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Robert Gates Says Guard Was 'Essential'

The Soldiers were pivotal in the military's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the former secretary of defense
During his farewell ceremony as defense secretary in June 2011, Gates was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, who called him “one of the nation’s finest public servants.” Photos from AP


Spanning a career spent in the front seat of American defense policy since the height of the Cold War, Robert M. Gates, Ph.D., worked with presidents, generals and admirals, making many tough decisions for the good of the country. In his interview with GX, Gates, now the chancellor of the College of William and Mary, touches on his role as director of the CIA from 1991 to 1993, as well as his role as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, when he made history as the first defense secretary to serve under both a Republican and Democratic president. His memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, is scheduled to be released on Jan. 14, 2014.

What inspired you to join the Air Force in 1966?

When I was looking toward finishing my master’s degree—it was in Russian and Soviet studies—I was approached at the Indiana University campus by a CIA recruiter. I agreed to do the interview mainly so I could get a free trip to Washington, DC, and ultimately, they made me an offer. The catch was that this was at the height of the Vietnam buildup, and the CIA offered no draft deferment. So they insisted, as part of the hiring process, that I go through Officer Candidate School, Officer Training School for the Air Force, and then serve at least a year at an Active Duty base.

What were some of the challenges you encountered as CIA director?

The Soviet Union was collapsing. They had been our primary enemy and target for the entire existence of the CIA. Dealing with the Soviets probably accounted for two-thirds of the intelligence community’s expenditure. So the key challenge was how [to] reorient the American intelligence enterprise away from this single-minded focus on the Soviet Union to deal with all the other problems that were emerging from the end of the Cold War.

How did your time as director of the CIA prepare you for becoming secretary of defense?

Leading and running a large federal bureaucracy was important in terms of my skills and my ability to lead change at the Department of Defense. Particularly in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, there was a gap between the military and the intelligence community that had grown up after Vietnam. And so one of my challenges as director was to reconnect the CIA and the military. I appointed the No. 3 guy in the clandestine service as a military officer, and I worked that out with Colin Powell, who was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And I began this process of bringing the military and intelligence together. We saw that in the fusion of intelligence and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What were some of the challenges you encountered as secretary of defense, going from President Bush to President Obama, facing a whole new political climate?

On the issues, there really weren’t that many differences, which made it easier for me. With the signing of the Strategic Framework Agreement with the Iraqis, President Bush really laid the path out of Iraq … and [Obama’s administration] knew we were coming out in December of 2011. Similarly, in Afghanistan, toward the end, as we were beginning to draw down in Iraq, we began to have the forces available to shift more troops to Afghanistan. That’s the direction President Bush was headed and clearly the direction that President Obama took up. Stylistically, there were a couple of things that were different. One is that I was only three years older than President Bush but 20 years older than President Obama. And a lot of the people in senior staff positions around the White House had been in high school or in college when I was director of Central Intelligence. So I was sort of the geezer in the administration. My nickname at the White House was Yoda. My whole outlook was shaped by the Cold War, and, I would say, by bipartisanship in foreign policy and national security. [The younger people in the administration] had a very different experience. But the presidents were both very generous and very easy for me to work with.

When you were coming on as secretary of defense, the National Guard made up about 40 to 60 percent of combat forces in Iraq. How crucial was the Guard’s presence there to the success of that mission?

It was absolutely essential. Frankly, I was worried about the Guard enough so that, in my initial interview with President Bush in early November 2006, it was one of the half-dozen issues I raised with him. I said, you know, I feel like we’ve pulled a bait and switch on the Guard, that they had signed up, particularly those who had signed up before 9/11, you know, to train during the summer, to spend time each month, be called up for local disasters or in the event of a national emergency. And what had happened was that we had turned the Guard into an operational force in a way that not they, nor their families, nor their employers, ever counted on, that they would be gone—absent a huge national crisis—for a year or 15 months. Two of the biggest decisions I made in the first months I was in office were, first, that Guard units would deploy as a unit and, second, that their total deployments would be limited to a year. I think it’s fair to say those decisions were pretty well received.

With budget cuts and drawdowns in Afghanistan, what do you believe is the Guard’s role in the future?

Particularly with the increasingly dramatic reductions in the Active force, I think more and more responsibility will fall to the Guard as an operational force. The question is: Do we have two kinds of Guard? A strategic reserve Guard that is trained and paid in one way and an operational Guard that is trained, equipped and paid a different way? I don’t know the answer, but what I do believe, and with considerable confidence, is the role of the Guard will increase as the size of the Active force decreases.

What was the toughest decision you faced as secretary of defense?

