A man stands in rubble after a NATO airstrike in Tripoli, Libya, June 2011
Moises Saman / The New York Times / Redux

Foreign Affairs LIVE: A Conversation With Robert M. Gates




Across the political spectrum, there is a belief that post–Cold War U.S. presidents have turned too often to the military to resolve challenges abroad. How could the United States move away from relying too heavily on the military as a tool of foreign policy, and strike a new balance to maintain a position of leadership?

Join Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass for a conversation with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on how the United States should strengthen and wield its nonmilitary powers.

For further reading, see “The Overmilitarization of American Foreign Policy” by Robert M. Gates in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, "The World After the Pandemic."


Robert M. Gates

Robert M. Gates

Robert M. Gates is the author of Duty, and A Passion for Leadership. He served as secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was an officer in the United States Air Force and worked for the CIA before being appointed director of the agency. A member of the National Security Council staff in four administrations, he served eight presidents of both political parties. He was president of Texas A&M University from 2002 to 2006, is currently chancellor of the College of William & Mary, was national president of the Boy Scouts of America from 2014 to 2016, and has served on several corporate boards of directors. In 2018 he became chairman of Eisenhower Fellowships. He lives in Washington state.

 Richard N. Haass - Presider

Richard N. Haass - Presider

Dr. Richard N. Haass is a veteran diplomat, a prominent voice on American foreign policy, and an established leader of nonprofit institutions. He is in his eighteenth year as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution dedicated to being a resource to help people better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.


RICHARD N. HAASS: Well, thank you, Sam. Welcome everyone. Hope and trust you are well and safe under the circumstances we find ourselves in. I could not be happier than to welcome Bob Gates with us today. Full disclosure, Bob and I have worked together and have been friends now for more than three decades. Despite that, I will give him a hard time today. He is the author of a new book, titled Exercise of Power. Subtitle is American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World. Bob has had an extraordinary career. It's often said people have careers of public service, Bob really has. It exemplifies, personifies, I think the best. He served in the military, served in the intelligence community, rose through the ranks. All in all worked for eight American presidents. That's eight out of forty-five. That's a significant percentage. And he held the post. He was DCI, director of central intelligence, and was also, as you all know, secretary of defense and what I think was particularly special about, it spanned two administrations of different parties. And if there's anything that exemplifies public service, and bipartisanship, it is just that. So Bob, welcome from the other Washington and it's great to see you.

ROBERT M. GATES: Thanks for inviting me.

HAASS: Happy to. So don't want to focus on the title because the title is exercise of power and I assume this is not an exercise book. So not by itself, and you never know.

GATES: Either that or a diet book.

HAASS: Exactly. That reminds me of Kissinger's old book, The Troubled Partnership, and was found in the marital help section of many book stores. But the subtitle talks about American failures and successes in post-Cold War period. Before we delve into individual failures and successes, let's take a step back and grade the United States as a whole. Thirty years ago, we emerged really in an unparalleled, in many ways, unprecedented, position. Today, three decades later, it is hard to say we have improved upon it. It's almost— it's the old joke about how do you get a, you know, get a small fortune? You start with a big one. It seems to me— is that the story of American foreign policy in this period? That we essentially began with the big fortune, and we've managed to invest into a small one?

GATES: I think so in many respects, and I think part of it probably was due to a certain level of hubris at the end of the Cold War, as you suggest. I mean, and as I write in the book, I don't think there's been a country that's so dominated the globe, economically, politically, culturally, militarily, since the Roman Empire, as we did in early 1993. And I think in the absence of any superpower rival or even great power rival, United States, in many respects, under both President Clinton and President Bush in particular, felt that they could change the world, felt that the time had come for us to spread American values and to try to recreate our democratic system around the world and it led us into, I think, a number of misadventures. Some of them were probably— were, in fact, militarily necessary.

For example, getting rid of the regime and the Taliban regime and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. But then going ahead and thinking that it was important for us to leave Afghanistan better than we found it and to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Same thing in Somalia with the— and in Haiti with the Clinton Administration. What was originally a very successful military rescue effort, basically, to prevent famine in Somalia and to prevent chaos in Haiti, became more elevated missions to try and change the form of governance and the societies in those countries and in every one of these cases that I think led us to embrace objectives that were unrealistic and far too ambitious and we invested huge amounts of treasure and lives in trying to make that come to pass. And I think it contributed significantly to kind of where we are today because among other things, we exhausted the patience of the American people.

HAASS: Is it fair, though, to say then you had first with President Clinton, then with Bush 43, and then followed by Presidents Obama and Trump, we had two presidents who history would put in the category of overeaters, and now we've had two presidents who by and large would fit into the category of under-reachers?

