Full interview: Robert Gates on “Face the Nation”

Watch the full version of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ “Face the Nation” interview with John Dickerson, which aired on May 23, 2021.

Video Transcript

JOHN DICKERSON: There's now a cease fire in Israel. What's your feeling about the chances that there's going to be any peace, or that the prospects are even close for any kind of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

ROBERT GATES: I think there's very little prospect of a peace between them at this point. I don't think there has been in quite a long time. And I think in fact, one of the things that produced the breakthrough with the Abraham Accords between the Israelis and the Gulf states and others has been sort of essentially setting aside the Palestinian issue and moving on to a region that has changed in some pretty dramatic ways, which basically leaves the Palestinians out in the cold.

JOHN DICKERSON: Is it consistent with US national interests and values to leave the Palestinians out in the cold?

ROBERT GATES: No. I don't think it's-- I certainly don't think it's consistent with our values. But John, the truth is almost every president has made a real effort to try and bring a solution to this problem. And probably the closest anybody came was President Clinton in December of 2000 at Camp David. And the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an offer that essentially gave the Palestinians 85% of what they were asking for. And Yasser Arafat didn't have the courage to say, yes.

And so these efforts have been stymied time and time again. And I would say there have been Israeli prime ministers who were actually interested in a solution. But the Palestinians couldn't bring themselves to say yes.

JOHN DICKERSON: How do you grade President Biden's handling of the issue?

ROBERT GATES: I think that the US not being front and center was probably not a bad thing. I think letting the Egyptians, others, take the lead-- what was interesting to me in this, two things about it were interesting to me. First was that Hezbollah basically stayed out of it so that-- and they are far better armed than Hamas. And they basically took a pass. And the other is that the Gulf states in particular, but most of the Arabs, were fairly quiet. The loudest voices for a cease fire were coming from Europe and from the United States, not from the Arab states, although Egypt certainly played a role in negotiating the ceasefire. And I think that's another new development.

JOHN DICKERSON: You mentioned President Biden was not publicly saying a number of things, not putting public pressure on the Israelis. When we talk about power and what a president's role is, a lot of times presidents are judged by what people can see. Is this an instance in which it's more important to think about what you don't see when you have a president?

ROBERT GATES: Yes. And I think sometimes the United States can achieve its objectives more effectively by playing a behind the scenes role than by being out in front. When the United States is out in front, it automatically creates lots of antibodies in a lot of different places. But if the US is playing a constructive role behind the scenes, often it can be much more effective.

JOHN DICKERSON: How do you see the US relationship with Israel with respect to Iran? Should people think about our interests with Iran whenever there's a conversation about the Israelis and the Palestinians?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that one of the concerns about the deal, the nuclear deal, that President Obama negotiated with the Iranians was the sense on the part of both the Gulf Arabs and Israel that the administration, that the US was not taking their security interests into account, that they were focused almost entirely on just the nuclear program and not paying attention to Iranian meddling in the region, Iranian support for Hamas, for Hezbollah, and so on.

And if there's going to be a new agreement, it seems to me critically important that this administration, unlike the Obama administration, carry out the negotiations with complete transparency and inclusion on the part of Israel and the Gulf states. This doesn't mean making them a part of the negotiating team. But it means keeping them informed of what we're doing and allaying their concerns. We may be trying to cut a deal behind their backs that affects their security. And I think that was one of the reasons for the hostility to the deal that President Obama negotiated.

Frankly, I was encouraged early in this administration when Secretary Blinken talked about lengthening and strengthening the 2015 agreement. Right now, though, it looks like if they could get their way, they would just basically sign up to the deal as it stood in 2015. I personally think that's probably a mistake.

JOHN DICKERSON: And that's a mistake because of the consequences of how other states would react to that?

