Watch CBS News

Transcript: Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on "Face the Nation," May 19, 2024

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on "Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan" | full interview
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on "Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan" | full interview 30:41

The following is a transcript of an interview with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that aired on May 19, 2024.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we go now to the former Secretary of Defense and Chancellor of William and Mary, Robert Gates. Good morning to you.


MARGARET BRENNAN: When we last spoke back in October, you said that the US confronts graver threats to security than it has in decades, perhaps ever. And among the US presidential candidates at that time, you didn't hear anyone with a real vision of what America's role in the world ought to be, or how to bring along the American people. Have you heard it since?

SEC. GATES: No, frankly, I have not. I haven't heard anyone articulate a national security strategy for the United States that can gain the support of the American people. And- and I haven't heard any of them speaking directly to the American people about what our strategy ought to be and why we ought to be engaged.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, President Biden gave an Oval Office address back in October, when he asked for some of the emergency security funding, he spoke to the country in the State of the Union, is that enough?

SEC. GATES: No, this is a message that needs to be repeated. And not just by the President and his cabinet, but also by members of Congress, and other thought leaders. This is- this is not something that you give one speech from the Oval Office or two speeches, or a speech from the floor of the House and let it go at that. This has to be a continuing education program of helping American people understand why our vital interests, our national interests, are at stake and what is going on, not only in Europe, in Ukraine, for example, but in the Middle East, and- and in Asia, for that matter. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: This is an election year. And as you know, you know, pundits, anyone wants to give their opinion, they say, oh, national security, foreign policy doesn't matter to American voters when it comes to the ballot box. How do you explain to the American people this moment in time, how consequential it is, and who that Commander in Chief needs to be?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think there are a couple of aspects to it. First is, I think we need to- our leaders need to bring these issues home to the American people in a very direct way. So for example, using historical examples about how our delaying taking seriously foreign threats, has ultimately resulted in the deaths of thousands and thousands of American- young men and women in conflict. The world isn't going to ignore us just because we think we can ignore the world. So the first thing is to make clear that if we don't deal with these problems early, they become very dangerous problems and very costly problems for the United States down the road. The other is to explain to the American people, for example, how we need, how we are in economically interconnected with the rest of the world. I've always thought we made a big mistake in not having data available where you could go into a congressional district and say, Do you realize how much of the economy of your county or your town depends on exports or imports around the world because our economy is so integrated? So it's- it's both aspects of this and in bringing it home to people in ways that are clear and that may help them understand this really does affect them around their kitchen table.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  So there's some decided, excuse me, there is dissatisfaction that we see in our polling about the two candidates from both parties. What do you say to the American people about whether there is a benefit to having someone who has served for years coming back? There's a lot of sort of desire for new blood, is there a benefit to the options we have now?

SEC. GATES: Well, I suppose the one benefit we have is that both candidates will have had experience as President of the United States, the voters will just have to decide how they did in that job. This is a- this is a very different kind of thing we've ever encountered. I don't think that there's been a president out of office that has run and won again since Grover Cleveland, in the late 19th century. So- so you'll have to judge. But I mean, we do have the unique opportunity. You- You now have four years experience with two different people. Which one do you think did a better job? 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well if President Trump were to win again, what could he do differently in a second term that would give him a stronger legacy? I know you've been critical of some of his behavior when he was in office.

SEC. GATES: Well, I think- I think you'd probably see significantly different domestic policies in- in a number of areas. I think one thing he's been clear about for a long time is the need for tariffs to protect American industry and so on. I think he would also have a different approach in many- in many areas with respect to foreign policy. And in terms of trying to end the war in Ukraine, it's never made quite clear how he's going to do that, or what terms he would have to agree to, or how he would handle the issues in the South China Sea differently. So, you know, I think that there is an element of unpredictability and in his case of- of not knowing what he really has in mind to deal with any of these specific issues, especially on national security.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would you be open to voting for Mr. Trump?

SEC. GATES: Oh, I'm not even going to begin to go there.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah, well, because you did write an essay in foreign affairs a few months ago, where you were, you're pretty specific and criticism, you said, "His disdain for allies, fondness for authoritarian leaders, erratic behavior undermined his credibility." You were also critical of President Biden, and his withdrawal from Afghanistan, which you said "further damaged the world's competence in America." Do you think Mr. Biden has been able to repair that damage?

