Defense secretaries current and past discuss military life, Putin and more

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former defense secretary Robert M. Gates went on the Sunday talk shows to discuss the situation in Ukraine and other facets of military life.


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a recent event hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)

Hagel said perhaps the most newsworthy single sentence of the two, concerning the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military. "I do think it continually should be reviewed,” he told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz. “I’m open to that.”

He added, “I’m open to those assessments, because — again, I go back to the bottom line — every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it."

In March, an independent commission led by former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders found that there “is no compelling medical reason” to prohibit transgender individuals from serving.

Gates talked to CBS's Bob Schieffer about Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin on  "Face the Nation."

"I think the key to understanding Putin is the past. Vladimir Putin is all about lost empire, lost glory, lost power," Gates said. "When he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geostrategic, geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, he meant it.... I don't think he'll rest until there's a pro-Russian government in Kiev or a federated Ukraine where the eastern part of the country, for all practical purposes, looks to Russia."

President Obama said a similar thing about Putin and the past on CBS in March. "He's said that he considers the breakup of the Soviet Union to be tragic," Obama said. "I think there's a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past. And that he wants to, in some fashion, reverse that or make up for that."

On the interview that aired Sunday, Gates said he did not consider Russia the biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States.

"I think the greatest national security threat to this country at this point is the two square miles that encompasses the Capitol building and the White House," he told Schieffer. He continued, "If we can't get some of our problems solved here at home, if we can't get our finances in a more ordered fashion, if we can't begin to tackle some of the internal issues that we have, if we can't get some compromises on the Hill that move the country forward, then I think these foreign threats recede significantly."

Gates also discussed allegations that the Department of Veterans Affairs covered up deaths resulting from treatment delays. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki is scheduled to testify about the deaths in front of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday.

"If there's one bureaucracy in Washington that's more intractable than the Department of Defense, it's VA," Gates said. "And, you know, I give a lot of credit to Eric Shinseki. I think Secretary Shinseki has all the will in the world to do the right thing by veterans. He's totally committed.... I think, my own view is that the problem is below the secretary. And I think it's really important for him to delve into this. And then if there are real problems, then to hold people accountable."

On Thursday, House Speaker John A. Boehner did not join many of his fellow Republicans in calling for Shinseki to step down, but he said there is a "systemic management issue throughout the VA that needs to be addressed."

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who also was on "Face the Nation" on Sunday morning, said  President Obama will ultimately have to "make a decision" about the Veterans Affairs situation.

The Veterans Affairs investigations have joined growing scrutiny of the 2012 Benghazi assault and the Internal Revenue Service by congressional Republicans who are increasingly combative with the Obama administration as the midterms draw closer.

In the interview that aired Sunday, Gates called Syria "one of the sad stories of the president's foreign policy."

"I think last fall was a real low point, where we went in the space of a week from saying, 'Assad must go,' to 'Assad must stay,' in order to fulfill the agreement sponsored by Putin to get rid of the chemical weapons that Assad had used against his own people," Gates said. "And I think we got distracted and lost our perspective. There have been hundreds of atrocities against civilians in this civil war. Fourteen hundred were killed in that chemical attack.  But as you say, 150,000 were killed in, by conventional means. And we got, we got distracted from the 150,000 for the 1,400."

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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Jaime Fuller | May 11