ROBERT GATES: I think so. And I think it does not take into account the progress Iran has made toward enriching and so on. I remember being told when we were dealing with this in the Bush administration when I was Secretary. It's a lot harder to go from 3% enrichment to 20% than it is to go from 20% to 90%. So the fact that they've been enriching to 20% and are talking about enriching to 60% is a big deal. And so I think-- and the duration of the agreement is already pretty much half gone.

And so the question is, what's the right agreement for the future? And I think just signing up again to the 2015 Accord is not the right answer.

JOHN DICKERSON: For US policy in dealing with Israel, there have been reports that Israel has been attacking covertly the Iranian nuclear program. How much does a US president have to think either about what help Israel can provide by undermining that program through its covert work, or that Israel may go off and do something that might put the US in a bad strategic position? I mean does Israel have leverage over a US president because of what it's doing covertly in Iran?

ROBERT GATES: I think the way I would answer that, John, is that one of the things that I worried about when I was Secretary was that the Israelis would take an action that they regarded as in their national interest that would create enormous problems for the United States, strategically, politically, militarily, and that they could get themselves into a problem and then turn to us to bail them out. And my worry was always a concern about a unilateral Israeli action that then inevitably would require the United States to become involved.

They ran an exercise in 2010 I think that looked exactly like a raid on Natanz on the Iranian nuclear site. And that exercise was-- and they flew all of their planes, and refuelers, and rescue helicopters, and everything out to a range-- toward Greece to a range of 860 miles and then back. Well, from those airfields in Israel to Natanz was 862 miles. We didn't think that was an accident. And that was my word. And I expressed that concern on several occasions to President Bush, that they would take an action unilaterally without consulting us beforehand that would then leave us with some serious problems.

JOHN DICKERSON: Do you think President Biden has to keep that in mind when he's putting pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu on the Israeli-Palestinian front that he has to keep in mind that he also needs Israel to not take the kind of action you're talking about, that they're kind of linked in terms of how much pressure a US president can exert on Israel?

ROBERT GATES: Yeah. I mean, I think that the mood in the United States, particularly among our politicians in Washington, is probably somewhat less favorable to Israel today than it has been in years past. I think we saw last in some of the democratic criticism of Israel for the actions taken in Gaza.

But this is one of the problems of having allies is that sometimes they do things that you think, I really wish they hadn't done that. Or you have to worry that they will do something. And I don't know if you call it leverage, but it's certainly a consideration that you have to take into account.

JOHN DICKERSON: President Biden has said he wants to put human rights and democracy at the center of his foreign policy. But when he was getting a lot of criticism from the left of his party for not standing up about the treatment of the Palestinians by Prime Minister Netanyahu in Saudi Arabia, he said he was going to turn the country into a pariah. But he is essentially still carrying out policy with Saudi Arabia as an ally. Do you think he's realizing the limitations of declaring you're going to be a human rights president but the realities of alliances and national interests make it a little harder to do that in practice?

ROBERT GATES: Well, this is a challenge that every president faces. And first of all, there's always a big difference between what candidates for president say on the campaign trail they're going to do, and what they end up doing as president. Because then you have the responsibility. And the challenge for presidents for a long time, and Jimmy Carter was a perfect example, human rights was at the very core of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy.

But the realization that the worst offenders are people you can't do anything about. And those that you can act on are your friends. Because those are the countries that you have leverage. And so the question is, how do you balance, a continued advocacy, for reform and for human and political rights, and at the same time deal with the real world of global politics and strategy where you also need that country or that government in terms of serving broader American interests around the world as well?

And it's always a kind of yin and yang thing about, how do you balance those? And how do you sustain our values even when we deal with people and have to deal with people who don't espouse those values?

JOHN DICKERSON: We're still relatively new into this new administration. Let's say President Biden called you up. I know you've said some critical things about him in the past. So that might not be-- he might not do that. Let's say President Biden called you and said, what are the three things I should be focused on? What would you say?