SEC. GATES: I think that he gained a lot of credibility with the speed with which he assembled the coalition of- of partner countries, allies and friends before, during, and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putting together that three dozen countries willing to help Ukraine with money with fina- military assistance, and so on, being able to warn the Allies before the Russians actually invaded so that when they did, we had enormous credibility with others, that we knew what we were talking about, and we knew the nature of Putin's threat. So I think that his ability to put that coalition together, I think- I think is a- is a very positive thing. And- and his resistance to, to what Putin is trying to do. That said, I think that there's been, I think a lot of people would agree that there have been some unnecessary delays in getting necessary equipment to certain kinds of equipment to the Ukrainians, and I'm not talking about the six month late supplemental, that- that was just passed by the Congress. I'm talking about going back a year and a half or two years, whether it was tanks or missiles or aircraft that after long debate and deliberation, a decision was finally made to provide them. But were they provided in sufficient numbers? And were they provided in a timely way that would help the Ukrainians? 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, that is a criticism we hear, in particular from Republicans who support Ukraine, but as you know, there's also a large portion of the party that has been skeptical about supporting Ukraine. I spoke to Mitch McConnell recently on this program, on FACE THE NATION, and he said he actually had to apologize he felt to Volodymyr Zelensky. He did that on the phone and said, It took too long to get you the security supplemental that you just mentioned, sir. He said his party bears responsibility for many of the battlefield setbacks. And this is interesting, he said, I think the fact that isolationism, at least on this issue, was defeated on this one bill is not nearly enough. How do pro Ukraine Republicans win this argument that he's talking about in the long run?

SEC. GATES: I think the important thing is to keep coming back to what Vladimir Putin's terms are for settling this, those- those who are opposed, think we ought to just end this war and that there ought to be a quote unquote, negotiated settlement. Well, Vladimir Putin has negotiated settlement is all four districts in the eastern part of Ukraine, quarter of the country, all of the sea coast down through the south to and including Odessa, a change of government in Kyiv with putting in a pro-Russian government, and a guarantee that Ukraine will never join the EU and NATO. Those are Vladimir Putin's terms at a time when he is reinforcing and re-equipping in the east, pressing on Kharkiv and and elsewhere along the front. So this is- this is the guy that they want to negotiate with, not clear to me what are they prepared simply to take his terms in order to end the war, and what are the long term implications of that for Europe and for our own national security? Those are the kinds of questions I think need to be asked.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well McConnell also said in that same conversation that one of the things that helped him get the funding over the finish line was that Donald Trump stopped whipping against it. And when I pressed him on the isolationism that he saw within the Republican Party, he blamed it on Tucker Carlson. I mean, I know as someone who-who comes from the intelligence community that has to hurt your heart, that people who have security clearances, are believing commentators rather than intelligence. How do you change minds if people aren't listening to the intelligence being provided to them?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, I think- I think it- it's a mistake to try and deal with these problems with ad hominem attacks, with going after specific individuals and saying how unenlightened they are or whatever. I think the most important thing is- is for leaders to sketch the strategic environment and the strategic consequences of not supporting Ukraine, of not being engaged internationally. You know, we've had an iso- an isolationist element in the United States for decades. That- this isn't a new phenomenon. And there have always been political leaders on both sides of the aisle who have worked their way through that and ensured that majorities continued to support American engagement. Now, that doesn't mean world policeman, it doesn't mean us sending our troops everywhere there's a problem. But it does mean being very thoughtful about what are our vital national interests, and how best do we protect them in the context of having to remain engaged around the world. If we just pull back, we will leave a vacuum, and we know who will take the place of that vacuum- who will fill that vacuum.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But I guess what I'm getting at is, we are in an information environment where even the traditionally trusted messengers aren't being trusted. And we see that in our CBS polling. Almost four in five Republicans named Donald Trump as their most trustworthy source of information on Russia and Ukraine. Only three in five said they trusted the Pentagon. The State Department was 27%. I mean, journalists were- were- were not high on the list either. So- so how do- you're talking about persuading through consistent argument when- but when people aren't listening to the messengers, how do you do that?