GATES: I think, you know, in in broad strokes, I think that's probably true, I think, and one way I characterize it is, in the book, is that Bush and Clinton were more in the in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson in terms of spreading democracy, making the world safe for democracy and aggressively doing so, whereas Obama was more of a of a John Quincy Adams type of sort of bringing America home, if you will, and turning to domestic priorities and sort of being the city on the hill. I'm not quite sure how to characterize the Trump Administration in that category, but they certainly, in terms of foreign adventures, have been much more cautious than either Clinton or Bush were.

HAASS: I think my math is right, Bob, you did fifteen kind of essentially case studies, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, former Yugoslavia, Libya, what have you. When you look back on all of them, what— are there any that you would say these were clear successes, or these were— these are textbook failures when you look— how would you sort them at all?

GATES: I would, I would say in a couple of categories.

First of all, initially in Somalia, and Initially in Iraq and Afghanistan, we had tremendous military success. We achieved our objectives. And we achieved them fairly quickly. And at really very low cost. It was when we became more ambitious that the costs began to skyrocket. I'd say there were two, in the book I described two what I consider out and out successes.

One was Plan Colombia, which, in terms of its objectives to reduce the supply of narcotics from Colombia was a failure. But in terms of rescuing the Colombian government from being a narco state and being taken over by left wing insurrectionists, like the FARC, we actually played a significant role in rescuing that government. And the secrets of success were, first of all, we had a very strong local partner and President Uribe who was interested in strengthening their own institutions and willing to carry the fight himself and using his own people and his own troops. You had a Congress that limited— that exercised its responsibility and limited the size of the American commitment to four hundred troops initially and finally agreed to eight hundred. But it was still a very low cap, which meant we wouldn't do the fighting ourselves. We would be training the Colombians to do it. And the entire operation in Colombia was run by the State Department. The Defense Department part was subordinated to the State Department and other parts of the government were very much involved. The Justice Department over the 10 year period of Plan Colombia, trained something like 40,000 Colombian judges. So you had, you truly had multiple elements of the government pulling together under the auspices of the State Department and a very limited U.S. role. And as I say we were successful in in restoring democ—- a democratic government in Colombia. But a key, the key there was a strong local partner.

And another success, I think. And again, in the non military arena, was President Bush's initiative to deal with HIV/AIDS in in Africa. And it had in common with Colombia bipartisan support that was sustained through three presidencies, through more than three presidencies, actually, and before, and President Bush literally saved tens of millions of lives in Africa through this program, but it had strong bipartisan support in the Congress. And the key there, institutionally, was that multiple parts of the U.S. government had responsibilities or a piece of the action on dealing with HIV/AIDS. But what the president did was empower a single coordinator in the State Department and say he's in charge, and he's got budgetary authority, and he's got programmatic authority. So he, this coordinator in the State Department, had the authority, thanks to the president to pull all the disparate elements of the government together so that we have one coordinated effort. And the same thing.

The other piece that I've just mentioned quickly was the creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was a new way of doing foreign assistance that brought much greater accountability into it, that had much more local input into what the projects would be, and so on. And that was a tremendous success as well.

HAASS: If Iraq was on your short list of failures, and certainly among the greater failures, and you had some others as well, including Libya, you just talked about some of the secrets or ingredients to success, what would you list as the secrets or ingredients of a failure? What are the negative lessons?

GATES: I think that the overarching aspect of this would be asking the military to do missions that were fundamentally not military. The— when we decided to expand the mission, when the president decided to expand the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan from the military operation at the beginning, in both cases of which we were very successful, expanded that to nation building, he essentially was, first of all, asking the military to undertake a task for which it was not trained or equipped.

And second, didn't take full recognition of the weakness of the nonmilitary elements of American power that I write about, whether it's the U.S. Agency for International Development or strategic communications or the ability to deliver support in these countries. You know, the disparity between the number of military in Iraq, for example, and the number of civilians in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams was pretty extraordinary. At the height of the surge, we had 170,000 troops in Iraq, and we're trying to do the mission, the nation building mission, and there are three hundred sixty civilians in the Provincial Reconstruction Team. So it's that disparity in capabilities. And so the military was being asked to do things that, as I say, they just that they weren't prepared to do. And so that leads to one of the conclusions of the book, which is because we weakened all of the nonmilitary instruments of power after the end of the Cold War, we ended up with a very strong military, and so presidents overmilitarized our foreign policy, mainly because the other instruments were so weak. They turned to the military to do things that, in reality, were not the responsibility or the mission of the military.