The single most difficult decision, the one that haunted me, was the decision to go to 15-month tours in the CENTCOM AOR [U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility]. I knew we didn’t have any choice. The Army told me there were only two options with the surge in Iraq. Either we gave the troops less time at home, or we extended their deployments overseas. I really wrestled with that and finally took the recommendation of the military leadership that I had to do it. But I knew in my heart how difficult that was going to be for the troops, for their families, and, in the case of the Guard, a problem for their employers. One of my young military assistants said, “You know the problem with fifteen-month tours is it’s more than just twelve plus three. … It brings into effect the law of twos. You miss two birthdays, two Christmases, two Thanksgivings.” That was the toughest for me.

It is evident you were very passionate about the troops. What do you see when you look at the young men and women in uniform today? 

For some, it’s a career. For all, it’s a calling. What I would see when I would go [overseas and visit the troops] was one set of Americans in the age group 18 to 25 who, in essence, had put their dreams on hold to protect the dreams of young people who were still back at home. I felt strongly about that, having been a president of a huge university [Texas A&M, from 2002 to 2006]. I went overnight from seeing the same-age kids in T-shirts, shorts, backpacks and flip-flops, and, all of a sudden, they’re in full body armor carrying an assault rifle and living in horrible conditions. I never forgot about the sacrifice those young people were making. … I never lost sight of the sacrifice both they and their families were making to do their duty. And that gave me the idea of the title for my book, Duty.

You were instrumental in the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Why was that so important for you?

I shared the views of the [Joint] Chiefs at the time that there was so much stress on the troops fighting two wars, we knew we had to change, but I would have preferred to do it when there was less stress on the force. … I felt we had to move when we did, or the courts were going to force us to do this in a way that I thought was very dangerous—with no training, no preparation, no sense of how the troops felt about it or the issues that we would need to address to mitigate their concerns.

We’ve opened up combat MOSs to females. Will that make a better Army, a better Navy, a better Marines?

I think it will. First, women have been in combat. I remember meeting with a unit in a forward operating base in Afghanistan, and they wanted more women because, as they were patrolling, they needed women with them to go into the houses or to search the Afghan women and so on. They just couldn’t do that. And so one of the complaints of the young women that I ran into in those FOBs was, “You’ve got to give us combat training because we’re doing combat roles. We’re out there on patrol with these other Soldiers, these male Soldiers; but we have no training in combat.” And you’ve got combat helicopter pilots. So women have played a role in combat in a lot of ways that have sort of been "under the radar." I think the key is, I agree with what the Chiefs have said. I think the critical thing for everybody is to have confidence that there’s no slackening of the requirements of what skills and what capabilities one has to have in combat because other people’s lives depend on every member of a patrol or of a unit being able to do the job and do all of the different kinds of jobs. So I think that, with that sole reservation, I think it’s important to move ahead; but there should not be any dilution of the standards that are required in combat operations, because lives depend on it.

Of all your trips overseas to visit the troops, what would be the most memorable moment that stands out in your mind?

I learned from every one of them. I was encouraging [a Soldier in a combat outpost in Afghanistan] to be honest with me, and he said, “Well, to tell you the truth, the crotches of the ACUs are too weak. They rip out when we’re crossing fences and stuff. You know, it’s OK in the summertime, but it gets a little breezy in the wintertime.” I would have never heard about that sitting in the Pentagon.

How important is it for the leadership to touch base with their Soldiers, off the cuff?

It’s absolutely critical. The people in uniform need to see their leadership. They need to get a sense of whether that leader has a passion for them and their mission, their well-being, and the confidence that that leader will do whatever is necessary, and break down whatever barriers, whatever political issues, to get them what they need. They need the confidence that somebody’s got their back. When I would get out of Washington and interact with these young people, it made all the difference in the world to me. I don’t know how much difference it made to them, but it made a heck of a difference to me.

You mentioned leadership. You also mentioned Colin Powell. You’ve worked with eight presidents, handfuls of generals. What’s the common theme of leadership that you see in all these individuals?

I think there are two aspects to it. There are many, many aspects to it, but the two that strike me as significant are, first of all, the people that have impressed me as leaders are people who put the interests of the country and the interests of the people who work for them ahead of their own self-interest. And so they’re always trying to figure out: "How do you serve the country? How do you serve all those troops working for you and see to their well-being, see to the well-being of the country rather than your own selfish interest?" I think another big aspect of it is that—I remember reading in Colin Powell’s latest book that he never recalled giving a direct order to anybody. I think that’s, in a way, the essence of a leader. It is a leader who has moral authority to persuade people to follow, inspires people to follow because they know it’s the right thing because they have confidence in that leader. And so I think the people who are the most blustery, the people who are hardest to work for in many respects, are not those that I put in the forefront of leaders. I would say that, of all the presidents that I worked for, at one time or another, all of them put the national interest above their own specific political interest.