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With the United States’ position on the world stage under intense scrutiny, the former Secretary of Defense assesses the challenges facing the Trump administration. Gates, who served under both George W Bush and Barack Obama, speaks to the IBA’s US Correspondent, Michael Goldhaber, about resolving the North Korea crisis and American policy in the Middle East, as well as matters closer to home.
Michael Goldhaber: I want to plunge right in and ask about Russian policy. Did President Obama respond adequately to the intelligence that Russia was interfering in the United States elections last year?
Robert Gates: I was out of government, so I don’t know how much information was available to the President or the deliberative process that went on, other than what I’ve read in the newspapers. If there had been a concern, I can understand that speaking out too strongly might have been interpreted as the President using Russian interference as a way to weigh in on the outcome of the election himself.
So, I can see where they may have been deterred perhaps if they didn’t have a full read on the extent of Russian interference, but also by their own concerns about being seen to interfere in the election process. But I think the general feeling is, if they had any concept then of how much we now know the Russians were doing, then the response was not sufficient.
MG: Now, to the extent that the Trump campaign did have ties to Russia: are the media, the US Congress and the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, responding at an appropriate level, or are they overreacting?
RG: I can’t really speak for any of those with direct knowledge, because I don’t know what they know. But, it seems to me that the investigations that are going on are appropriate and there have not, to the best of my knowledge, been leaks out of the Mueller investigation that would create problems. And, frankly, the congressional investigations have been pretty discreet.
Part of the problem here is that we are not the only targets of Russian interference. So the more other countries know about Russian activities to interfere with or delegitimise their elections, as happened with us, the better off we all are.
MG: Let’s move on to North Korea, where President Trump faces his first major security crisis. When the President pushes China to punish North Korea economically, do you worry more that this strategy will be ineffectual, or that it might trigger the collapse of a nuclear state?
RG: I think clearly the latter is China’s primary concern. The one thing that worries China more than a nuclear-armed North Korea is a North Korean regime that collapses, sending millions of refugees across the border into China, but also potentially leads to a reunified Korean peninsula under the auspices of US ally, South Korea.
I think we underestimate how difficult the relationship between China and North Korea is right now. Kim Jong-un has never been to Beijing, has never been to Pyongyang. In some ways, the nuclear tests were as much a gesture of scorn and an attempt to embarrass President Xi Jinping as to send a message to the West, to us and our allies, to Japan and South Korea.
China is signing up to an additional set of sanctions. But maybe more important is the announcement that the Chinese government is now telling Chinese banks to close North Korean accounts. China’s trying to walk a very fine line between putting additional pressure on North Korea and avoiding bringing about collapse.
MG: When President Trump threatens North Korea with ‘fire and fury’, do you worry he is being reckless?
RG: It seems to me that he was saying there would be a military retaliation if North Korea attacked the US or one of its allies. When you have a delicate situation like North Korea, people need to be careful about the rhetoric they use, because we don’t understand them very well and they don’t understand us very well. The potential for misunderstanding is serious.
That said, we’re dealing with the reality that a quarter-century of US policy toward North Korea has failed. How do you change the game in a way that somehow either eliminates or limits the potential of North Korea holding an American city at risk while it pursues other agendas in South Korea or who knows where? We’re in a very difficult situation now, because we know what’s gone before has failed.
How do we try and contain or get rid of the nuclear threat from North Korea? Maybe some stronger language communicating, particularly to the Chinese, that we’re very concerned about this and will not allow the status quo to continue. But, when you go down that road, you have to be very careful and certainly don’t want to send any spontaneous messages that have not been carefully thought through.
MG: The President has tweeted that ‘Talking is not the answer!’ He’s also accused Seoul of appeasement. Should talking be a bigger part of the answer?
Robert Gates also discussed a potential solution to the North Korea nuclear crisis – and the role of China – during an interview at the IBA Annual Conference in Sydney
The President’s comments in many respects have gotten the Chinese attention that we have to have some action to prevent North Korea from having the ability to strike the US with nuclear weapons. But I’m not seeing any strategy beyond that. Where do we go from here?
My own view is that to ask the North Koreans to denuclearise at the outset is a complete non-starter. It has no chance of success. This guy in Pyongyang, he may be reckless, he may be inexperienced, he certainly is ruthless, but he’s very pragmatic.
First of all, are we prepared to tolerate North Korea having some number of nuclear weapons for some period of time, and what are we prepared to do to limit that threat and perhaps eventually arrive at our goal: the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula? Let the Chinese do the negotiation because they know that the consequences of not succeeding are very dangerous for them, as well as for the North Koreans? At least initially, the North Koreans would have to limit the number of nuclear weapons they have to a very small number – half a dozen – and no more ballistic missile tests at all, ever, plus there will be any time, any place inspections. In exchange for that, we will sign a peace treaty,
recognise the government and, as they comply, we will be willing to lift certain sanctions. If they don’t do this, then we are going to put a huge number of anti-missile capabilities into Asia.
