Robert Gates, Pro and Con

"I worry that there’s a temptation to overstate the terrorist threat. It is not an existential threat."

"Demonizing Islam and demonizing Muslims is self-defeating. It will make the problem worse."

These are two of the statements made by former Secretary of Defense and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency Robert Gates at the Naval Postgraduate School on January 5, 2017. Classes for one morning time slot were canceled so that the students, largely U.S. military officers, could attend. I attended also.

What follows are some of the good things Gates said, along with some of the bad. There were more good things than I had expected, all in the direction of not going overboard on foreign policy. I caution, though, that it’s relatively easy for someone to make independent thoughtful statements when he is no longer a high-level appointee and when, given his age (73) and his likely net worth, he is likely no longer looking for a political job. I have no idea how he actually acted while Secretary of Defense. After listing the good and the bad, I’ll close with one thing Gates said that, whatever his intent, increased my respect for President-elect Trump.

The format was that Professor John Arquilla, chair of the Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, asked Gates a series of questions and Gates answered. Then it was turned over to students, faculty, and staff, who lined up at the microphones. When Arquilla announced that Gates not only was willing, but also was looking forward, to taking questions from the floor, Gates interjected, "And for those of you who may be reluctant, I like to say to groups like this: I spent 30 years testifying in front of Congress, and there is no question you can conceivably come up with as dumb as some of the questions I got from Congress." (Laughter and some applause.) Added Arquilla, "So the bar is low."

I usually have a question to ask – often a "gotcha" but sometimes just a question or comment to put out a viewpoint or fact that the over 1,000 students in the audience may never have heard. In this case, it turned out to be the latter, motivated by some things Gates said about North Korea.

At the top of this article, I’ve put two of the quotes I liked best. Interviewer John Arquilla, who is a friend, is also a strong believer in the war on terror. John, prefacing his question with the statement that there has been a 7-fold increase in terrorist incidents (I assume he meant annually) asked Gates his view. Gates answered, "Terrorism is a tactic. You don’t make war on a tactic. It’s a tactic of the weak against the strong." Then he went on to make the statements I quote at the top. My friend and colleague Chad Seagren, a recently retired Marine Major and a fellow libertarian noninterventionist, and I looked at each other in pleasant surprise.

There were other nice surprises. Gates criticized the idea of intervening in countries to try to make them more in our image. He said that one of his favorite lines from Winston Churchill is "Democracy is no harlot to be picked up in the street by a man with a tommy gun." "The point of it is," he said, "that you don’t change societies by force." He argued that the United States didn’t have the luxury of nation building (these are my words to express his thought) during the Cold War, but with the Soviet Union gone, there was less risk to the United States of interfering in other countries. He said that we should support people in other countries who are trying to implement liberal, democratic values, "but we should not try to do so at the point of a Tommy gun." Three days later, contemplating this, I wonder if Gates’s view of support would involve having the government tilt to one candidate in an internal election of another country. If so, I wonder what his objection would be to the Russian government trying, if indeed it did so, to get Donald Trump elected.

Asked by a student what books had had the most effect on his thinking, Gates mentioned a book on Dwight Eisenhower and a book, Partners in Command by Mark Perry, about Eisenhower and George Marshall. Both had been mentored in the 1920s, he said, by a relatively unknown two-star General named Fox Conner. Conner had given three lines of advice about war: (1) never fight unless you have to, (2) never fight alone, and (3) never fight for long. He also stated that Ike was impressive in the way he avoided war. During Ike’s time in office, Gates noted, China became a nuclear power, Russia became a thermonuclear power, and the United States had continuing crises with Taiwan and China. He had had to deal with the Korean war, the Hungarian revolution, the Suez Crisis, the Cuban revolution, and a number of other tough issues. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended using nuclear weapons in Vietnam to help out the French, and Ike had said no. Then, Gates said, between the signing of the Korean war armistice in July 1953 and January 20, 1961, "not one American soldier lost his life in combat." "Now how the hell did he do that? There’s something to be learned from that." (I have not fact checked to see if his "not one American soldier" statement is true, but it’s close to true.)

Gates said that it would be a mistake to trash the nuclear agreement with Iran. He pointed out that it’s an international agreement and that if the United States trashed it, "we would be the ones who are isolated." But he added that the agreement should be better enforced and went on to say that the US government should communicate to the Iranian government that "if they aim weapons at us, we shoot them." Really? Just for aiming weapons? That seemed extreme to me.

On China, Gates said that China is not an emerging nation – it is a reemerging nation. One thousand years ago, he said, China was an advanced civilization "while Europeans were painting their faces." But then they had "a few bad centuries." China’s back, he said, and they expect to be treated with respect. He said that the United States made a mistake in not joining the Asian Development Bank. (I wonder if Gates is aware of the dismal failure of government-to-government foreign aid.) He said we should "reconvene Bretton Woods" and let them in. At this point, my impression was getting firmed up that Gates, a longtime bureaucrat, sees bureaucratic solutions for everything.

And hawkish solutions too. He said that the US government should have the capability to deter the Chinese. But he never said what the government should deter them from. His view seemed to be the standard one that the US government, while it should not easily get into wars, should play the world policeman.

There were other hawkish moments. Referring to the incident in the Baltic Sea where Russian jets buzzed US Navy ships, Gates said, "If I had been the Secretary of Defense, I would have told the Russians that the next time they buzz our ships, we will paint them [aim at them] and we may shoot them down." Again, really? He would risk war with a country that has nuclear weapons, not because they shot at a Navy ship but because they buzzed it? I don’t think there’s a big role in Gates’s thinking for unintended consequences. Although in his expression of admiration for Eisenhower, Gates seemed not to like the idea of war – and I think that’s genuine – he didn’t seem to worry that some of the actions he favored could lead to war.

