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Robert Gates on Trump presidency: "I'm hoping I was wrong"

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was one of the loudest critics of Donald Trump when he was still a presidential candidate, describing him as “unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief” in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.

But with the now President-elect Trump preparing to take office, Gates said he is “hoping I was wrong.”

“It’s critical for us now that he is the president-elect, for him to be successful as president – especially in national security,” Gates told “CBS This Morning” Wednesday. “It’s important for all us of all, so I think that anybody who can do anything to help should do it. And those who want to stand on the sidelines, I would urge them to reconsider.”

While he once wrote that then-presidential candidate Trump’s national security policy was “beyond repair,” Gates is feeling more encouraged by Trump the president-elect. Gates has worked closely with several of the rumored picks for Trump’s Cabinet: retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly are both contenders for secretary of state, and General James Mattis has been mentioned as a possible nominee for defense secretary.

“I think some of the people that he’s talking to for senior jobs, I find very encouraging. They’re very solid people,” Gates said. “And I would ordinarily have some concerns about civilian military relationships and civilian control and so on but not with Jim Mattis. Jim has a deep sense of history, he’s got a great strategic mind and folks in uniform love him. I think he would be a great choice.”

But while Gates said he had the “highest regard” for all three potential picks, he said having two military officials in the Cabinet would be “too much military influence in the decision-making process.”

“I think all three of them are amazing, terrific people but… I think it would be awkward to have military officers both secretary of state and secretary of defense,” Gates said.

It’s not clear yet who’ll actually be chosen for the White House team, nor is it clear whether Trump will uphold some of his campaign pledges – among them, his vow to scrap the Iran nuclear deal.

In an interview with the BBC, CIA Director John Brennan said: “I think it would be the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that agreement.” Gates said the deal could’ve been better.

“Particularly on verification – the administration said we needed ‘anytime, any place’ inspections and we didn’t get it,” Gates said.

Gates also said the Obama administration should’ve gone further to “make it clear” that the U.S. wouldn’t allow the nuclear agreement to “inhibit us in the slightest from protecting our friends and our interests in that region against the Iranians,” citing recent provocations against U.S. military vessels and aircraft in the region, as well as meddling in both Yemen and Syria.

“The irony is the Ayatollah made it clear they were not gonna be inhibited from doing other things in the region. I don’t know why the president didn’t provide that same kind of pushback,” Gates said.

Still, Gates believes getting rid of the pact would be a mistake. 

“I think we would be the ones isolated, not the Iranians, because none of our other partners that helped negotiate that would walk away from it,” Gates said.

Instead of targeting the nuclear deal, Gates said the president-elect should push back against Iran’s other activities.

As with Iran, Gates believes the U.S. should also take stronger stances in dealing with Russia and China. 

“What should be the president-elect’s approach and strategy and policy towards Russia?” co-host Charlie Rose asked.

“I think the president has to thread the needle between trying to break the downward spiral of the relationship with Russia -- that’s been going on for the last couple of years -- and at the same time, send a message to Putin that the United States can’t be pushed around and that we will react and act to protect our interests,” Gates said.

Gates explained further, saying that Russia’s military intervention in Syria and Ukraine would give the impression that “Russians have us on our backflip,” Gates said. 

“What does that mean -- the ‘Russians have us on our backflip?’” co-host Norah O’Donnell asked to clarify.

Well, [it means that we’re] at a disadvantage, that they have seized the initiative,” Gates said. “For example in Syria ... if there’s an outside power that’s calling the shots -- if you will in Syria right now -- it’s Russia, not us.”

Another major challenge the Trump administration will inherit is the fight against ISIS. Gates said what the U.S. is doing now – aggressive air campaigns, using special forces and supporting the Sunni tribes, Kurds and Iraqi security forces – is the right thing to do, though the U.S. should have been doing it two years ago.

“Can we be more aggressive in one or another of those? Perhaps. But I think the basic outlines of what we’re doing is what we should be doing,” Gates said.

But one thing Gates advises for the president-elect, across all these areas of national security importance, is to handle them “without sending significant numbers of American troops around the world.”

“I think that this sense that we’ve been at war for 15 years, we have used the military tool in the national security toolbox to the exclusion of almost everything else,” Gates said. “And so I think we can make our presence and our influence known not only by the deterrent fact of military strength; but then by supplementing it with diplomacy and intelligence activities and so on.”