that's foreign policy, defense policy.

    You wrote, you famously wrote in another book in 2014 — so you know the quote I'm about to use, and it was about Joe Biden. You said: "I think he's been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

    That was in 2014. How do you think he is doing in these early weeks and months of his administration?

  • Robert Gates:

    I think he's doing really well.

    I think there's a lot of continuity on several of the really big problems. On China, on Russia, North Korea, I think there's a lot of continuity with the previous administration, in fact, and I think that the tough line that he has taken has been the appropriate one.

    And on North Korea, they have basically said they're going to try and thread the needle between the strategic patience of President Obama and the maximum pressure of President Trump.

    I think, as I write in the book, we have tried — we have been down this road before under four presidents, and it hasn't yielded much progress. But there's a lot of continuity there. I think the only area that concerns me is the effort to renew the nuclear agreement with Iran.

    I think, first of all, the agreement is half over in terms of its duration. It was supposed to be for 10 years or so. And I was heartened initially by the administration's references to strengthening and lengthening that agreement. I think our objective ought to be for Iran never to have a nuclear weapon, not just time-limited.

    And I think we also need better monitoring or verification of their adherence to the agreement. And, finally, I think we need to do something about their ballistic missile capability. So, just picking up the old agreement where we left off, I think, is probably insufficient.

    But in the other areas of — important areas of foreign policy, I think that they're on a good path.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned Iran.

    Let me ask you about Afghanistan. It's certainly been a controversial decision, President Biden saying he wants all U.S. troops out of there by September 11 this year.

    One of the arguments he's making, Bob Gates, is that the threat has now moved to different parts of the world. Al-Qaida and ISIS, he's saying they're in places like Yemen and Syria and on the African continent. Was this the right decision?

  • Robert Gates:

    Well, it's a very tough decision.

    And I think I probably would have recommended, as Secretary Austin and the Joint Chiefs did, keeping a small U.S. force there. But the reality that I think the president was facing is that, even with our forces there, every day, the Taliban is taking over more and more of the countryside and making greater and greater progress against the government of Afghanistan.

    So, even if we kept troops there, that's no assurance that the current trend wouldn't continue. You know, I think, of all the possible endings in Afghanistan at this point, the least likely is a happy ending.

    I would say that the one thing that's important, and critically important, is that we continue our economic and military assistance to the government of Afghanistan even after our troops are gone.

    You know, the government the Soviets installed in Kabul under Najibullah survived for three years after the Soviets pulled all their troops out in 1988, and because of the flow of economic and military assistance. And it was only when the Soviet Union collapsed and that aid stopped that the Najibullah government collapsed.

    So, I think there's a lesson in that for us, that this — the only chance that this regime, that this government in Kabul has of surviving and of preserving the rights of women and the other areas where there actually has been progress in Afghanistan is for the United States and our allies to continue our economic and military assistance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to — there's so much to ask you about.

    I do want to include China. The secretary of state, Tony Blinken, has been saying, I think, several times over the last few days that the United States is not, in his words, trying to check China or hem it in, that, rather, the Biden policy is to, in his words, push the Chinese to follow the rules-based order.

    Does that sound like the right approach to you?

  • Robert Gates:

    It does.

    And I think Secretary Blinken has essentially said that the relationship in China should essentially fall into three baskets, the areas where we can cooperate, the areas where we will compete, and those areas where we will be adversaries.

    And that sounds about right to me. The question is whether Xi Jinping and the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party are willing to consider to have that kind of a relationship going forward. And, frankly, I don't think we know the answer to that question yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing I want to ask you about, the decision that is going to be made soon inside the Pentagon about whether sexual assault claims should be considered outside the chain of command.

  • Robert Gates:

    Well, I read that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has stated recently that he is open to the possibility of changing the way that this is dealt with and taking it out of the chain of command.

    I think, if I were secretary today, I would be very open to the idea of removing sexual assault — and I would say only sexual assault — from the chain of command. We have been — we have been promising for 10 years, for more than 10 years, to do something about this problem, to prevent it or to dramatically reduce the frequency.

    And, frankly, it has not led to the kind of progress that we should have had. There are still too many cases of sexual assault. And I think we owe it, in particular to the women in the force, to try some — if nothing we have tried before has been effective, then we ought to be very open to changing the way that those prosecute — investigations and prosecutions take place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

    His book, new book out in paperback, "Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World."

    Thank you very much.

  • Robert Gates:

    Thank you, Judy.

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