ROBERT GATES: Well, in the past, what sadly has happened is that when people haven't listened to the messengers, we've suddenly found ourselves in a crisis or with a disaster. And- and I think one thing that needs to be done is to- for people who are in favor of our being engaged and who do believe that our national security interests require that engagement, is to teach people a little history, in terms of what has happened in the past when we've turned our backs, and the crises that have followed that and- and- and often wars that have followed that. So, you know, it's up to each member of Congress or each member of the administration up to the President, to- to- to lay out this message and just keep repeating it. You know, Franklin Roosevelt once said that the greatest responsibility of a leader is to educate. And I just think there hasn't been a consistent effort to educate the American people in a thoughtful way about why our foreign policy ought to involve keeping, not only maintaining and sustaining our alliances, but our engagement internationally. And that's a speech that needs to be made over and over and over again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Vladimir Putin was in China this past week, visiting his ally Xi Jinping. And he said Friday, Russian troops are advancing daily in Ukraine. What do you think it will take to stop this momentum?

ROBERT GATES: Well, this is one of the places where frankly, the six month delay in getting the supplemental passed is- has been a problem, because- and poses a real crisis, I think. The circumstances in Ukraine right now are- are quite dire. The Russians are moving, not only around Kharkiv, but elsewhere along the front. Putin has taken the last six months to a year to rearm, re-equip, to recruit. I've read numbers that he's putting his money- as many as 30,000 new troops a month into Ukraine. They have more troops in Ukraine now, the Russians do, than they did at the beginning of the war. So I think the real issue now is how fast can we get the equipment that the Ukrainians need into the field, into their hands, beginning with air defense, but also artillery and rocket and missiles. And- and so I hope that there is a sense of huge urgency in the Pentagon and- and elsewhere about getting this equipment into the hands of the Ukrainians literally within the next few weeks, because this Russian offensive has been expected in May and June for a year, and we knew that they were going to begin an offensive. And so the critical question now is, how much urgency are we placing on getting that equipment into Ukraine and into the hands of the Ukrainians so they can hold off this Russian offensive, and establish a firm defensive line in the east that prevents the Russians from making any more- any more gains.

MARGARET BRENNAN: During that time, Russia has also built up more support for its effort with Iran, with North Korea supplying it weapons, with China now, U.S. intelligence says, helping to reconstitate-, reconstitute Russia's military industrial base, even jointly producing drones. What consequence should there be for a country like China for- for helping this war to continue?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I think everyone in the government that has anything to do with this has been making the point to the Chinese that there is strong bipartisan consensus in Washington that their assistance to the Russians is a- another big problem in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. There- there are a variety of other sanctions that are available to the administration and to the Europeans that- that could bring additional pressure on the Chinese at a time--


MARGARET BRENNAN: Would they make a difference?

ROBERT GATES: --when their economy's not doing very well. 


ROBERT GATES: They could. They could. The Chinese have very large stakes in other problems and other relationships around the world, in addition to Russia. And- and, you know, until a year or so ago, they were being pretty careful about what they were providing to the Russians. They still have, not as best we know, have provided- have not provided actual weapons to the Russians. That's been a red line for the United States. But what has become clear over the last number of months is how much dual use technology and equipment and supplies they have been sending to Russia that hasn't- hasn't- have enabled the Russians to reconstitute their- their defense industries. And- and Putin, frankly, and if you look at the cabinet changes that Putin has just made, they're all focused on militarizing the Russian economy to sustain a huge military for a long time going forward. This is not a one time problem with just Ukraine. Putin has decided to take Russia in a different- in a different direction, that poses a real threat to all of its neighbors. And the Chinese, by helping them, are enabling that. And I think it's not just the United States, but the Europeans and others, that need to make clear to the Chinese that there are consequences for them of doing that. And those most likely consequences are economic. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the Chinese president was just touring through Europe, and he was in France. I wonder what you think about the French president's statement that nothing should be ruled out when it comes to sending Western troops to Ukraine? I know some other European countries have also leaned into that idea. Should it be taken off the table by both Biden and Trump?

