Robert Gates on Benghazi: ‘There just wasn’t time’


(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who began his tenure under  President George W. Bush in 2006 and retired in 2011, has never been one to mince words. Famously blunt and skeptical even as a senior CIA official during the Reagan administration, Gates has become, as is often the case with top intelligence and military officials in retirement, even blunter after leaving office.

Gates, appearing this weekend on CBS's "Face the Nation," discussed the ongoing controversy over the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Critics have charged that the Obama administration could have pursued a more aggressive response that might have saved the lives of the four Americans killed in those attacks. But Gates pushed back on that idea, arguing that the most-discussed possible responses might appear viable in hindsight but were not so at the time. Here are Gates's comments, as noted by Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations:

I only know what I have read in the media. I haven’t had any briefings or anything. And I think the one place where I might be able to say something useful has to do with some of the talk about the military response. And I listened to the testimony of both Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey. And frankly had I been in the job at the time I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were. We don’t have a ready force standing by in the Middle East. Despite all the turmoil that’s going on, with planes on strip alert, troops ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. And so getting somebody there in a timely way – would have been very difficult, if not impossible. And frankly, I’ve heard, “Well, why didn’t you just fly a fighter jet over and try and scare 'em with the noise or something?” Well, given the number of surface to air missiles that have disappeared from Gaddafi’s arsenals, I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft – over Benghazi under those circumstances.

With respect to sending in special forces or a small group of people to try and provide help, based on everything I have read, people really didn’t know what was going on in Benghazi contemporaneously. And to send some small number of special forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground, I think, would have been very dangerous. And personally, I would not have approved that because we just don’t it’s sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces. The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm’s way. And there just wasn’t time to do that.”

Zenko, a skeptic of U.S. military involvement, also pointed out this telling passage from Gates's 1996 memoir, "From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War."

It was my experience over the years that one of the biggest misimpressions held by the public has been that our military is always straining at the leash, wanting to use force in any situation. The reality is just the opposite. In more than twenty years attending meetings in the Situation Room, my experience was that the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms. Our military leaders have seen too many half-baked ideas for the use of military force advanced in the Situation Room by hairy-chested civilians who have never seen combat or fired a gun in anger.

Gates is hinting here at two things: both at a popular misunderstanding of how top military leaders think (if you've ever watched TV shows such as "24" or "The West Wing," you might perceive generals as the hawks in the room) and at the dynamic between military and civilian leaders. Just because military leaders believe one policy is preferable does not make it so. But it is revealing that those who are least familiar with the use of military force in complicated and difficult situations -- say, an ongoing firefight in the middle of the night in a Middle Eastern city -- seem to often hold far more confidence in the abilities of military tools than do people like Gates, who have more experience applying them.

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Max Fisher · May 13, 2013