Robert Gates: What the New President Faces

Some of Barack Obama's advisers have talked publicly of keeping on Robert Gates as secretary of defense in a Democratic administration. Gates, who has been widely praised for his pragmatic stewardship of the Pentagon, says firmly he wants to go home to Washington state. But he agreed to talk to NEWSWEEK's John Barry about the national-security challenges he sees ahead. Excerpts:

Barry: So, what awaits the next president?
Gates: I entered the CIA 42 years ago, and I think that the world is as complex and in a real way more dangerous than at any time since then.

More dangerous than the cold war?
In the cold war, you had the cosmic risk of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But the truth is that, other than the Cuban missile crisis and maybe one or two other occasions, that threat was really theoretical. The missiles were real, but both powers had learned to deal with each other. We had rules of the road even between the KGB and CIA. And so there was a fair amount of predictability; we kind of observed red lines.

And now there are no red lines?
Look around. Iran. North Korea. A Russia that people have a hard time figuring out what to make of. The Chinese are not so much a security challenge, but they clearly have some very significant military modernization programs underway that are worrisome. North Korea: what's going to happen now? The entirety of Central Asia, where you have pressures on them from Russia to toe the line, and their wanting to maintain some sense of independence—but how much? Again, nobody knows where that line is … The problems that Pakistan faces. So you've got all of these. You've got the whole Israeli-Palestinian-Syrian challenge. In our own hemisphere, Venezuela. And then, of course, there is Al Qaeda and a variety of violent extremists that are still very much out there. That's a pretty long list of challenges that the new guys need to be prepared to deal with from day one.

But a more dangerous world?
The reason I said it was a more dangerous world ... is that the consequences of conflict, or an attack, are not nearly as cataclysmic as had there been a conflict with the Soviet Union. But the risks of one are far greater.

And, of course, the next president will inherit two wars
We are engaged in two very difficult wars. One of them, [Iraq], seems on the way toward a positive outcome—particularly given where we were. But the other is going to be a slog, and it's more complicated because we have many more nations involved—not just on the military side, on the civilian side, too. So … managing that is much more difficult in Afghanistan.

You took over from Donald Rumsfeld
One of the things that annoys me is that everyone is always trying to contrast everything I do with everything Secretary Rumsfeld did. But the transformation that he started has totally changed the American military, and, I believe, for the better.

I was going to ask what you found that surprised you.
If there's one big surprise I've had since taking this job, I haven't found a single country that didn't want a stronger, better relationship with the United States and that did not think the U.S. was still the key player. I've probably traveled to 50 countries now. Not one—Indonesia, India, China, Russia, the Middle East. Places where I kind of expected to get beat up, places where, when I traveled when I was DCI [director of Central Intelligence], in some ways there was a more negative attitude toward the United States then than now. For all of the criticisms, all of the mistakes that we've made, we're just kind of there. To a considerable extent we are still the only multidimensional superpower—political, military, economic, cultural. I mean, American culture? Even those who hate us the most wear American college sweatshirts and want to go to American colleges and universities.

So you don ' t see the damage to America ' s prestige in the world from Abu Ghraib, Guant á namo and so on as permanent?
One of great strengths of America is that, maybe more than any other country, we have the ability to correct course when we go too far in one direction.

Are we locked on a collision course with Iran?
I have not by any means given up on the possibility that the Iranians can be pressured into arrangements that salve their national pride but provide a verifiable way of demonstrating that they don't have a nuclear-weapons capability and are not building one. I mean, that's got to be the objective. Whether it's an enrichment bank in Russia that they rent [uranium] from—whatever. I think the international community, including the United States—if Iran were willing to forswear nuclear weapons—would probably be pretty forthcoming in trying to figure out an arrangement that would let them do what they say they want to do, which is to have a civil nuclear program.

And if they do insist on pursuing a nuclear-weapons program?
One of the many concerns about Iran getting nuclear weapons or having a nuclear-weapons capability is that some of their neighbors may decide they just can't stand it. I think that North Korea and Iran are particular problems—beyond the immediate military danger their having nuclear weapons may pose—in the incentive they provide for others to go ahead and develop their own nuclear weapons. And the credibility of our deterrent is really going to be put to the test, it seems to me, if we can't do something about both of those programs.

