The following is a transcript of an interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that aired Sunday, May 22, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve said that you’ve been disappointed in Republican leaders for not standing up for traditional Republican values. We just had this awful shooting in Buffalo, New York. Liz Cheney, Congresswoman, said, “House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. Republican leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.” Do you think Republican leaders are enabling those things she said?
GATES: I don’t know that I would go that far. I do know that there aren’t enough of them denouncing those things, denouncing white supremacy, denouncing-
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why?
GATES: We have too many people who- who are in politics to further their own agendas and to further their own personal prospects rather than what’s good for the country. And I would say that’s true in both parties.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think it is important for the American public to have a full accounting of the events of January 6th with these public hearings that are planned in the weeks ahead?
GATES: I think so. What happened on January 6th was- was a huge blight on our democracy.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You think there is value in having this aired publicly?
GATES: I think so, yes. I think people need to understand. My worry is that people will- that everybody will retreat to their ideological corner. And, and so nobody will- nobody will listen. I think maybe the best thing to do is just to rerun the videos.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Former Trump Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was with us on Face the Nation recently, and he revealed some pretty shocking things about what he witnessed when he was part of the administration. Unconstitutional, illegal, immoral actions. Firing missiles into Mexico. Shooting American protesters in the legs. Did you know that these types of ideas were being considered at that time?
GATES: A few of them. Not, not those specific ones, but, but some others that he talks about. So- and people would call me from the Pentagon and tell me that, you know, we’re- we’re wrestling with how to respond to this. So I had some flavor of it, but none of the kind of detail that- that Mark Esper has in his book.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you believe President Trump running for office again would present that threat to national security?
GATES: It would concern me.
MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s a very diplomatic phrase.
GATES: That’s and that’s- that’s where I am.
ROBERT GATES: I think it’s huge, Margaret. I think it changes the geopolitics in Europe in a dramatic way. Now he’s got NATO on his doorstep, not only in Ukraine and elsewhere, he’s going to have them on his border in Finland. And- and you know, it’s an amazing thing he’s done because he’s- he’s gotten Sweden to abandon 200 years of neutrality. So I think- I think Putin, one of his many, huge miscalculations in invading Ukraine is he has dramatically changed the geostrategic posture of Western Europe. And now that you have the Swedes and the Finns as part of that, he’s really put Russia in a- in a much worse strategic position than it had before the invasion.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But he could still win, Vladimir Putin could still win in Ukraine?
GATES: If winning means taking over the country and absorbing it into Russia, the whole country, I think that’s very unlikely at this point. He has the potential to hold on to a good part of the Donbass. But I think in terms of pushing on to Odessa or trying to bring a change of government in Kyiv or absorb Ukraine, I think if that’s winning, I don’t see that he can win.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What are the security guarantees that the West needs to put in Zelenskyy’s hands, to put in Ukraine’s hands, to actually broker a deal?
GATES: I think access to Western weapons, continued training by NATO countries, including the United States. A promise to have a- keep a large NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe next door to Ukraine, the supply lines. The other thing that I think is really going to be critically important, especially if this conflict drags on for a very long time, is the West has to come together and figure out some way to help Ukraine economically, long term. Both short term humanitarian needs, but then rebuilding
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you have a concern that if Putin is cornered, that he would actually use a tactical nuke?
GATES: I think the probability of him using a tactical nuclear weapon is low, but not zero. There are no large masses of Ukrainian forces that would be taken out by a tactical nuclear weapon. And if it’s not got a military purpose, then the only purpose is as a terror weapon to try and break the will of the Ukrainian people. And I think that moment has come and gone. I don’t think that there’s anything at this point that will break the will of the Ukrainian people. The other thing that I hope somebody around Putin is reminding him is that, in that part of the world, and particularly in eastern Ukraine, the winds tend to blow from the west. If you set off a tactical nuclear weapon in eastern Ukraine, it’s going to- the radiation is going to go into Russia. So I just hope somebody reminds him of that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve called Vladimir Putin a man of the past. But when I talk to officials now, they say he could be around for another decade.
GATES: His invasion has- has weakened Russia and it’s got now long term economic problems. Europe, I think, is very serious at this point about weaning itself away from Russian- dependence on Russian oil and gas. So that will weaken Russia significantly. Where where is he going to find that market around the world for-
MARGARET BRENNAN: China?