HAASS: So implicit in what you just said, almost explicit, is that one of the correctives going forward, besides being more careful in how and how often we use the military has got to be to strengthen the other instruments and institutions of American foreign policy.

GATES: I mean, there's a line that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail is really characteristic of this. But I also make the argument that while I believe that diplomacy and development and these other instruments of power need to be better funded and be more robust, they also need to be reformed and restructured. No, we're operating under a National Security Act of 1947 that as far as I'm concerned is well past its use by date, and for the 21st Cen— that was— that kind— that created the structure in which we waged the Cold War. We need a new kind of national security structure today. For example, the National Security Act does not— of 1947 provides no seat at the table for anyone having anything to do with international economics. And for that to be the case in 2020, to me is just ridiculous. So there needs to be, I think, a restructuring before you begin to throw additional resources at these different capabilities. We need to reform them and get the structure right before making them more robust.

HAASS: Okay, I want to jump ahead of myself here, just because you mentioned the word structure, one of the big restructurings after the Cold War and after 9/11 was the restructuring of the intelligence community, something you know an awful lot about. Looking back at what's now happened in fifteen or so years since it was restructured, was this a good idea and should it be kept?

GATES: I think it was a terrible idea. In fact, I wrote a memo to the Senate. The government affairs committees were handling this in 2004 and I wrote a letter from outside of government. I was president of Texas A&M at the time. I wrote a sixteen-page letter to Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins at the time, pointing out the— what I saw as the weaknesses of what they were proposing, and proposing an alternative and how you could struck— re— how you could strengthen the director of central intelligence to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish, but without adding another layer of bureaucracy. And without diffusing authority. And you know, it made— it had no traction and, you know, President Bush, through Steve Hadley and Andy Card in January 2005, asked me to become the first director of national intelligence and after really wrestling with it for a couple of weeks, I turned them down. And part of the reason was I want— I didn't want to go back to Washington, but part of the reason was that I— they had— they were basically asking me to try and make something work that I believed couldn't work.

HAASS: Let’s go back to the beginning of the period you wrote about which was the end of the Cold War. You began your career as a Russian— as a Soviet expert. That's really what you were steeped in. Did you ever think in your lifetime professionally or just your time on this planet, you would see the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union?

GATES: No, no, I— one of the sort of strange things about my life is I joined CIA in 1966, sort of just do my bit during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. I studied the Soviet Union and Russia. And I really did believe along with President Reagan that it was the evil empire and the notion that I would be director of central intelligence when the Soviet Union collapsed was— would have been a fantasy. I, you know, it was easy. It was always easy to predict that the Soviet Union would collapse. The difficult question was when. And that was a hard question. But and you know, in a way, I think CIA has taken a bad— has gotten a bad rap on this because— that somehow they missed the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I was sitting in the Oval Office with a CIA analyst, and I was actually at the NSC. I was, well, no, I was the deputy director of CIA, but I was actually in the Oval Office in the fall of 1985. Before Reagan's first meeting with Gorbachev, when he was being briefed by CIA and I'll never forget the CIA analysts telling President Reagan in '85, the Soviet Union cannot survive the degree of alienation, the economic circumstances, the old regime cannot last. And this is not something in the far distant future. This is in the relatively near term. No, couldn't pick a date. But so I, you know, I think it was an extraordinary thing that had happened during that period.

HAASS: And if you're going to attribute causality, to what extent was it because of Gorbachev, by design, but also by getting his sequencing and the rest wrong? To what extent was because of what we did? How will history essentially account for the end of the Cold War? And when it happened, how it happened, in the dissolution of the Soviet Empire?

GATES: I think there were three elements to it, Richard. The first was the inherent contradictions in the Soviet system itself. And the deep— I mean, CIA first started reporting on serious economic problems in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. So this was not— the decline, if you will, was a long slope. So that was one piece of it.

A second piece clearly was Gorbachev and I wrote in an earlier book, in a way Gorbachev himself didn't understand the roots of Soviet power. He didn't understand the degree to which the authority of the Soviet government depended on fear and terror. And once he took away the fear and the terror, and especially when it came to the nationalities, the Ukrainians and the Baltic states and so on, then then the dissolution was almost inevitable at that point.

And again, it was a question of timing. I think the third piece which affected the timing, whereas the strategy of President Reagan and really turning the screws on the Soviet Union economically— we probably never had such stringent rules and restrictions in terms of technology transfer, and so on. But in addition to that, you had Reagan's military buildup, which at a time of Soviet weakness basically challenged them to spend what we were spending and they couldn't afford it. So I think Reagan's policies probably accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don’t— I think it's hard to say it caused it. But I firmly believe that that he accelerated it. And one of the things about both Bush and Reagan that's important is that they avoided taking actions which could have provoked the hardliners in the Kremlin from throwing Gorbachev out early. If Bush—

HAASS: Forty-one, just to be clear, Bush 41.