ROBERT GATES: Well, actually I think he's focused on the one that's most important and the most long term, and that is China. But I think what we need to focus on is what kind of integrated strategy do we have to deal with a long term competition with China that certainly has a military aspect, but has significant non-military aspects from strategic communications, to belt and road, to economic pressures, and the economic relationship, science and technology, and supply chains. I mean it's a very complicated relationship.

And there is also an ideological struggle going on essentially between democracy and authoritarianism. So focusing on China is clearly the most important. Russia, you always have to pay attention to Russia because they've got so many nuclear weapons. But Putin is essentially a disruptor. He is not a-- Russia is not under Putin a long term competitor with the United States. It has significant capacity to disrupt and make trouble. But they are not a long term competitor. And I would say that Putin's Russia is very similar to the Soviet Union in that it is a single dimension power. It is a military power. It's not an economic power. It's not an ideological power, anything.

The one concern that I have where we have a lot of structures in place but I don't think we have policies or the integrated strategy that's necessary is cyber. And we've seen the consequences of this, the colonial pipeline, and so on. And you've got all these different offices in the White House and in the Department of Homeland Security. But it's not clear to me how they tie together and who's actually in charge. And you have a White House cyber czar in the White House who's not even confirmed. And there's no money for him or the person they've nominated to staff people.

And you've got a deputy assistant national security advisor who's supposed to have a role in cyber. You've got a couple of different officers in DHS. But the reality is there's only one entity in the government that has any real capability, and that's the National Security Agency, which belongs to the Department of Defense. And how do these organizations interact within NSA? So that's a huge problem. And it's not a lack of technology on our part to deal with cyber threats. It's a lack of policy and integrated approach.

JOHN DICKERSON: Since you have so much experience working inside administrations, explain to people what happens when there is not coordination. Because people might just think you're talking about flowcharts and that's abstract. Give us a for instance of what it would be like in a national security emergency on cyber when it's so disorganized.

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think you've seen several examples of that fairly recently. And that is we can't respond in real time. And so you have to have somebody who has the authority to act instantaneously. And I thought we had achieved a solution to that in 2010, and an agreement that I had as Secretary of Defense with the Secretary of Homeland Security where Janet Napolitano would actually appoint a deputy director of NSA from DHS who would have the authority to task NSA on a real time basis to protect American companies and American infrastructure. And it basically fizzled. It didn't work. And largely I think because of opposition within DHS.

But there has to be that kind of a solution where somebody is in charge. I'll give you a very quickly an example of where it works. President Bush's project to deal with AIDS in Africa, he didn't create any new structures. What he did though was say, there's-- he appointed an AIDS coordinator in the State Department. But then he said, this coordinator has the control over the budgets of every department that has anything to do with AIDS. So this coordinator actually had the authority to make the entire American government act together and in concert to achieve an objective. And it worked.

JOHN DICKERSON: On cyber also, it seems like you've got a new challenge, which is that the US government doesn't necessarily control all the weaponry of retaliation. Individual companies can choose or not choose to pay ransom to take care of a problem, or to try and respond somehow should they want to. That feels new too.

ROBERT GATES: Well, companies are in no position to retaliate. But they certainly can make retaliation harder by paying ransoms, by doing deals, or basically just by kind of eating the costs and moving forward. So there is a need for a public private partnership here. But it reminds me back in the days when in the Cold War, the Soviet Union was stealing technology left and right. And the FBI and CIA had a program where when we found out that the Soviets were targeting a company in the United States, we would warn that company.

And sometimes we would plan a sting with that company. So there was a public private partnership there that allowed us to counter that. We need something like that in cyber.

JOHN DICKERSON: You worked during the Cold War, during the age of terror. What age are we in now in national security?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think we're in an age of genuine multipolarity. People talked about a multipolar world right after the end of the Cold War. But it was very much a unipolar world because the United States was so incredibly powerful. And there was just no one anywhere close to us. Now there are genuine peer competitors, if you will, mainly China. But you have Russia as I mentioned, you have India, which is another major power. And so I think the United States still retains preeminent power among those.

