Mr. Secretary, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MR. GATES: Thanks, David. It is great to be with you.
MR. IGNATIUS: Good to have you. Let's start with the breaking news just in the last hour. The CIA report on the murder of our Washington Post colleague, Jamal Khashoggi has been released, and it says that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, approved the operation that led to Jamal Khashoggi's death.
Let me ask you first, as a former CIA director, do you think it is a good thing that this CIA report is released, and second, do you think it is sufficient simply to put that information out there as a way of holding Mohammad bin Salman accountable for what happened?
MR. GATES: The thing I like to remind intelligence professionals about is that the information and analysis that they develop is actually not theirs but belongs to the president, and it is up to the president to decide how he wants to use it. It was President Reagan who decided to declassify intercepted messages to demonstrate Libyan responsibility for the terrorist attack on American troops in Berlin in 1986. So, I think this was a presidential decision in the context of his overall foreign policy. I think that it is a legitimate decision for him to make, and frankly, given all the speculation and so on, and, in all honesty, all the leaks that occurred when the report was first completed and still classified, I think it was entirely appropriate to go forward with it.
And I think the way, based on what I have read in the papers, the president laid the predicate for the release in his conversation with the king, and in the broader context of the relationship, was also the right thing to do.
MR. IGNATIUS: The goal of the Biden administration seems to be to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship but not rupture it. And I want to ask you, you have been watching Saudi Arabia for a long time in government and since, do you think that it is possible to maintain a tenable, viable, long-term relationship with the kingdom, and what changes, what recalibrations would you like to see?
MR. GATES: I think that the approach the administration has taken so far seems to me to be about the right balance. They are continuing to provide Saudi Arabia with the defensive weapons that they need, in a very dangerous part of the world, and particularly in light of Iranian activities. We clearly have some strategic interests in common in the region. But that doesn't prevent us, and shouldn't prevent us, from speaking out on human rights issues. This has been characteristic of American foreign policy for a very long time.
And so, it really is, as I read someplace, a threading of the needle of how do you preserve a relationship that is strategically important to both countries and, at the same time, carry out a foreign policy that is consistent with our values.
MR. IGNATIUS: Mr. Secretary, let me turn to the state of our nation. We have been through one of the most, maybe the most turbulent elections in our history. We have had an insurrection, a riot at the U.S. Capitol. Recent polls say that a majority of Republicans still think, despite the lack of evidence, that the election victory of President Biden was fraudulent. I want to ask you how you think our new president is doing after just over a month in office. How is President Biden doing in trying to put this fractured country back together?
MR. GATES: Well, I think in terms of his rhetoric and his overall approach, I think he has sounded the right notes in terms of being a unifier. I often get asked, you know, what is the greatest danger to America today, and I say it is not a foreign threat. It is our paralysis and our polarization here at home. If we can't figure out a way to tackle the big problems facing this country, whether it is infrastructure or immigration or education or a host of others, then I think we are in deep trouble, and that is much more of a danger to the country than any foreign threat, far more than Russia or China. And the question is whether we can get past that.
I like to say that the biggest threat is confined to the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol building, and if the president can't figure out a way, and if the congressional leader won't figure out a way to respond, in terms of working together on some things, then I think that the divisiveness that we have seen, and the dangerous divisiveness that we have seen probably will only get worse.
So, it is not just up to the president. It is also up to the leadership on the Hill, and that is both Republicans and Democrats.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you, as a former secretary of defense, just how deep you think the divisions go, in particular among the military, among veterans, among people who associated with the military community. As you know, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a stand-down to try to get a better sense of what kind of extremism is there in the ranks and among military people generally. What is your instinct about that? Do you think that the military is as divided as the country as a whole, and what do we do about that? How do we get officers and soldiers, sailors to all be rowing in the same direction?
MR. GATES: I would start with the reality that I think that our military, and the views within our military, are a reflection of the views of our population as a whole, and that is a good thing in many respects, that the people in our military have as diverse of point of views on various issues facing the country as the country as a whole.
You know, it will be almost ten years since I left, stepped down as secretary, and during my time in office, under both President Bush and President Obama, we really didn't have a sense of a problem with extremism. I think partly it was that until recent years that kind of extremism was kept more hidden and people were less public about those views, so it wasn't something that was as present, at that time, as it is in the news and in people's consciousness as it is today. And I think what Secretary Austin is doing, in terms of sort of not just sort of going back and saying, you know, extremism of any kind is wrong and we support the Constitution, but reminding people in uniform of their oath, and that oath is to the Constitution and not to a particular party or to a particular individual.