GATES: Yeah, Bush 41. You know, the coup attempt against Gorbachev failed in August of 1991. Had that coup attempt been made in the fall of 1989, for example, as Eastern Europe was falling apart, was becoming free, I think it very likely would have succeeded. The— I mean there was no precedent in Soviet history for the KGB, the army, and the party to act against the party leader and fail. So I think one of the contributions ironically that both Reagan and Bush 41 made, was in the careful way they handled the problems of the Soviet Union, they avoided providing a private provocation that would have been used by the hardliners to sideline Gorbachev. You know, if Yuri Andropov had lived, we might still be facing a declining Soviet Union.

HAASS: But here we are. Mr. Andropov did not live. There was a period of short lived general secretaries, if I remember correctly.

GATES: (Laughs.) Yeah, Reagan's line read, a lot of critics of Reagan were saying, you know, you need to establish a relationship with these Soviet leaders. And his response was, well, they keep dying on me.

HAASS: (Laughs.) It's a complicating factor. But here we are three decades later. And yes, U.S.-Russia relations could be worse, but not much worse. And the question I have: was it inevitable? Was it— is it that we mishandled these thirty years in terms of our relations with Russia? Was this inevitable given everything from Putin's personality to Russian political culture? How do you account for this really steady decline in U.S.-Russia relations over these three decades?

GATES: Well, I have a full chapter in the book on Russia and where I go into that into this and in considerable detail and to cut to the chase. My view is there's very little we could have done to change the course of events in Russia. During the period, during the 1990s, the chaos, the failed attempts at reform, having someone as unstable and often not sober as Boris Yeltsin. And but more importantly, the chaos that accompanied the collapse and the degree of corruption and the way the oligarchs assembled power, essentially stealing whole industries as the Soviet Union fell apart. And that coupled with an assertion of authority by the regions, by the regional governors in Russia because the center was so weak, set the stage in Russia for the rise of an authoritarian, somebody— I mean, the Russians hate chaos, they hate anarchy, they hate disorder. And what Putin promised was to bring order again to Russia and so he first acted against the oligarchs to bring them under control. And then he acted against the regional governors. Now, this guy is a natural born authoritarian.

As Madeleine Albright, I think, wrote at one point, he didn't have a democratic bone in his body. So I think the path of Russia really was determined by developments inside Russia. And there's very little we could have done. And I talked a lot about the assistance that the U.S. provided and the West provided to Russia in the early 90s, and so on, and literally billions of dollars in Western aid just disappearing overnight. And so I think that the path that Russia chose was determined primarily by developments inside Russia itself. And as Putin became more and more authoritarian, the relationship by— with the United States would inevitably worsen.

HAASS: So you grew up during the Cold War, you're a scholar of it, you're a practitioner during it, and here we are: 2020. And the phrase’s being bandied about with increasing frequency, except it's in the context of the United States and China. How comfortable are you as a former analyst with trying to talk about either the reality or the possibility of a U.S.-Chinese Cold War? Do you think given the legacy of that term, it enlightens or distorts?

GATES: I think it distorts. I think— I— in this respect, I think that we do face and again, I have a chapter on China in the book. In fact, it's the last major example that I cite. There is no question that we face decades of competition, rivalry, with China ahead. And I think part of the reaction in the U.S. has been the realization in all honesty, that we made a couple of strategic mistakes. We believed that a richer China would become a freer China. We believed that for forty years, and the chapter with China opens with quotes from every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama saying just that. And we also didn’t— we failed to kind of grasp that a richer China would also become a more assertive China.

The worry that I have is that Xi Jinping could bring the Republicans and the Democrats together in the American Congress at this point. And my worry is, you know, we don't do nuanced very well in the American government. And my worry is we're going to move too far toward hostility. And what— the words I'd like, actually, from the Cold War that I would like to hear somebody say, on our side and on their side, is the need for peaceful coexistence. And we are going to be in a rivalry with these guys for a long time. And it's a no kidding kind of rivalry. It would be military, economic, political, for influence and power and markets. This is the real deal.

But we also have to find a way to keep this competition peaceful. And we have to find ways and certain areas, even as we did with the Soviet Union, where we could work together on problems in common and terrorism is a good example. The environment would be another. I mean, there are several where you can identify some things, concerns that we have in common. But we don't want the U.S.-Chinese relationship to end up where the U.S.-Soviet relationship was in the early 1960s. We have to avoid a military competition— I mean a military confrontation.

