A Conversation With Robert Gates

Robert Gates

Former head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense in Republican and Democratic administrations, Robert Gates is a man who knows something about politics, pragmatism, and compromise.

He sits down with us this week to talk about the portability of American values, the constants of conflict, and the nation’s unique fortune in the caliber of its founding fathers.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. It’s our great honor to welcome our nation’s 22nd Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, today. Dr. Gates, thank you for being here today.

Robert Gates: My pleasure.

Harmony: You oversaw a lot of eras in government from the Cold War to present-day engagements in Iraq. Were you ever able to reflect back on anything in history and find parallels? Are there some things that are true throughout history?

Gates: Oh, absolutely. One of them is the absolute unpredictability of war. This was one of the things that I preached all the time when I was Secretary of Defense. When people were talking about establishing a no-fly zone in Libya or talking about attacking Iran, or talking about doing something about Syria, my reaction is: history will teach us, history does teach us that these things are a lot easier to get into than they are to get out of.

No war, ever, has gone the way it was planned. And yet people still seem to think that they can do these things surgically and with precision and they’re always wrong. It doesn’t matter how many times they’re wrong, they forget that lesson. One of the constant themes for me both in testifying in front of Congress and meetings in the Situation Room in the White House was, “Let’s be cautious here. We don’t know how this will turn out.”

Harmony: You gave a speech in 2007 where you focused on the idealism of war versus the reality of war. You were able to look at the Revolutionary War up to the very present-day conflicts with that same idea that war is messy; politics is messy; compromise is messy.

Gates: Well, life is messy. The approach that I’ve taken, and it began with a speech here in Williamsburg, is to talk about the twin themes in American history of realism and idealism and how we have, even our most idealistic of presidents have followed realistic policies that sometimes seems contrary to our values.

There’s probably no one more idealistic in many ways and more liberal than Franklin Roosevelt, but Franklin Roosevelt made common cause with one of the great monsters of history, Joseph Stalin, to protect the country and to save the world from Nazism. So there is this thread throughout American history of trying to preserve our ideals and our promotion of democracy and human liberty and human rights, but at the same time when it came to the preservation of the nation, doing deals and working with people whose values were completely different.

Harmony: Do you think most people realize that?

Gates: Well, I think that people confuse hyper-partisanship, which we have so much of today, with paralysis. But the truth is, we’ve had hyper-partisanship earlier times in our history. We certainly have…I mean there were things that were written about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and even Washington himself. They’re pretty scurrilous, even by today’s standards, but they were able to get things done.

A very unpopular president was Harry Truman. He had a Republican Congress. He hated the Republicans in Congress and they hated him. He ran against them in 1948: the do-nothing Congress. And yet that do-nothing Congress and the President they hated managed to approve America going into NATO, they managed to approve the Marshall Plan, they managed to provide aid to Greece and Turkey to stop the Soviets, they managed to pass the National Security Act which still sets the structure of our whole national security apparatus today. These were monumental achievements done in a period of hyper-partisanship. So the key is, whether you have individuals who are prepared in all of the atmosphere of partisanship to reach across the aisle and do deals that allow you to get things done.

Harmony: Do you think we’re experiencing a crisis right now in bipartisanship?

Gates: I think that too many people are putting their party and their ideology in front of what’s best for the country. I think many of them believe that what they are saying is the best thing for the country, but the problem is they then, the next step they take is then, “Oh, and by the way, everybody else is wrong. My way or the highway.” And as I like to say, “I’ve worked for eight presidents, I’ve known more politicians than I could ever conceivably count, both Republicans and Democrats, and I never met a one in 45 years who had a monopoly on revealed truth.” But some of them behave like they do. And they’re the problem. And so you have to be able to see the other guy’s point of view and figure out a way to bridge that. I mean that’s fundamental to our whole political system.

Harmony: You have the distinction of having served as Secretary of Defense under first Republican and later Democratic administrations. Do you feel like that service in itself has given you a chance to demonstrate how you feel that government and cooperation and healthy debates should work?

Gates: Well I hope so. I mean, I was gratified that a lot of people wrote positive things about that. I obviously, there were times when I was very angry and very frustrated, but I think keeping that under your hat and continuing to try and work for what’s best for the country is the only way to go.

You know the other thing is, the other thing that I had going for me is that everybody in Washington, for all practical purposes, knew I wanted to be fired. There is nothing so empowering as people knowing you want to leave. Because they knew that if they tried to make me do things that I didn’t want to do or that I didn’t think were right, I would walk. I think part of the problem in Washington today is that there are too many people not ready to be fired who want to hang on to power.

There is allure in power, Truman once said, like gambling. And there are too many people who would rather hold on to power than do the right thing. I think we need more people who are willing to put their congressional career on the line or their presidency on the line to do the right thing for the country rather than just try and get re-elected.

Harmony: Public service is not the only way that you can serve your country although it is a noble career. You’ve published and spoken about some ideas of ways that people can be involved in their communities, involved in politics and involved in civic life without being part of public office. Talk to me more about how citizens can be active even if they’re not part of elected office.

