10 Minutes with Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

It is Thursday 24 October, 2013, 4:10pm to be exact.  I am waiting outside a normal-looking home in Williamsburg, Virginia and I am nervous.  The thing is, inside that home is the Chancellor of William & Mary who happens to be Robert Gates.  Chancellor Gates is a man who is also known as: U.S. Secretary of Defense (2006-2011), Director of Central Intelligence (1991-1993), and the list goes on and on and on.  So I think that most people will agree that when you are about to meet one of the most influential public servants in the realm of foreign policy in the post-World War II era, you would also be nervous.


Image courtesy of J.P. Carroll, © 2013, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of J.P. Carroll, © 2013, some rights reserved

As I continue to look over my notes, questions, and highlighted portions of news articles for this interview, I am interrupted –

“So, are you nervous?” asks a university official.

“Yes”, I reply,

“Don’t be, he’s really nice.  He loves talking to students; it reminds him of when he used to be a student here.”

“That’s good to know.”

As we continue chatting, I begin to lose track of time.  This conversation was the most welcome distraction I could ask for to take my mind off things.

“J.P., please come in,” says another university official as he opens the front door to the house.


I walk in and am warmly greeted by the university official that helped me arrange this interview.  Stepping into the living room I am greeted by another university official and then by the Chancellor himself.

“Hi there, how are you?” asks the Chancellor in an assertive voice followed by a youthful smile.

“Doing well sir, thank you.”

“Please, sit down.”

I take a seat on a nice plushy couch.  I comfortably sink into the cushion.  As the Chancellor smiles, I feel calm.  All the nervousness I felt minutes ago has been washed away.  After introducing myself, I tell the Chancellor I would like to discuss two topics: the Syrian Civil War and the Government Shutdown.  He tells me to go right ahead.

  As we discuss the Syrian Civil War, the Chancellor breaks down the conflict into three components:

  • Sunnis versus Shi’ites
  • Religious Extremists versus Secularists
  • Authoritarians versus Reformers

Chancellor Gates goes on to say that due to these three components, the conflict is far more complex and multidimensional than most legislators depict it to be.  The main fear expressed by Chancellor Gates with regards to the Syrian Civil War is that it has the potential to become a regional conflict.  He goes on to point out the foreign support of both sides of the conflict: U.S., Saudi, and Qatari support for the rebels versus Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah support for the Syrian government.  While the Chancellor goes on to express his great concern for the growing humanitarian crisis due to the conflict, particularly the refugee crisis, he does not think the United States should impose a no-fly zone, nor should it send troops to Syria.  In his opinion if the West got militarily involved, it would make more sense for European countries responsible for the artificial creation of states in the Middle East to deal with their legacy of colonialism.  He went on to say that there is more justification for increased Turkish involvement than American involvement in Syria.  A powerful example used by Chancellor Gates to illustrate his point about the dangers of increased Western military involvement in Syria is the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Chancellor Gates emphasizes that while he was Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration he was strongly opposed to U.S. intervention in Libya.  According to Chancellor Gates, it is because of NATO intervention in Libya that Russia and China will never again sign on to a UN Security Council Resolution allowing “humanitarian intervention”.  The Chancellor emphasized that there is “a big difference between the measures enacted to alleviate a humanitarian crisis and the measures enacted to facilitate regime change.”  When discussing Libyan intervention with members of Congress, Chancellor Gates stated that what they did not seem to understand was that “even imposing a no-fly zone must begin with an act of war.”  He goes on to point out that the Syrian anti-air defense system is “more sophisticated” than the Libyan system was.

The problem with imposing a no-fly zone in Syria according to Chancellor Gates is that it immediately puts U.S. troops at risk.  If an American aircraft is shot down, U.S. troops could die.  There is also the possibility that if those troops survive, they would be taken as prisoners of war by President Assad.  Once a no-fly zone is imposed in Syria, there is no undoing this; to go ahead with such action as some have proposed, “would take control of U.S. hands” according to Chancellor Gates.  He went on to say that “the variables of war cannot be controlled” once the ball gets rolling.

With regards to President Assad, Chancellor Gates said that Putin made a wise political move (from Putin’s standpoint) by brokering the handover of Syrian chemical weapons.  By doing this, Chancellor Gates said that “President Putin has ensured that President Assad will remain in power for at least one to two more years”.

After this comment, I proceeded to ask Chancellor Gates about his thoughts on Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts at organizing a Syria peace conference in Geneva.  I noted how many are saying the Secretary of State is having trouble bringing together the fractured Syrian opposition.  Chancellor Gates said that while he is not sure about the prospects of the proposed Geneva Conference, Secretary Kerry “has to try to make this happen and I am sure he is doing his best”.

I quickly scribble down the Chancellor’s response as fast as I can and then I ask him about his thoughts on the recent government shutdown.  Apparently the shutdown has cost the U.S. economy $24 billion which is why I asked Chancellor Gates not just about the political but also the economic effects of the shutdown.  He went on to say that, “the problems in Washington are not something that happened overnight.  This did not begin with the election of President Obama or the election of Tea Party Republicans.  This has been brewing and getting worse over the past 20 years.”  In the opinion of Chancellor Gates, one of the serious problems in Washington is the issue of gerrymandering since “of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, not many seats are competitive.”  It is this lack of competitive political districts which has greatly increased extreme partisanship according to Chancellor Gates.

Ultimately, in the opinion of Chancellor Gates, ever since the 2008 financial crisis and due to these recent years of particularly problematic Washington politics, many countries in the world no longer see the U.S. as the model to follow.  “In the 20th century, the U.S. model was admired throughout the world.  Now though, world leaders look at the U.S. and ask themselves, ‘Do I want that for myself?  For my country?’”

“So, is the 21st century not the second American century?” I ask.

“Oh it is, but this is certainly a rough patch,” he replies, always the optimist.

With that, our interview is over.  We shake hands, take a photo, and I thank him for his time.  The Chancellor asks me if I played the Old Course while in St Andrews to which I embarrassedly reply no.  I assure him that I know how to play golf and will make time for the Old Course next year.  “Good,” he says as he once again smiles with that youthful, reassuring, contagious smile.  It is a smile which for over 40 years in government knows that while today might seem difficult, there is always tomorrow.

I leave the house briefly feeling reassured about the United States and its future on the world stage.  However, shortly after this optimistic feeling I begin to feel dread.  This feeling of dread stems from the realization that Robert Gates no longer has a say on U.S. foreign policy and we are all worse off because of it.  I get on my bike and begin riding home, hoping I am wrong about this and that the optimist Robert Gates is right.