HAASS: Agreed. Do you think we got it wrong? About Xi Jinping? When one looks at Deng Xiaoping and his model of Chinese development and his approach to China's external behavior. And you now look, in particular what's happened over the last six months, did we collectively, the United States, misread Xi Jinping badly, and as a result, we're now dealing with a China that many people missed coming?

GATES: Well, I think we probably assumed, with his rise to power. I met him when he was the number two when I was there in January of 2011, the secretary of defense. And I suspect that we thought there would be continuity within the system that Deng Xiaoping had established of collective leadership and limiting the leader to two terms. Deng Xiaoping set this up so that we— they wouldn't take the risk of another Mao who kind of, going totally off the rails, inflicted such incredible harm on China, both through the Great Leap Forward and through the Cultural Revolution. And I think the way Deng had set it up, actually, and particularly with his hide and bide strategy of, you know, let's just quietly build our strength. That would have continued to be I think, the better strategy for China because it kind of lulled us into not being very aggressive toward China and allowing things to go on that, because they hadn't been brought to a crisis point, we chose not to push.

For example, the structural imbalances in the economic relationship. Why didn't any of the previous presidents try and challenge that in a serious way and using the kinds of sanctions that President Trump has tried and so on? So I think that we thought Xi would be like his predecessors. And what we didn't realize was that actually his predecessors set in motion many of the capabilities that China has developed today.

For example, it was President Hu that set aside seven billion dollars to create and strengthen China's strategic communications capability. Seven billion dollars. We dismantled the United States Information Agency in 1998. We don't have anything comparable to what the Chinese have. So, and it was under Jiang Zemin and Hu that the Chinese military began to modernize. It’s when they laid the keel of their brand new domestically produced aircraft carrier. It was under President Hu they developed the strategic stealthy fighter the J20.

So this didn't all begin with Xi and what Xi has done is overturn the political arrangements that Deng Xiaoping had put in place and when you have a singular leader like that, if you make a mistake, it's going to be a doozy. And what he's done through the aggressiveness of his action in this so-called wolf warrior diplomacy and all the other and the aggressiveness in the South China Sea and toward Hong Kong and so on is just, is turn the West, bring together, not only the parties in the U.S., but many in the West, in seeing China as a very hostile force rather than just another competitor.

HAASS: Well, we've got a lot of Council on Foreign Relations members on the call and a lot of subscribers and readers of Foreign Affairs magazine. I'm just gonna ask one last question. And then I'm gonna open it up to all of them. I can't resist, which is you worked on any number of National Security Councils and you and I worked on one together when a gentleman named Brent Scowcroft was running it. You mentioned before that you would try to expand the statutory membership of the NSC. What do you take from your experience over these years and over these thirty years or longer when you look at the workings of the U.S. government when it comes to the making and execution of foreign and defense policy? What are your to-dos and what are your to-avoids?

GATES: I think the first thing is in the attentiveness of the president to national security matters, and the willingness of the president to surround himself with strong and confident people and listen to them. And I was fortunate, I think all of the presidents that I worked for were comfortable enough in their own skin that they surrounded themselves with strong and independent people who would speak their minds. And that certainly was my experience, both in Bush 43 and Obama experience— administrations when I was secretary. Certainly true under Reagan and Bush 41. So I think President Clinton had some strong people around him, Madeleine Albright and others.

So the key is a president surrounding himself with strong people who were knowledgeable and capable. And then being willing to listen to disparate points of view and then make up his own mind. I think another aspect of it is also personalities, you know, I write in the book, most of the time I was in government, and particularly when I was at the NSC, the secretaries of state and defense didn't get along very well. In the in the Reagan administration, Cap Weinberger and George Shultz at times weren't even speaking to one another. Having senior officials who get along and disagree, are willing to disagree with each other but are still friends, is critically important. And I think the best example of that was probably in the Bush 41 administration where you had Dick Cheney, a secretary of defense, and Jim Baker, a secretary of state. These two guys disagreed with each other all the time, but then they go off fishing together in Wyoming. So when you have that kind of compatibility, it makes decision making a lot better and I think, is a better formula for success. The final point I'd make—

HAASS: Actually, before you make your final point, Bob, I'm just gonna point out that you overlook the critical detail that when you go fishing, you don't have to talk to each other. (Laughs.)

GATES: (Laughs.) There's that too. But I the other point I would make is, if I had one piece of advice to give to presidents, it would be in choosing your team, think of it as a team. You know, most presidents will pick you know, pick this guy as a person as secretary of state, this person is secretary of defense and so on. And they don't think of how these people are going to work together as a team. And I think that's really critical.