Gates: Well one of things that has changed dramatically since I was in college, is the spread of volunteerism in the nation’s universities and colleges. A very significant percentage of college students now are engaged in service to the community and tutoring. There’s just a wide range of activities that they’re involved in.

Some are involved in the political process; I think that more need to be involved in the political process. And they need to both on the volunteerism front and on the political process they need to stay engaged after they graduate from college.

I think there are a lot of people in this country who are really fed up with politics the way they are, but they sit home on their hands. The only way the politics will change, the only way things will change, is if those people get involved and if those people go up to candidates and say, “Are you prepared to reach across the aisle and reach agreement and reach compromises on solving problems, specific problems, for the country? And if you give me the wrong answer, no vote and no donation.” And that kind of face-to-face encounter with politicians – believe me – works, but if the people who feel that way don’t get off their chair and get engaged, then an entire field is left to the ideologues of the left and the right.

Harmony: We’re looking ahead to an election this fall and thinking about leadership. What qualities of leadership do you think are important for the presidency in general and for the specific conditions of 2012? What do you think that president is going to need?

Gates: I get asked this question a lot, having worked for so many presidents. My best answer is the answer is a description that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. offered of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He said, “The man has a second-rate intellect and a first-rate temperament.” And I think that’s a pretty good formula. Temperament and character, I think, are the most important qualities of a president. By the time you get to be president, you’re obviously going to be smart and you’re going to be capable. So above all, it’s temperament and character. Some of the most successful Presidents we’ve had have not been intellectually the smartest,  but these guys had a first-rate temperament, and I think that’s the key thing.

Harmony: One of the hallmarks and one of the great privileges of representative democracy is that vote. How can you prepare for that vote? How can you honor that right before voting day?

Gates: I think that a voter has the responsibility to learn about the positions of both people running for an office, you know, instead of just sort of automatically assuming “I’m going to vote for the Republican or I’m going to report for the Democrat.” Why not read the other guy’s platform? So at least you know what you’re voting against rather than just a D or an R. And maybe you’ll learn something, and maybe you find out that the other guy maybe has something to offer you hadn’t realized.

So I think an educated voter is absolutely essential. The writings of the founding fathers are full of references that to the fact that the only way a democracy can survive in the United States is through an educated population and educated citizenry. And that worries me now because if people don’t bother to get involved, don’t bother to get educated about the issues, don’t bother to inform themselves, then what’s the point of having the vote?

Harmony: We’ve seen democracy or forms of democracy spread throughout the world. I wonder if you think that American democracy can translate directly into other countries?

Gates: I think we make a huge mistake if we try and transplant democracy the way it works in the United States anywhere else. There are certain fundamental principles about our system that I think do translate to other cultures, or should: the importance of a rule-of-law based society, creating institutions that support freedom, creating civil society.

There are a number of underlying principles, including compromise, that I think are fundamental to our system that do translate to others. But every society, I think every culture, has to figure out its own unique way of building democracy and sustaining it. Building the protection of human rights, building representative government where people are accountable to people, where officials are accountable to people, but that can take many different forms. After all, Britain’s parliamentary democracy is quite different from ours. France’s system is different, Germany’s is different.

You take a place like Iraq, this is a country that has lived under despotism for 4,000 years. We’ve been around over 230 years and we’re still a work in progress. So our impatience that they haven’t solved all their problems in three or four years, I find sort of bizarre. And that’s one of the things that I think studying history helps you understand is that these things take time and there is an impatience. In a society like ours where people get impatient if it’s a two-part TV show so you don’t get resolution at the end of the hour, first hour, we don’t understand that these things have to evolve and they take time. And they will have to evolve over time in these other societies. We need, instead of trying to impose our system on somebody else, what we ought to be talking about are the general values that underpin our system and how those translate into other societies and have to be a part of any kind of an enduring democracy or free society.

Harmony: Every summer, Americans take a day to reflect on American democracy and the cost of the freedom that we enjoy today. What does the 4th of July mean to you?

Gates: The 4th of July -- more actually than Memorial Day or Veterans Day -- causes me to reflect on the sacrifice that so many people have made in terms of keeping us free, and what an amazing road the United States has traveled since 1776, and frankly how uniquely fortunate we were in the caliber of our founding fathers.

If you look back 250 years at all the revolutions: the American, the French, the Russian, the Chinese and a host of lesser ones, there’s actually only one that turned out relatively well in its first decades, and that’s us. And the rest ended up in horrible dictatorships and we owe everything to those founding fathers. And that, I think, is what’s important about the 4th of July is the uniqueness of how we got started and the inability of any other society so far over the last three centuries to replicate it.

Harmony: So maybe it is appropriate to canonize them, as imperfect as they were.

Gates: Absolutely.

Harmony: Dr. Gates, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have you today. Thank you for coming.

Gates: Thank you.

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