So, I think it is going to be a tough problem to deal with. I have a feeling that it is a presence. How big it I don't think anybody really knows. But I believe that the vast majority of people who wear the uniform of the country totally support their oath to the Constitution and are not extremists. I think whatever the size of the group, it is a very small minority.
MR. IGNATIUS: If you were secretary of defense today, would you consider issuing new rules that limit what members of our armed forces, who have sworn that oath, can say on social media? I think that is one of the trickiest questions that is embedded in this debate. What does your gut tell you about that?
MR. GATES: Well, there are limitations in terms of what people in uniform can say and do, because of military discipline. By the same token, as you suggest, I mean, it is a tough decision in terms of where do you maintain good order and discipline and unit cohesion and where do you begin to infringe on a soldier's individual First Amendment rights to speak his mind.
I think that the first threshold where you can take action and where you can have some pretty serious consequences is anybody who advocates violence or anyone who supports those who advocate violence. I think that is a threshold that is easier to understand than simply expressing support for a particular point of view or another.
MR. IGNATIUS: So we try, on Washington Post Live, to turn to our viewers for their questions, and we have one from Nathan Talbot, who lives in Florida, who asks a question that is a pretty blunt one, but for a former secretary of defense under Republicans. Did Donald Trump wreck the Republican Party? Pretty blunt, as I say. What's your feeling? As you look at the party, state of some disarray, what's your feeling about what's ahead?
MR. GATES: Well, I would say domestic politics has never been one of my particular strengths, David, but I would say this. I think that what President Trump tapped into in America was a broad band of disillusionment among a lot of Americans that the establishment, that politicians of both parties, had ignored their interests, had ignored their values, and had not taken them seriously, and basically that they had been sidelined. And these are people who have culturally conservative views, people who have held blue-collar jobs that have disappeared, either through technology or through globalization. And I think people felt abandoned.
And so, I think you are seeing this interesting switch--leave President Trump out of the picture--of the Republican Party actually becoming more of a blue-collar party than it has ever been in its history, and the Democratic Party more a party of the suburbs and urban areas. So, there is a big issue here that goes beyond President Trump and sort of the fate of the Republican Party. I think that both parties face some big challenges, and that is how do either of them--how do both of them take into account the concerns of, among other things, those 73 million people that voted for President Trump last November, that go beyond the rhetoric and go beyond the tweets, but get at issues that affect Americans on a day-to-day basis. And I think that both parties are trying to figure out how to do that.
But, you know, both parties, over decades, David, I mean, all these jobs were being lost in the Midwest, and where were the national programs from either Democrats or Republicans for apprenticeships, for retraining and through community colleges or partnerships through community colleges and companies? Neither party really took those problems seriously, and so we are where we are, as the saying goes.
So, I think the Republican Party does face some challenges, but the interesting thing, also, about the election last fall was they did pick up seats and they also did pretty well, improved their performance, at least, at a pretty low level, among Hispanics and among African Americans. So, I think the question is kind of where do the parties go from here in a way that tries to bridge, to the people who voted for President Trump, and say, you know, we actually understand what your concerns are, and by the same token, the Republicans figuring out how to expand that base.
MR. IGNATIUS: President Biden often talks in those terms, about reaching out to the people who didn't vote for him. We'll see how he does with that, but that is a helpful examination of the question.
Let me turn, Mr. Secretary, to something you and I have talked about many times over the years, and that is the problem of Afghanistan, now America's longest war. President Biden is facing a very difficult choice. We have a May 1 deadline, that was negotiated by the Trump administration, for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan. President Biden is being warned that if he withdraws those troops there is every chance that the government in Kabul might be unable to cope, might be overwhelmed, and that Afghanistan might be plunged back into an all-out civil war. So, his choice is either to meet the deadline, pull the troops out, keep them there for a while, a limited period, but maybe negotiate with the Taliban, or leave them there indefinitely, for what could be a long period.
You know that Afghanistan problem as well as anybody who has been in government. I am curious what advice you would give President Biden, what you think is the right thing to do in this very difficult set of options.
MR. GATES: You know, David, I worked for eight presidents and the one thing that I came away with was that almost every decision that a president has to make, his choice is to figure out what is the least bad option he gets, he can decide on. You know, the reality is that if there were simple solutions to a lot of these problems, somebody at a lower level would make that decision and take the credit for it. So usually just bad options end up on the president's desk.