HAASS: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary. We're going to open it up again to our many participants from  the worlds of the Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs. So, Sam, over to you, sir.

STAFF: (Gives queueing instructions.) We will take the first question from Daniel Runde.

Q: Thanks very much for hosting this. I'm Dan Runde. I'm at CSIS. I bought the book. I bought it retail. I read the book cover to cover. It's excellent I wanted to reference the fact that you had been president of Texas A&M, and you're now chancellor at William and Mary. One of the sources of American power is our international education. You make some reference to it in your section about science and technology. There have been literally millions of folks who have studied in the United States, that are getting MBAs or law degrees or PhDs in agriculture or public health or— a lot of that in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, funded by USAID and over time, that's been reduced and probably too greatly reduced. There's been significant worry recently about too many students from China studying in the United States. And I think there's a legitimate concern about that. But I wonder if there's perhaps an overshooting on worrying about having too many Chinese students. I think over time having the Chinese elite study in the United States and then over time make their way into joining the Politburo and other things. I think something like two members of the current Politburo have studied overseas, that will change the face of China. So could you talk about the role of international— American international education as a source of our power? And could you talk and reflect a little bit about in particular, either around China, there's also been some discussion about international students around COVID right now. I'll stop there. Thank you.

GATES: I think that the programs to bring students from abroad to the United States, and I would add, send American students abroad are critically important. And I believe that— and I think it's important that we have Chinese students here and expose them to what American life is like and see what real freedom is like. I do believe there are legitimate concerns. And— but I think that the attitude of most university officials is— to the American government is— rather than with a broad brushstroke of saying no one coming from China can study science or engineering in the United States, if they have a security concern about someone, or if there is a specific field in which they are worried about this— our security officials are worried about Chinese students picking up sensitive information, then it's up to the security officials to deny them entrance in the first place. But it ought be on a case by case basis, not just saying, you know, no one can study these particular subjects.

And because, you know, you mentioned agriculture and public health, I mean, one of the concerns that I have right now is that for the first time in dealing with a pandemic, or even an epidemic, the United States is going it alone instead of trying to organize international support. So I think in a lot of these fields that's important to allow Chinese and other students to come here. We have to be very mindful that there are security risks. I used to joke when we had exchange programs with students from the Soviet Union, that we would send twenty-three year olds— we would send twenty year olds over to Moscow to study Pushkin, and they would send forty year olds over here to study physics and nuclear physics. And so I think we have to be mindful and careful about that. But I think you deal with that on a case by case basis and subject by subject basis, and not just use a broad brushstroke.

You know, it's President Eisenhower that began people to people programs in the 1950s, believing that the more peoples interchanged and exchanged with one another and got to know one another, the better it would be for world peace. I think that's as true today as it was sixty or seventy years ago, and I think these programs are still important. And I think that the cultural programs that we used to do around the world under USIA, were important. So I think that these exchanges are very important. And I think we can carry them out and in a way that protects our security.

HAASS: Thank you. Sam, let's tee up another question.

STAFF: Our next question is a written submission from Barbara Slavin, who asks: "Is it too late to restore nuclear and other diplomacy with Iran? Even if Biden wins? How would you go about reviving or expanding the JCPOA? And what should be our relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia?"

GATES: That’s a pretty broad question. Let me take the first part, I think there's always the possibility of a negotiation with the Iranians. I do think it's important if there's going to be a new deal that it not just kick the can down the road for ten years, but rather put in place an agreement, where— in which Iran forgoes the development of nuclear weapons forever. President Obama, I think made— basically made a bet in a ten year agreement that in ten years, Iran would be a different country. We've been believing that since 1979. So I think the key in any new agreement in exchange for lifting sanctions and changing the nature of the relationship is Iran agreeing to forego any nuclear program, period. And I think it has to have what the Obama administration initially pressed for, which was, anytime anyplace inspections by international inspectors.

With respect to Israel and Saudi Arabia, the interesting thing to me is that because of Iran, you have a significantly improved Israeli relationship with almost all of the Arab states at this point. And you know, we've always had a strong relationship with Israel, I think we have to sustain that. They do continue to be under threat. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles there in Lebanon and essentially can reach any part of Israel at this point. So I think that relationship has to remain strong. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is, I think, fraught because of some of the actions of the Crown Prince. But Saudi Arabia has been a friend of the United States and also for many decades and I think we have to sustain that relationship as well. You know, we don't just negotiate with our close friends, we have to negotiate with people whose values are different than ours, and whose behavior is different than ours and with whom we have questions. And so I think you have to-- we have to sustain our strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, with the UAE and others. Even as we make no secret of our concerns with some of their domestic practices.

