Charlie Rose talks to Robert Gates “It would be a mistake on Bashar al-Assad’s part to underestimate” Obama

The former Defense Secretary discusses the evolution of America’s military, the dangers in Iran and Syria, and what it felt like to get bin Laden


Do we need a different kind of armed forces now?

The Army is constantly evolving. I think all of the services are. My major concern is that we get fixed on the idea that technology is the only answer to our military challenges. We said we’d never fight another counterinsurgency after Vietnam, but guess what? We did. And as I look back at all the times we’ve used military force since Vietnam, when it comes to predicting where we will use our military next, we have a perfect record: We’ve never gotten it right, not once. There’s no question but that the ground forces are going to get smaller, but even with the budget cut that President Obama asked for of almost $485 million in 2011, the Army would have still been roughly 30,000 or 40,000 troops bigger than it was when I became secretary in December of 2006. One of my favorite quotes is from General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell from World War II, who basically said, “No matter how a war starts, it always ends in mud.” And because you don’t know, you need to preserve flexibility.

Does that include factoring in rogue nations gaining access to nuclear or chemical weapons?

One of the challenges we face is that nonstate entities have the potential to acquire these weapons, and states that are deeply unstable internally have acquired these weapons. The president’s concern about Syria and chemical weapons is a good example. We were very fortunate with al-Qaeda. We know al-Qaeda was trying their darndest to get nuclear weapons, to get chemical weapons. So far, they appear to have failed.

What about Iran?

I think that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, there would be three very negative consequences. One is you would have a nuclear-armed Iran with missiles that could reach Israel today and would be able to reach Europe in the not-too-distant future. Second, a nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world. And third, a nuclear-armed Iran would be significantly more aggressive in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, throughout the region, in terms of trying to throw their weight around. The only acceptable alternative is that the economic sanctions bring enough popular unhappiness that the regime decides it’s in its best interests [to cooperate].

Do you believe it will if we turn the screw as hard as we can?

I don’t think the government will. If there’s one thing that the Iranians, Saddam Hussein, the North Koreans, and Bashar al-Assad all have in common, it’s they don’t care how many of their people get killed.

What should we do in Syria if they attempt to use chemical weapons?

We would have no alternative to some kind of military response. And then there are a range of possibilities. But when the president of the United States cocks the pistol, he better be ready to fire it. So his warning must have consequences if something happens with those chemical weapons.

Based on what you know about Obama, is he prepared to act?

Oh, yes. One thing about President Obama, he is very tough-minded. And his decision to go after bin Laden, his decisions on Afghanistan in terms of the troop buildups, this is a guy who relishes making decisions. So I think it would be a mistake on Bashar al-Assad’s part to underestimate him.

How do you think Assad sees his options at this point?

The Assad family and the Alawite-Shia minority in Syria have repressed the Sunni and other religious and ethnic groups in Syria for decades. There is a score card that those other groups will want to even. One of the reasons the Alawites and Assad are fighting so hard is that they have some sense of what’s likely to happen to them if the opposition is successful.

What was going through your mind as you sat there with the president during the bin Laden mission?

First of all, I nearly had an aneurysm when the helicopter went down. I’d been sitting in the West Wing in 1980 during the Iranian hostage mission when the helicopter went down, so my first reaction was, “Oh no, not again.” But the team, the equipment, the training, all dramatically different. There was probably a sigh of relief ... but no high-fives because we still had to get them all out of Pakistan. There was so much emotion in the room that there was no manifestation of it. Also, a sense of closure that, 10 years on, we had finally done what President Bush said we would do, which was get this guy.

Watch Charlie Rose on Bloomberg TV weeknights at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. E.T.


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