ROBERT GATES: I think the notion of deploying NATO troops into Ukraine causes a lot of domestic concern, not just in this- in the United States, but in Europe as well. I think that there are probably several European leaders that nearly had a heart attack when- when Macron talked about sending NATO troops. So I think, I- you know, I don't think you take things off the table. But I- but I also don't think you put them on the table in an explicit way. You know, part of my problem is that our government talks too much. And some other governments talk too much as well. Sometimes it's better just to do things and not tell people you're doing them. But maybe that's the old CIA guy.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay, so do things but don't necessarily talk about them. Is that suggesting more training, then, of Ukrainian troops? Acknowledged or not acknowledged?

ROBERT GATES: I think- I think we are clearly- there's going to have to be more training of- of the Ukrainians, particularly with their new conscription law, and- and a number of new young people coming into the Ukrainian military.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Should that take--

ROBERT GATES: Now, that training can take place in Western Europe, or it conceivably could take place in Ukraine as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You- you took me there, you knew why I was asking you that question, if training should take place inside Ukraine. So you would be okay then with sending members of NATO into Ukraine to train their troops, but not to actively, you know, to be very clear that they're just there to train and not to actually fight.

ROBERT GATES: NATO should not enter this war with its own forces.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But if the U.S. wanted to send its forces to train inside Ukraine, you're okay with that?

ROBERT GATES: I think that- I think figuring out where the best place to train Ukrainian troops is best left to- best left to the military. We've been doing most of that, I think, in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. Whether that's necessary in Ukraine, I think, remains to be seen.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, it is a conversation that sometimes gets distorted. I know, you know, there are members of the American public who think there are U.S. troops in Ukraine. One of the guests on our- our program, J.D. Vance, a senator from Ohio, has likened U.S. support for Ukraine to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, making that argument that there's like a creeping U.S. role potentially. He also went to the Munich Security Conference, but skipped meetings with President Zelenskyy and the head of NATO saying he wouldn't learn anything new. What do you say to a leading Republican, like him?

ROBERT GATES: Well, I'm- I don't know him and I haven't tracked him very closely. But again, I- rather than get into specific personalities, I just think that people need to open their eyes and- and be willing to listen to other points of view and be willing to learn, particularly from people who've been around like Senator McConnell and others, who- who can help him understand help him and others understand that- that this is a different kind of aggression by far than what happened in Iraq in 2003. And- and there is no assurance that- that Putin will stop with Ukraine and- and to not understand that potential threat. And also the degree to which it encourages others aggressors around the world, I think- I think some- some additional information briefings and education may be required.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So on China, a US official recently said to me that no one wants to say it explicitly, because we're trying to avoid a shooting war but the United States actually is essentially at war with China, that China controls much of the essential materials for green energy projects in the world. It is increasingly going and building alliances with oil producing countries like Russia, like Iran, Venezuela. It has more warships than the United States, it's doubling its nuclear forces. What is the next commander in chief walking into when it comes to this adversary?

ROBERT GATES: First of all, I think we need to be very clear: the United States is not at war with China. We are in a long- we and our allies are in a long term competition with China. And it's going to be a tough competition. It will be economic, technological, scientific, and military. The key responsibility of the leaders in Beijing and in Washington is to make sure that this competition remains being conducted by non-military instruments of power. Their main responsibility is, in fact, to avoid a shooting war between the United States and China because that would be catastrophic for everybody. But there is no mistaking that every other aspect of the relationship will be competitive, and it will be tough. And frankly, we need to up our game. The Chinese have devoted enormous resources in areas, non-military areas, where we have failed to do so in strategic communications, development assistance, and so on. Way- we have, I think, a huge advantage when it comes to economies and it- and I think we have an advantage when it comes to technology. These were advantages we had over the Soviet Union as well. But we need to up our game in all of these areas, I would say including the military. But the other aspect of this is both sides have to do everything in their power to avoid a shooting war between these two countries. That would be a disaster.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But I want to ask you about the Middle East, where there already are multiple shooting wars on multiple fronts involving US ally, Israel. Do you agree with President Biden's decision to withhold some specific armaments from the Netanyahu government while surging others?