On the issue of the Russian government interfering in the US election, it was hard to tell whether Gates, who, remember, was once a director of the CIA, bought the view that the Russian government was involved in revealing the badly guarded emails of the Democratic National Committee. He seemed to take it as given, but it was difficult to tell if he really meant it. But what he did say is that Putin sees the US government as having interfered in the 2012 Russian election and in some of the color revolutions in Europe. I assume he had in mind the Ukrainian revolution, among others. I thought that was a clever way of saying it. He could tell the audience how he thinks Putin sees it without saying one way or the other whether Putin sees it correctly.

Gates said that he had told Chinese President Hu that "North Korea has become a direct military threat to the United States of America." He said that two or three times he talked to his counterpart in China, trying to persuade him to take care of getting rid of the North Korean threat. Each time, he said, his counterpart said "Thank you for expressing your viewpoint." That’s where I saw my opening.

So in question and answer from the floor, I said:

Good morning, Mr. Secretary – or Mr. former Secretary. I’m David Henderson. I’m an economics professor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy. Before I ask my question, first of all I want to applaud you for your comments on terrorism. I agree that terrorism is not an existential threat and I’m just glad to hear you say that. On North Korea, you suggested a strategy without anteing up what the United States would give up. There’s a foreign policy analyst who’s an expert on North Korea named Doug Bandow. And he has said that basically the Chinese will never move as long as the United States has all these troops in South Korea. And so what he proposes is this bargain with the Chinese where we say over some number of years we will take out the troops, remembering that South Korea’s GDP is 40 times that of North Korea. So it’s not as if they can’t defend themselves. So I’m wondering what you think of that, and before I finish, let me say that I hope you don’t propose that I run for Congress because of the quality of my question. (laughter)

Gates answered:

I think that you do have to be as diplomatically focused as you are militarily deft. In fact, I should have framed this differently when I talked about this earlier because, in addition to the threatening side, to the sticks approach, if you will, I also believe there has to be the carrots. And I think the carrots begin with if they dismantle all these programs and, you know, the North Koreans are past masters at the wallet-on- a-string trick and they go through this process: they create a crisis, we make concessions, everything calms down for a couple of years and then we have the same thing all over again. At one point when I was Secretary, I told the president I ain’t buying that horse a second time. I think that in exchange for a permanent dismantling of their nuclear capabilities and cessation of their ballistic missile programs, I would be willing to contemplate, first of all, a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition, guarantees that we would never try to overthrow the government in Pyongyang, similar to the promise that President Kennedy gave Khrushchev on Cuba, and potentially, over time, a drawdown of US forces. Until I was convinced the North Koreans – I wouldn’t draw down one single soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine until the North Koreans had finished all of their dismantling. And then I might contemplate a gradual reduction. Because, truth to tell, if there ever were a conflict on the Peninsula, it’s the Navy and the Air Force that are going to do the heavy lifting against the North. The bulk of the ground forces will be the South Koreans. So I would be willing to contemplate that kind of thing. But I think you could put together a package that, combined with this tough position that I suggested, might potentially have some appeal.

Notice his language: "would be willing to contemplate," "potentially," and "might contemplate." Moreover, in Gates’s view, North Korea’s government would have to get rid of all nuclear weapons and means of delivering them before he would even contemplate reducing, let alone eliminating, US forces in South Korea. That’s not a serious proposal. So he could have saved some time, when I asked him if he was willing to ante up any US concessions, by saying, simply, "No." Or, he could have taken the route that his Chinese counterpart took with him and said, "Thank you for expressing your viewpoint."

What I would ideally liked to have done is say something like, "In short, in response to my question about what you would be willing to give up to get North Korea to disarm, you said, in a roundabout way, that you wouldn’t give up anything." But then he probably would have countered and I had 6 students lined up behind me to get their turn.

After my question, one of the students asked a really good question, and it was Gates’s answer that made me more impressed with Donald Trump. The student said that he had read that Gates had met with Trump and had recommended Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. What, asked the student, was the content of your (Gates’s and Trump’s) conversation? Many of us laughed because that sounded like incredible chutzpah on the student’s part. The student went on to say that John McCain and Marco Rubio had said that no friend of Russia should be our Secretary of State. "How," asked the student, "do you see that relationship helping the US?"

Gates answered that he had written an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal in September whose last line was "He [Trump] is unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief." When he and Trump sat down to talk, recounted Gates, "the first thing he said was ‘you were really rough on me; you were rougher than Romney.’" Then Gates went on to say why he was confident, based on his personal knowledge of, and interactions with, Tillerson, that Tillerson is a good negotiator and someone who will always have the best interests of the United States at heart.

I looked up the Wall Street Journal op/Ed and it was even tougher on Trump than the one line he quoted. Here’s the last whole paragraph:

At least on national security, I believe Mr. Trump is beyond repair. He is stubbornly uninformed about the world and how to lead our country and government, and temperamentally unsuited to lead our men and women in uniform. He is unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief.

What impressed me about this is that Trump showed himself to be a bigger man than I had thought. It takes a big man to invite to a meeting someone who has trashed him that way.

As a result of this Q&A, there are two people whom I think slightly more positively of than before: Robert Gates and Donald Trump.

Copyright 2017 by David R. Henderson

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at