My view is that I think the steps the president has taken in terms of hinting that we might not pull the rest of our troops out on the first of May is exactly right. I think that we do need to take into consideration the possibility of having a presence in Afghanistan, at roughly the current level, or maybe even slightly more, along with our NATO allies. So, the NATO allies have, I think, about twice to three times as many troops in Afghanistan as we have. They are very supportive of the mission. The Germans and others are supportive of that mission. And I think that we may be in a position where we have to tell ourselves we will have an ongoing presence in Afghanistan for some period of time.
The problem that we have is the problem we have had all long, and that is the corruption of the Afghan government and the Afghan military forces. You know, I still read reports of how Afghan commanders skimmed the salaries off from their soldiers and other troops, and it obviously takes away any motivation that those soldiers have to sacrifice. We have seen the Afghans willing, at the same time, to die for their country. They have suffered some tremendous losses, both in their police and their army, over the past couple of years.
But I think, my own personal view, if I were advising, would be to convey the signal that we might end up having to have a presence there on the ground, at a very low level--we have about 2,500 troops there now--at somewhere around that level for an indefinite period of time, at a minimum, until that presence forces the Taliban to realize that they can't just take all the marbles once we leave, that there is a negotiated solution that preserves, at a minimum, some of the gains for women and girls that have been achieved, and some of the human rights achievements that have been made over the last 20 years or so.
MR. IGNATIUS: Thinking about our conversation, I went back and reread your memoir, "Duty," which I wrote about at the time it was published, and I came to a passage that has been often quoted since President Biden moved toward the White House. I will just briefly read it and then I want to ask you about it. It was direct. You said, "Joe is simply impossible not to like. Joe is a man of integrity, incapable of hiding what he really thinks, and one of those rare people you know you could turn to for help in a personal crisis. Still, I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." Pretty blunt.
Would you still say that last part, and in particular, Mr. Secretary, given that he argued, back in 2009, that we ought to be careful about putting more troops into Afghanistan, I wonder if, with the passage of time, you think maybe he was right back then, that it would have been wiser not to put a whole lot more troops into a war that has turned out to be unwinnable?
MR. GATES: Yeah. First of all, the quote really referred especially to a lot of issues relating to the Cold War and dealing with the Soviet Union, and particularly during the Reagan administration and so on. The truth is, during the Obama administration, the vice president and I, and if I had one change to make in the book I would say, during the Obama administration, the vice president and I agreed on almost everything except Afghanistan. We did have a serious difference of view on Afghanistan.
And I think what has been lost in some of the debate is that the quote/unquote "counterterrorism" strategy that he was advocating still called for an increase of somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 U.S. troops. So that was the difference, and what I recommended to the president was 30,000 troops, plus an addition from NATO. I think that trying the surge was important, I think. As I have subsequently written, I think we believe, based on our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq with the surge, that we felt that if we could provide some greater security, particularly in the south and in the east, that it would give the Afghan government the opportunity to strengthen itself, expand and strengthen its armed forces, and be able, on its own, to manage the Taliban. I think that the continuing problems of the safe havens in Pakistan, and as I mentioned earlier, the corruption of the Afghan government, contributed to that not turning out the way that we had hoped.
I think the other piece that has been lost is that with that increase, with that surge in Afghanistan, we also have significantly narrowed the mission in terms of what I used to refer to as "Afghan good enough," which was basically to give them the capacity to defend themselves against the Taliban and put the notion of creating a modern country and a modern government on the sidelines, that that was too ambitious for the amount of time that we had.
So, I think that we needed--I don't think any president has ever debated a single decision on foreign policy more thoroughly or more at length than President Obama did in the fall of 2009, over this question. And so, I think all of the ramifications, all of the downsides, everything, was debated at great length. I think the president still made the right decision under those circumstances.
MR. IGNATIUS: Another big issues before President Biden is what to do about Russia, in the wake of new examination of the cyber espionage hacking campaign that we call SolarWinds, in light in the conviction and imprisonment of Alexey Navalny after the attempt to poison him. You began your time as a CIA analyst as a Russia expert, and I would be interested in what you think is appropriate. The administration is considering additional sanctions against Russia, but there are an awful lot of sanctions in place already, and you wonder whether more sanctions is going to make a significant difference.
What is your feeling about how President Biden ought to deal with the phenomenon of Putin's Russia?
MR. GATES: Well, David, I think first of all Putin's Russia is like the Soviet Union, a unidimensional power. The only source of its power really is its military and it's ability--and including in that its cyber capabilities, and its ability to disrupt and create problems, not only on its periphery, in places like Georgia and Ukraine and Belarus, but also problems in the Western democracies. I think--and this is going to be a problem. Russia is going to be a challenge for the United States, a national security challenge for the United States, and maybe, in some respects, the most dangerous one, as long as Putin is there.