ROBERT GATES: One of the things that has struck me has been the degree to which the Netanyahu government has essentially ignored the views and- and requests of its closest ally, beginning with more humanitarian assistance and- and taking care of the- of the civilians in Gaza. I think that there are- there are ways that we can pressure Israel. The truth of the matter is 2,000-pound bombs that are not precision guided, inevitably lead to a lot of collateral damage. They basically collapse buildings. I'm all for providing all other kinds of weapons to Israel, including precision guided bombs and other equipment that they may need. And they do need to figure out how to, at least dramatically, weaken Hamas for the long term. But I think when- when our allies ignore us, and particularly on issues that are of huge importance to us and to the region, then I think it's reasonable to take actions that try to get their attention.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You support his decision, then it sounds like?

ROBERT GATES: I think with specific- specifically focused on the 2,000-pound bombs, yes. I think it sends an important message that we- we like them want to see Hamas weakened, if not destroyed. And- but we don't think the way to do that is to flatten two thirds of the buildings in Gaza.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There were extraordinary statements from Israel's defense minister this past week, where he publicly criticized his own prime minister saying he can't get an answer to some key questions like what happens at the end of this war. He called on Netanyahu to make a decision, declare Israel will not establish civilian control or military control over the Gaza Strip, and start talking to international actors about who is going to govern. What do you think about such a public split like this in the midst of the war?

ROBERT GATES: Well, it's pretty extraordinary but- But I think, not unexpected, you know. The United States government has been asking Prime Minister Netanyahu for months, what's your plan? What happens after the shooting stops? Where are you going with this? What's the solution politically? What's the solution, economically and humanity- in humanitarian terms, and there- and neither we nor the Israelis, including his own defense minister, get any answers to those questions and I think it's reason- you know, back at the beginning of the Iraq War, General Petraeus asked the famous question, tell me how this ends. That's what everybody's been asking of Prime Minister Netanyahu. And they're not getting any answers.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you know, some Republicans hear any criticism of the prime minister as offensive.

ROBERT GATES: Well, that's up to them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I know you said you've never been a fan of Bibi Netanyahu. You said you met him back in 1989. Are- are your concerns in regard to US national security, that he could draw the US into a wider conflict?

ROBERT GATES: I don't think that- that I don't think that is likely. My biggest concern, and we need to back up and have a little perspective here. There are in fact, four wars going on in the Middle East right now. Not only the war in Gaza, but the war on Israel's northern border with Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and the disruption of the global supply chains through their attacks in the Red Sea, and then the militias in- in Syria and in Iraq. There is one power behind all four of these conflicts and that's Iran. And what we're not talking about, we become so preoccupied with Gaza, what we've failed to talk sufficiently about is how do we deal with an Iran that is basically the- the one providing the arms, the planning and the intelligence in all four of these conflicts, and that Iran is the source of the problem. How do we deal with that? That's the real issue it seems to me that's being missed.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you haven't heard a strategy, as you said, on many of these key issues--

ROBERT GATES: --No, not from anyone

MARGARET BRENNAN: --Not from anyone. I want to ask you since you are speaking to us from a college campus. What do you make of how resonant this issue is with so many American young people who are out protesting at universities?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, I think, you know, what has- what has gone on transpired between Israel and the Palestinians going back decades is very complex, very difficult. And I think a lot- a lot of the young demonstrators don't know much of that history. I think that the way the universities have handled it depends on one thing. Almost all universities have rules about how protests can take place, protecting students First Amendment rights, but at the same time allowing universities to operate without disruption and protect the rights of all the other students. I think those law- those rules on too many campuses have been enforced, have either not been enforced in the past or have been enforced consistently- inconsistently. So I think where you- where you've seen success in managing the protests and where the protests have not been disruptive, even though the students are making their points are in those universities where the rules have been consistently applied and consistently enforced.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, I have so many more questions. I could talk to you all day, but we've got to leave it there for now. Thank you for your time.

ROBERT GATES: Okay. It's been a pleasure.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's good to talk to you.

ROBERT GATES: Same here.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be right back

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.