How do you respond to those who say the United States should take the lead against nuclear proliferation by drastically reducing its own arsenal?
The reality is that there are probably two dozen, perhaps 30, countries out there that would seriously consider their own nuclear deterrent if they couldn't rely on ours. And this is something that I think a lot of people overlook in terms of the importance of keeping our own nuclear deterrent modern, keeping it reliable, keeping it safe.

Could you hope to maintain stability in a world with more nuclear powers?
One of the things that I had thought was so important about the strategic arms negotiations with the Soviets was not that we ever really limited arms. It was a quarter-century seminar for both countries in how each thought about nuclear weapons, nuclear war and each other. And I think it really played a big part in preventing misunderstandings and miscalculations. That's why I proposed a "strategic dialogue" with China at the end of last year. I've been surprised how quickly it has got started … It's still rudimentary. But in terms of getting comfortable talking about these things I would say it's moving at a significantly faster clip than was the case with the old Soviet Union.

The last remaining cornerstone agreement with the old Soviet Union the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is due to expire next year
I'm not sure that's going to happen. I will put this in terms of my wants. I would like to see us table a post-START agreement with the Russians—in some ways just to set the parameters. But with a new administration, whoever it is, I think—based on the campaign statements of both candidates—there will be a new agreement. And if there isn't a new agreement, I think there will be agreement to extend the current agreement by a year so they can negotiate a new one. I actually don't think they will let it lapse.

One hears about " the militarization of American foreign policy. " Is there truth to that?
The problem is, the nonmilitary institutions—especially the Agency for International Development—have been gutted over the past 15 years. When I left government, AID had about 15,000 employees, and it was an expeditionary agency. People that worked for AID expected to be deployed into developing countries, and they had all the requisite skills to do reconstruction and help with governance and building rule of law and agriculture and all the rest. AID today has less than 3,000 people. It's essentially a contracting agency that outsources the entire thing … As for the State Department: we have more people in military bands than we have Foreign Service officers. So the civilian institutions that, during the cold war, had the lead in carrying out those foreign-policy functions need to be re-created and dramatically strengthened. Until they are, the military will probably end up carrying most of the burden.

Is the machinery of government set up to cope with the challenges we face?
No, I think it all needs to be changed. We need to rethink the 1947 National Security Act, which laid out our present national-security structure. The national-security institutions that we have today were essentially created to fight the cold war, and they reflect lessons we learned in World War II. So the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA and the National Security Council all came out of the National Security Act of 1947. It seems to me that there needs to be a new National Security Act that looks at the kind of complicated world I've described and says: how would we write a new National Security Act to update the institutions and the framework?

But the problem is more than structure. We need to think about how to do these things in a completely new way. I don't think making AID bigger once more is the solution, any more than I think re-creating the old United States Information Agency is the answer to our strategic communications problems. To rethink USIA, we need to bring in some 23-year-olds—maybe the guys from Google, and those putting out news over the Internet—and ask them: If you want to reach the rest of the world with a message, as actually we do, how would you do it? How would you structure it? And is there a way to partner what happens in the private sector with the public sector? That needs to be our approach to development and all these things we are trying to do on the "soft" side, the civilian side of U.S. security policy

… Look, Texas A&M [where Gates was president before returning to government] has had teams in Tikrit [in Iraq] and in Afghanistan for the last five years. They are all from the agricultural and the veterinary side. And these guys go into the scariest parts of those countries, and they don't care: that's what they do. We've done that sort of work with farmers in America since the 1860s. Now they're doing it internationally—and going into amazing places. And A&M is not alone in this.

An ambitious agenda.
Yes, and one of the many obstacles to reform is that, at the top of government, the urgent always tends to crowd out the important. And that tension has gotten worse now, I think, because of the complexity of the world we face. I recall Henry Kissinger in 1970. There had been the Syrian invasion of Jordan. I think something was going on in Lebanon. And we had discovered the Soviets were building a submarine base in Cuba. I always thought Kissinger managing two or three crises at the same time was an act of legerdemain. I tell you: that was amateur night compared to the world today.

Join the Discussion