And I think, frankly, that more economic sanctions, broadly based, are not going to do much good, as you mentioned. There are already a lot of sanctions. But think there are a couple of categories of things that we could be much more aggressive about, and the first is targeting the people around Putin and the oligarchs that support him in ways that make it very painful for them, whether it is seizing their assets in the West, whether it is forcing their families and children who may be students in the West to return to Russia. If you want to have a government that attacks democracy in the West, well, then you can't be a part of the West. You have to go back to Russia and stay there.
So, I think a more targeted sanctions approach on those around him, who are his enablers, so that they see real consequences, personal consequences, for supporting Putin, I think is important. The same thing is in trying to unearth his own holdings in the West that are held through his property ownership, and so on, that is held through cutouts and other companies and so on, to make this very personal with the Russians in terms of, if they want to mess with us, there are going to be personal consequences for them.
More broadly, I think we need to be more aggressive with our own cyber capabilities, and I am not talking about taking down the Soviet grid or their financial system or anything like that. What I am talking about is actually doing the kinds of things they have been doing to us. How do we figure out, using our technology to get through their firewalls and communicate directly with the Russian people about the corruption of their government, its foreign aggressiveness, and more? If Alexey Navalny can put a video on the internet, taken with a drone, about Putin's palace on the Black Sea, and get 100 million views, surely with all of our capabilities we can get that information even more broadly within Russia.
You know, this is what we did in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, at a very low level of technology. But we infiltrated millions of books, like The Gulag Archipelago and magazines about Russian history and about democracy and about the depredations of their government and what they were doing in Afghanistan, and so on and so forth. This was a huge program for the American government, and we had overt part of it that was run by USIA and we had a covert part that was run by CIA.
Well, using our new technologies we need to do the same thing, and if Putin thinks that he can interrupt or disrupt our democracies and try and disrupt our democracies--and it is not just the United States. It is France and Germany and Britain, and so on, where the Russians have been doing this--it seems to me we ought to be much more creative, much more imaginative about how we go back at the Russians in the same vein that they have come at us, because believe me, I think that they are a lot more vulnerable.
MR. IGNATIUS: That is a fascinating perspective that could only have come from a former CIA director, I suspect.
There are so many questions I want to ask you, but let me ask a question about China, and I am going to draw again on a question that one of our viewers sent in, because it goes right to the heart of security issues. David Fasth from Wisconsin asks, "How critical is the threat of China towards Taiwan?" What does your gut tell you about how vulnerable Taiwan is?
MR. GATES: Yeah, I think it is a really dangerous situation. I think, in the broader context of the multidimensional rivalry between the United States and China the situation with respect to Taiwan is the one that worries me, and I think many people, the most. Xi has committed himself to bringing Hong Kong and Taiwan both back, integrating them back into China, both while he is still in office. This would sort of put him in the same pantheon as Mao, as having finished the revolution of 1949.
And I worry that as China builds its military strength that there is the risk of either a move on their part that they think they can get away with or an unintended confrontation that escalates. They have been entering the Taiwan air defense identification zone. They have crossed the median line that they had observed for a very long time, in terms of flying their fighters and bombers near Taiwan. They have sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan. So, a lot of threatening gestures.
And one alternative would be whether Xi would think he could seize Taiwanese-administered islands that are actually quite close to China, as we had a crisis over Quemoy and Matsu back in the 1950s, under President Eisenhower. But seize one of those islands basically say--and it would be very hard to galvanize American support to try and retake those islands. So, it would be a kind of a nibbling strategy, if you will.
I think there are other things China can do that would create great pressures on Taiwan, whether it would be a quarantine to prevent more weapons from going in there, or try to do so, and it might provoke a confrontation with the United States.
I think this is a really dicey situation, and frankly, I think this a place, given where President Xi is headed, that we ought to think seriously about whether it is time to abandon our long-time strategy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan and basically tell the Chinese that if unprovoked, they take actions against Taiwan, the United States will be there to support Taiwan, and at the same time tell the Taiwanese if they take actions unilaterally, to change the status quo, to go for independence or something like that, they will be on their own. I think that is a discussion that we ought to have. But I think of all of the avenues where we are going to be facing off with China and trying to deal with challenges, this is the one that concerns me the most.
MR. IGNATIUS: Absolutely fascinating. I really regret that's all the time we have, but, Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us for a great discussion.
MR. GATES: My pleasure, David, always.
MR. IGNATIUS: So please join us for Washington Post Live programs next week. On Monday at noon, I will be talking with the former CEO of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt. We have lots more programming ahead for you next week. Please join us on Washington Post Live. Thanks for being with us today.
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