But it has to operate in a world where there are other power centers that have had real consequence, and where they can cooperate. So Russia and China, who can't stand each other by the way, still are able, Putin and Xi Jinping, are able to cooperate, collaborate against us, vote against us together in the UN, do other things against us. And so we have to think about, how do we apply the power that we have to advance American interests in this new kind of world? And that involves capabilities that go well beyond our military. And we're not really very far along that road.

JOHN DICKERSON: Tell me more about that. In terms of the competition with China, help people understand the timeline that China thinks on, and whether that's consistent with the way American politicians think about timelines.

ROBERT GATES: Well, I always used to say that long term planning in Washington was a week from Thursday. The Chinese think the infamous question put to Chou En-lai, what did you think about the French Revolution? He says, well, I think it's too early to tell. And so they have that kind of a timeline. But I think there is a certain urgency under President Xi. I think Xi wants to bring Hong Kong and Taiwan back under Chinese, mainland Chinese, control while he is still in office, while he is-- that this would be part of his legacy.

So while they normally think in very long terms, and their program is for economic competitiveness. They have goals for 2030, and 2040, and 2050 and so on. And it's not so much a five year plan as it is kind of, here's what we need to do over this period of time. And so we don't have that kind of long term perspective. But they have built capabilities that we once had and have abandoned.

For example, in the early 2000s, Hu Jintao, President Hu Jintao, invested $7 billion in creating a strategic communications capability for China. It allows them to broadcast their message and spread their message all over the world. Our Congress eliminated the United States Information Agency in 1998. And now quote unquote "public diplomacy" sits in a corner of the State Department. And the boss doesn't even report to the Secretary of State. So there's one huge area where the Chinese are very active and aggressive around the world. And we basically have our hands tied.

The economic aspects of the Belt and Road, we have not been able to come up with a strategy that deals with that Belt and Road that would involve again, a public private partnership. How does the US government incentivize our gigantic private sector to invest in developing countries and projects that actually benefit the people of those countries, rather than end up in big white elephant projects?

So there are a lot of aspects of power that the Chinese have built, along with their military power where we're not competitive at this point. And we have to recreate those capabilities.

JOHN DICKERSON: A lot of people are focused on the Olympics in China and saying perhaps the US should not participate. Do you a view on that?

ROBERT GATES: I think what I've been reading is about the right place for it to come out. And that is to allow our athletes to compete, but in essence, diplomatically boycott. So no senior US official's going. I would discourage business leaders from going. Let's let the athletes go, let them compete, but let's not do anything that conveys approbation of the policies of the Chinese government.

JOHN DICKERSON: Joe Biden in his address to Congress basically said America has to become more competitive and invest at home because we are in a global competition with China. Using China as a spur for domestic development in America, do you think that makes sense?

ROBERT GATES: I absolutely do. The Chinese are making huge investments in science and technology. They're devoting huge sums of money for artificial intelligence, for quantum computing, for robotics, you name it. And they intend to be not only self-sustaining, but ultimately have a preeminent role in those sciences, in the decades ahead. And this is an area where during the '50s and '60s, the federal government invested huge amounts of money and really created the opportunities, not only for the vast expansion of the American economy, but for us to have a technological lead over the Soviet Union that at times was probably 10 or 15 years ahead of the Soviets.

So this is an area where a federal investment in basic science, in basic research and development, I think is critically important. And I think that in terms of the long term competition with China, we have to do that.

JOHN DICKERSON: You were a critic of President Biden's before he was president when he was in the vice presidency. But you've said a couple of things you think you agree with in his presidency so far. Are you surprised?

ROBERT GATES: No, not really. I mean, the reality is actually, most of my concerns and criticisms of Senator Biden really had to do with things that he voted on and opposed when in the Cold War because he basically opposed every single initiative Ronald Reagan had in terms of the arms race with the Soviets and various other things.