HAASS: Bob, there was a parallel between what you said about Iran or what you said about China. In both cases, the United States approach things, whether it was bringing China into the WTO, or signing the JCPOA, on a bet that in a finite amount of time, the nature and character of the other country's behavior would evolve in a direction we wanted. In either case, has this happened? Do you basically think it's wrong to make bets and diplomacy should just stand on its own rather than thinking it will change the trajectory of another society?

GATES: I think it's a mistake to frame policy on an assumption of how a country will evolve. I think you have to be open to that evolution. And you know, I mean, I've got an example of this as— is frankly the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. And I will admit, I totally underestimated the— how far he would go in making changes at home. I think we were right in being skeptical of his intentions internationally until probably 1987, 1988. But I think you have to— you have to adjust your policy in the face of reality. So as a— if you do see another country evolving and moving in a positive direction, then you have to adjust your policy, it seems to me, accordingly, but you don't start by assuming a positive outcome at the other end.

HAASS: Thanks. Sam, let's get a few more questions in.

STAFF: Our next question is from James Dobbins. Mr. Dobbins, if you'd like to unmute yourself now.

Q: Great book, great recommendations. I'd like to address briefly an alternate, not to challenge, but just a supplementary explanation for the initial difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. You attributed to, in at least in part, to inadequate civilian contribution and a failure to mobilize all of government. And I'd suggest that it was also a failure to devote adequate military resources. And this is based on my experience in the Clinton Administration where over eight years and four different interventions that administration became more adept at mobilizing all of government and recognizing the need for a substantial force to population ratio in stabilization operations. So the force in Kosovo was, on a per capita basis, fifty times bigger than initial force in Afghanistan, initial stabilization force in Afghanistan. And the ratios in Iraq was somewhat similar. Do you share the view that if the lessons of the 80s had been applied, or 90s, I guess, I'm sorry, in Clinton's administration, but applied in those initial operations, Afghanistan might have gotten better and we never would have invaded Iraq? Because the lessons suggested that the level of force needed to stabilize the society was beyond our capability.

GATES: Well, again, I think I think that the problem was when the military mission was expanded beyond the initial objective to trying to change the country and if I had one area where I believe there was a mistake, it was in believing that we actually could change these countries and do so at a cost and within a timeframe that was tolerable to the American people. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the challenge of changing a society, if you will, I think was that very greatly underestimated. I think— and I make the argument in the book that the United States probably should have pulled out of Afghanistan in early 2002. Unlike Iraq, after our military operation, and because of the Bonn Conference, there actually was an internationally recognized Afghan government. That government was comprised— interim government was comprised of all the different factions in Afghanistan. You had commitments from other countries to help with both security and economics. That was the moment at which I think we could have taken— dramatically pulled back militarily, and then increased what we were doing with other countries on the civilian side.

In Iraq, I think the assumption was that we would be greeted as liberators. And what we didn't understand was that, first of all, I think we didn't understand the magnitude of how much destruction there was in Iraq, and not just the destruction of our attack in the invasion, but much more significant, the consequences of eight years of war with Iran, the first Gulf War, decades of rule by the Baathists and by Saddam Hussein and the destruction of the infrastructure, through neglect, and so on. And so we didn't realize that— how bad things were in Iraq before we invaded.

And so, I mean, I think the first harbinger was really when the looting of Baghdad took place, and our troops didn't have the orders to stop it. And I take your point, we probably didn't have enough troops to stop it if we had had to, who knows. But as things became more difficult in Iraq early on, there clearly should have been more troops assigned to that. But I think we're all familiar with the debates in the government about trying to do the invasion with as few troops as possible. And I think people just didn't believe we were going to have the internal problems in Iraq that we ended up with, and therefore didn't assign the troop levels that would have been needed to keep it better under control.

HAASS: For the record, some people didn't believe it, including where you used to work at the CIA. I should also point out the gentleman who asked that question, Jim Dobbins, was the American envoy who represented us at the Bonn Conference that cobbled together, no pun intended, the new government in Afghanistan. Sam, let's get another question.

STAFF: Our next question is a written submission from James Bowman who asks: "Secretary Gates in your most recent article in Foreign Affairs, you argue the United States is developing the capability to defend itself against cyberattacks, but it also needs to take the offensive from time to time especially against primary adversaries. What specific tactics might the U.S. employ to offensively punish its adversaries in the cyber sphere? And does it matter if these tactics are palatable to the broader American public?"

