US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as he prepares to depart the government for the second time, said in an interview on Friday that the human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had made him far more wary about unleashing the might of the US armed forces.
“When I took this job, the United States was fighting two very difficult, very costly wars,” Gates said. “And it has seemed to me: Let’s get this business wrapped up before we go looking for more opportunities.”
“If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital US national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go,’” Gates said. “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”
Most recently, he expressed major reservations about US intervention in Libya.
In December 2006, Gates was brought on by former US president George W. Bush to fix Iraq and was kept on by US President Barack Obama to solve Afghanistan. Even as a trained historian, he said, he has learned most clearly over the last four-and-a-half years that wars “have taken longer and been more costly in lives and treasure” than anticipated.
As Gates, 67, gets ready to return to private life at the end of the month, the futures of those two countries seem far from certain.
In the interview, Gates was asked to confirm reports of policy duels during the two years before Bush and former US vice president Dick Cheney left office, a time in which he was said to have been successful in altering policies or blocking missions that might have escalated into another conflict.
“The only thing I guess I would say to that is: I hope I’ve prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past four-and-a-half years — or maybe dumb is not the right word, but things that were not actually in our interest,” Gates said.
Pressed to offer more details, Gates smiled and said, “I will in my book.”
Some of the defense secretary’s confidants, however, confirmed that Gates prevented provocative, adventurist policies against Iran, in particular, that might have spun into war.
“He’ll be remembered for making us aware of the danger of over-reliance on military intervention as an instrument of American foreign policy,” said former senator David Boren, who, during his tenure as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, developed a rapport with Gates when he was director of the CIA in the early 1990s.
Gates, the first defense secretary to work for two presidents of different parties, said he managed the transition from Bush to Obama by using a lesson he had learned through various changes of directors at the CIA: “As a holdover, for the first while, don’t talk too much.”
Gates, who has resisted making comparisons between Bush and Obama, declined to discuss his relationship with the sitting president. He also would not describe the role he might have played in moving Obama, who had run against the Iraq war, to adopt many of Bush’s national security policies, although he suggested that it was in part a natural evolution for a new president.
“The way I would respond is that reality is a very effective teacher,” Gates said. “And I would say reality and responsibility. Every president confronts that.”
Gates said he was aware that “there are some huge, lingering questions” as he turns the Pentagon over to CIA Director Leon Panetta — among them, how to trim the Department of Defense bureaucracy and identify US$400 billion in savings over 12 years, as ordered by Obama, and how quickly to draw down troops in Afghanistan.
Other looming challenges, he said, are how to manage the National Guard and Reserve forces during wartime, properly carry out policies that end the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, and expand efforts to halt sexual assault in the armed forces.