In the Obama administration, in fact, we probably agreed on almost everything except Afghanistan. Now that was a huge difference. And that was a big deal. But on opposition to going into Libya, we were on exactly the same page. On the way we ought to deal with Mubarak during the Egyptians and others during the Arab Spring, we were on the same page. So and we've always had a friendly relationship. I mean, we're both literally and figuratively old school where you can disagree with people and still respect them and like them.

JOHN DICKERSON: You're about the same age.

ROBERT GATES: Almost exactly.

JOHN DICKERSON: Could you do the job of being president at this age?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I'm getting encouraged so far. I didn't think so a year or two ago. But so far so good.

JOHN DICKERSON: Yeah. You mean you're encouraged by Joe Biden's ability to handle the job?

ROBERT GATES: Yeah.

JOHN DICKERSON: What do you think about his Afghanistan policy withdrawal from Afghanistan?

ROBERT GATES: I probably would have-- first of all, it is an amazingly tough decision. And you now have both a republican and a democratic president basically saying the American people are done with this. We need to come home. And I probably would have taken the same position as Secretary Austin and the Joint Chiefs in encouraging keeping a small group on hand. But at the same time, we have to realize that even with those forces there, the Taliban are gaining ground every single day.

And so even if we were to keep forces there, there's no assurance that the trend line is going to change in terms of the threat to the government in Kabul and the consequences for Afghanistan. I think what's really critical at this point is that we sustain our economic and military assistance to the Afghans after we're gone. When the Soviets pulled their troops out in 1988, their guy Najibullah, the government they installed, actually lasted for three years because of Soviet economic and military assistance.

And it was only when the Soviet Union collapsed and all that aid ended that he fell, that his government collapsed. So if this Afghan government and the improvements we've seen at least in the world of Afghan girls, and women, and participation in society, have a hope, any hope, of being sustained or survive, it's going to be through a continuation of US and allied economic and military assistance.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me take you back to your CIA days and analyzing other countries. If you were analyzing the political structure of the United States as a CIA analyst, and the minority party believed that the majority of the voters in that party believe that the president was illegitimate, how would you assess the stability of the political organization of that country?

ROBERT GATES: I would have serious concerns about the future. I worked for eight presidents. Five of them were republicans. I don't think any of them would recognize the Republican Party today.

JOHN DICKERSON: And what does that mean?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think in terms of the values and the principles that the Republican Party stood for under those five presidents are hard to find these days.

JOHN DICKERSON: You spent a lot of time studying the propaganda of other countries, particularly Russia, and how they used weakness in America to say this ideological struggle with the West, look at America. There's nothing special about it. Do you think that riots on the 6th of January, that the former president saying that Joe Biden stole the election, gives an opportunity to America's enemies to say America is a declining power?

ROBERT GATES: I think there is that. But I think it's also broader than that, John. I think that what you see Xi Jinping saying, and what you saw the Chinese foreign ministers saying in Alaska in his meeting with Tony Blinken, is not only pointing to our paralysis, particularly in the Congress, an inability to get anything really big done, but what happened on January 6, but also the riots last summer, the whole Black Lives Matter, the racism that we see in our society.

Xi Jinping's been very open about saying that he thinks we're a declining power. And the only way to counter that frankly is through actions, through being able to actually get some things done in Washington that we haven't been able to get done for a long time. But it's also, again, it goes back to strategic communications. How do you convey the message to the rest of the world? Yeah, we're a flawed country. We've always had flaws. But we're unique in that we're the only country that actually talks about those flaws and actually works to try and fix them.

We are an aspirational country. And we've kind of lost that message it seems to me.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you along those lines an even perhaps more abstract question. But you have dedicated your life and seen the power of the American idea to basically shape the world, to shape democratic institutions, the care for human rights. America kind of design the global order. It's built on an idea. If there is a debate in America over whether the last election was legitimate, 70% of republicans believe it was not.