GATES: China is not going to want to become dependent on Russia for its energy sources. China will want to remain diversified. They might buy some more Russian oil and gas, but nothing like what would be required to replace the European market.Putin will remain a pariah. It’s hard to see Putin ever walking in the door of the White House or number ten Downing Street or at the Elysee. So I-I think Russia- he has put Russia really behind the eight ball economically, militarily, and because now people are going to look at the Russian military and say, you know, this was supposed to be this fantastic military. Well, they give a good parade, but in actual combat, not so hot.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Xi Jinping is watching what’s happening in Ukraine and he is taking notes. What do you think his lesson is so far?
GATES: He and Putin have- have had a common narrative about the decline of the West We’re paralyzed, we’re polarized. We can’t get anything done. The alliance was divided and had lost its purpose and so on. Boom. We totally underestimated the West. We underestimated the United States’ willingness to take the lead again. We underestimated the willingness of the Europeans to come together and of the United States to put this coalition together. And we underestimated how fast and how severe the sanctions are that they could place. So maybe the West isn’t as weak as we thought. Second lesson is looking at the Russian military performance. He’s got to ask himself what if my equipment isn’t any better than the Russians? What if my troops aren’t any better than the Russians? Maybe my military is not as good as they’re telling me they are. The Chinese have given the Russians all kinds of rhetorical and political support. But they are doing very little concretely to help the Russians. My guess is, Putin told Xi before the Olympics, look, I’m going to do this. It’s going to take a few days and it’ll be done I’d wager, that Xi never expected a protracted, brutal conflict that would isolate Russia so much from the rest of the world. And so I think he’s playing it actually very cautiously.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is the rise of China still inevitable?
GATES: China and-and its role as a- growing role as a global power will continue. They do have some real problems. The big issue for Xi where he can’t admit he’s wrong is on the zero-Covid. And you know, when you shut down a city of 25 million people for weeks and people don’t have food, they don’t have water, they don’t have medical care. This has consequences and-and how can he say I got that wrong when you- its resulted in so much economic and and human cost.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You were directly involved in and overseeing the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan for so long. The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is in the government. Women on the street have to cover their faces and their bodies now. Girls don’t have widespread access to education. How do you make sense of where we are now?
GATES: Well, I think people predicted every single one of those things would happen if we got out of Afghanistan altogether. I think we made a mistake in pulling everybody out. I think that had we kept a small number of U.S. troops, 5,000, 6,000, something on that order, the contractors would have stayed. The equipment would have been repaired and taken care of. We built- we built a military modeled on our own, which requires a lot of logistical support, a lot of sophisticated maintenance and so on.
MARGARET BRENNAN: How was that not known after 20 years of war? How is that dependence not recognized?
GATES: I think people did recognize it. And that’s one of the reasons that people in the military argued for keeping a number of people there, because only if we had some representation in our military would the contractors who take care of those things been willing to stay, so they weren’t at risk. And when you had military, Afghan military suddenly realizing they’re getting no ammunition, they’re getting no food, they’re getting no support and they’re isolated. It’s kind of no wonder that most of them gave up. It wasn’t that they were cowardly or that they were unwilling to fight. It was they had poor leadership. And-and they-they had this dependency on on technical support that went away.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You must have seen the special inspector general report that came out just a few days ago. It blamed both President Trump and President Biden for withdrawing the military and contractors.
GATES: Don’t forget, it started under President Obama. So you have three presidents.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You would add culpability there?
GATES: Yeah. They all wanted out of Afghanistan, the forever war. But that allows for no shades of gray. It’s either all in or out- all out, is the way it was portrayed. And in fact, there were alternatives. And the military put forward some of those alternatives, which was a relatively small number of people that we would plan to keep there for some indefinite period.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Mhmm. You admitted your own error there in that model of replicating an American type military style and trying to rebuild it within the Afghan forces.
GATES: Yeah, I mean, it was well along that way when I got there, but I certainly didn’t do anything to change it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You said before, the biggest threat to the United States is our polarization and the distance, the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol building. Do you still feel that way?
MARGARET BRENNAN: You don’t see signs of improvement?
GATES: No. I will say this: there is one glimmer of hope that I see, and it’s in kind of my world. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have done something no other living human beings have done. They’ve actually brought Republicans and Democrats together on Capitol Hill and with the administration. Apart from a handful of isolationist Republican senators, you’ve got a pretty – from left to right – a pretty strong consensus in Washington. But I would say it’s broader than just Ukraine. You have the same kind of attitudes toward China and how we react to China and to Russia more broadly beyond Ukraine. So maybe that’s- maybe that’s a foundation. Maybe there’s a way to build on that. And who knows, if you begin to get it in national security policy, maybe you can get it in some other places.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I’ll take the optimism.
GATES: Well, I’m not sure I’d take the bet, but you might take the optimism.