GATES: What I have in mind is frankly giving the Russians and the Chinese a dose of their own medicine in terms of their using cyber to interfere in our domestic affairs. To try and turn us against one another, to impact our politics and the outcome of our elections. And I think we ought to be more aggressive and using our own capabilities to get behind their firewalls and bring the truth to their own people about what their governments are doing, but also, within limits, at least, making things more difficult for them at home, just as they're trying to make them more difficult for us. Here in the United States, my guess would be the American people would sign on to that in a heartbeat. Give them as good as they get— as they give.

HAASS: And the goal though, would be hopefully to get everyone to agree to a policy—

GATES: Yeah, let's stop this.

HAASS: On interference?

GATES: But as long as it's the sound, you know, as long as they're the only ones doing it, they have no incentive whatsoever to stop.

HAASS: We’re in violent agreement. Sam, let's tee up another.

STAFF: Our next question will be from Joe Nye.

Q: Bob, great presentation. I once asked Lee Kuan Yew some years ago whether he thought China would be able to surpass the United States as the world's leading power. He said he would bet no. But I was curious. There is now a general pessimism in Washington about American capability to pull ourselves together and to truly compete with China. And the feeling that China will by let's say midcentury, both economically and militarily surpass the U.S. I was curious how you would answer that question. After all, my question to Lee was over, you know, six or seven years ago. Things have changed since then. What's your guess?

GATES: I think that the outcome of this competition between the United States and China is going to depend far more on what happens inside the United States than what happens in China. China will do what China will do. The problem is China is moving forward. And the United States is not. Our politics are frozen. Congress is paralyzed. Over the last number of years, we've shown a complete inability to deal with any of the big problems afflicting this country, whether it's immigration, or education, or infrastructure, the climate.

And the latest example is, I mean, the worst insult that I've ever— could ever imagine against the United States was, in terms of our dealing with the COVID virus, that we're incompetent. So my concern is I mean, my view of it, Joe would be that if China is going to come out on top, it will be because of what happened in the U.S., not because of anything that happened in China. And if we can't get our act together, if we can't figure out a way to reach across the aisle and get bipartisan solutions to some of these problems, and if our leaders can't figure out how to walk back from power in Washington being a zero sum game, then I think China does have advantages in this competition with all the problems they have and all of the flaws of their system.

You know, a competition is between two sides and if one side's moving forward and the other one isn't, that's what's going to happen and so that that's my biggest worry. I sometimes get asked what's the biggest threat to the national security of the United States and I say it lies within the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol Building. Because if we can't solve our paralysis in Washington and begin to move on some of our big problems, we're in real trouble.

HAASS: I’m going to take the last question myself and I want to build it on your career. You spent, again, you worked for eight presidents, worked all over the government. Now, however, the intelligence community is round— widely attacked or frequently attacked by this administration, career professionals are derided as the Deep State. State Department has, in some ways, declared war on its own, on the Foreign Service. What would you say to a young person thinking about a career in government? What's the case now for someone who's on this call for saying, despite all this, why would Bob Gates or— would Bob Gates say to— to go— to make— to do what you did, to make a career in government? And if so, why would you still think it's a good case?

GATES: My advice would be to take the long view that we're going through a difficult period. There's no question about that. I think that there is still one of the things that I do see is that there is still support in the Congress for these institutions, for the intelligence community, for the military, for the State Department, Foreign Service officers in the respective committees and so on. And my argument, I guess, is a fundamentally optimistic one that this too will pass. Presidents have attacked our institutions before, I mean, every president that-- except for Bush 41, every president I worked for was critical of CIA at one point or another. Richard Nixon once was quoted as saying what the hell do those clowns do out at Langley anyway? And Lyndon Johnson didn't have a very high opinion of the agency, and particularly its reporting on Vietnam. So, I mean, I've seen some aspects of this before. And I think particularly for a young person, by the time you reach a level, get in there and get to work on behalf of America and the American people. And by the time you reach a level where these political issues begin to affect you, I'm confident that we will have moved past this and will be in a different place.

HAASS: Well, I want to, with that, first of all, thank everyone, readers of Foreign Affairs and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, for joining us today. And I want to thank my good friend, Bob Gates, for being with us today. I want to thank him for his service over the many years. And I want to congratulate him on his new book, Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World. Thank you, Bob. Good luck with the book and good luck with all else and I like the— speaking of Richard Nixon, the touch of having a fire in the fireplace in July. It's something he did and would approve of.

GATES: Well, I am in the Pacific Northwest, in the mountains. And thank you very much for inviting me, Richard. It's been a pleasure as always.

HAASS: Be well everyone be safe. Thank you.