How does a country that can't even agree on that basic obvious truth ever get behind more abstract truths like sacrificing for democracies in places that you don't know about, sacrificing for helping developing countries because it's in our interests, all of which are ideas which require belief in those ideas? How does a country believe in those more abstract ideas when it can't even come to an agreement on something that's quite concrete?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think that this is actually one of the places where I think our military has made a contribution. Because the one thing I think across the ideological spectrum that brings people together is when they see young people taking on the uniform of our military services and they're taking an oath to the Constitution and being willing to put their lives on the line for this abstract thing called the United States of America and its Constitution.

That brings people together. And it's why the military to this day remains perhaps the most respected institution in the country, because it's seen by people as not being part of politics. It's what the country represents. And the problem is figuring out how politicians-- I talked about Biden and it being old school and that you could disagree with people and still be friends and work together. We need more of that on Capitol Hill.

Now in terms of the election and so on, I've read quotes from republicans on the Hill that basically say in their heart of hearts, there probably aren't five people up here that actually believe that the election was stolen.

So part of this is political gaming rather than a real conviction that the election was stolen. But how that manifests itself in the next election, I think, is going to be a challenge.

JOHN DICKERSON: Isn't that playing footsie with some very dangerous stuff?

ROBERT GATES: Totally. It's very dangerous.

JOHN DICKERSON: You know the Cheney family. What did you make of Liz Cheney's stand and then ultimate ejection from republican leadership?

ROBERT GATES: I thought she was very courageous. She's a person of real integrity. Internal politics on the Hill is another matter though.

JOHN DICKERSON: Yeah, well you were always quite skeptical of the Hill I assume. I mean, could you operate?

ROBERT GATES: As I wrote in one of my books, Congress is best seen from a distance because up close, it's pretty ugly.

JOHN DICKERSON: And you're about as far from Congress where you're living now. It's not gotten any prettier.

ROBERT GATES: No, it's gotten a lot uglier actually. Yeah.

JOHN DICKERSON: Unless we solve that problem, do you think we can solve any of these other big challenges?

ROBERT GATES: I think it would be very difficult. And I think that that problem, which now stretches back-- it goes back much further than 2016, 2017. This goes back 20 years or more of demonizing the other party and of not having friends on the other side of the aisle, of not socially gathering after hours and talking about things, and having friends, and during the election, and particularly during the primaries, former Vice President Biden was criticized by some of his democratic competitors for some of the people he associated with during his long time in the Senate.

But that's the way it actually works is when people who are at opposite ends of the spectrum can still go out and have a drink together or bring their families together. That's when you leach the hatred and the venom out of the relationship and you can focus on policies. And once you're focused on policies, then you can figure out a way to compromise.

JOHN DICKERSON: Last question. As you look back on your career and look at what's happening in the world now and in America now, are you more certain than ever in a few things? Or do you think those things I was once quite certain about are now more up for grabs.

ROBERT GATES: I think that the things that I believe about our country, I'm more certain of that they are important and that they are worth fighting and dying for. The stuff that I've become less certain about I think is more peripheral. And when it comes to new technologies, I'm totally uncertain.

JOHN DICKERSON: What would you put in that category that's worth fighting and dying for for you?

ROBERT GATES: The essence of this country, I think, is that we're all in it for each other. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. And the notion that those kids go out, and they put on their body armor, and they fight, and they die, they die for a country that hangs together for a country that despite whatever differences people may have, we're all Americans. And that's something pretty special. And when you become so tribal that the tribe has become more important than the country, that's when we're in trouble.

So it's this notion that underneath all of the turmoil and all of the politics, there is still some sense of us as a community of people who believe in the same things in terms of liberty and opportunity and so on I think is critically important. And equality of opportunity.

JOHN DICKERSON: Secretary Gates, thank you.

ROBERT GATES: Thanks, John.