So there’s no good solution to this problem, but maybe there’s a path that involves the US going to Beijing and saying, ‘here’s the deal, it’s not a negotiation, take it or leave it, but it includes some real carrots but also some real sticks’, and see what happens.”
RG: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have both made it pretty clear: talking or negotiation is the only alternative to conflict, so obviously it’s central to the solution.
MG: I’d like to discuss the Middle East next. You were, of course, deeply identified with President George W Bush’s military surges. In Afghanistan, President Trump has announced his own mini-surge, which appears to amount to a move from about 11,000 to nearly 15,000 troops. Is it possible for him to succeed without specifying the criteria of success?
RG: I think that the changes in strategy are important, they’re not just superficial. The mission now is not counterinsurgency, but a focus on training the Afghan forces and helping them become more effective. Changing the mission to something much less ambitious than nation-building, but rather focusing on the security forces and the ability of the Afghan government to simply maintain control of its own territory, is much more realistic than the objectives set by either President Bush or President Obama.
MG: Under President Trump, America dropped the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), known as the ‘mother of all bombs’, in eastern Afghanistan. US drones have inflicted greater civilian casualties without presidential signoff in all of the declared war zones of the Muslim world. The Pentagon is on a spending spree and, we’ve learned, is studying the possibility of making small tactical nuclear weapons. Does the military have too much autonomy?
RG: First of all, the Pentagon is not on a spending spree. It has had continuing resolutions at the beginning of every fiscal year for the last ten years. It’s been operating under sequestrations since 2011, which have dramatically cut back its spending. Many of the maintenance and training problems we’re seeing manifested in accidents are the result of these budgetary stringencies and the unpredictability of how much money the Pentagon is going to have to spend. They’ve got a lot of plans – whether it’s modernising the nuclear triad or anything else – but those plans aren’t funded to follow through.
MG: Would it be accurate to say that President Trump’s proposed budget envisions a spending spree?
RG: If you mean taking the US from having fewer warships afloat today than at any time since before World War II, to a higher number of warships; or going from air force combat aircraft that are, on average, 27 years old, to something newer, then I suppose you can call that a spending spree. I don’t. This is about long-neglected modernisation of US forces.
MG: I sense from the tenor of all your answers that you give pretty high grades to the Trump administration for its conduct of foreign policy and security policy so far.
RG: Well, I have some concerns. I think walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a huge mistake, and a gift to the Chinese. I think the rhetoric going after our allies in South Korea and Japan and initially in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as the early reluctance to reaffirm the Article V commitment of the NATO Charter, were problematic. All involved unnecessary turbulence that has conveyed a sense of unreliability in the eyes of others about the US.
But President Trump has done well in terms of being in touch with Chinese President Xi on a regular basis. That relationship, which is really important, has been managed relatively well. Obviously, we have much bigger issues in the Middle East, and we have Russia, and so on. So it’s a mixed record.
MG: What about domestically?
RG: In domestic policy, frankly, we haven’t done anything. We’ve got a lot of big problems in front of us, and we haven’t seen any progress from the government in general, whether it’s the President, the White House or Congress. We’ve got infrastructure problems, problems with public education, the immigration issue and a need for tax reform. So I guess I’d have to give everybody an ‘incomplete’ but, if we continue to see a lack of action, that may move into the ‘fail’ column.
MG: Changing tack again, what do you make of the President’s use of executive orders?
RG: I think there’s been a big abuse of executive orders, and not just under this President, but under President Obama and others. The reality is that an executive order leads people to believe that something is going to change permanently when, in fact, it will likely last only as long as that president and his successors want it to.
So, if you have a change of parties, as we have had, going back and forth over many years, anything that one president does can be overturned by the next president without Congress or the public having a vote or a single thing to say about it.
Part of my concern is that presidents, both Republican and Democrat, have seen executive orders as an outlet for their frustration of the difficulty of getting Congress to act. But recent presidents have not invested very much time in cultivating Congress and doing the hard daily slogging necessary to carve a majority out of Congress to get these things done on a permanent basis.
The key is for presidents to be willing to invest the political capital and the personal time in working with Congress and making compromises to get actual laws enacted. Only when Congress acts and there’s a law can you be assured that it will last. That’s the way things move forward in this country.
MG: In your recent book on leadership and in related writings, you’ve said the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate, and called on the President to restore civility in politics. You’ve also warned of candidates who would place all that holds us together as one people at risk for their own ambitions. Is President Trump failing in his duty as a statesman and a leader?
RG: I think a lot of our political leaders are failing in their responsibilities as leaders, in terms of sacrificing what’s best for the nation to what’s best for them personally, politically, or what’s best for their party. There are far too many people across the political spectrum who are not focused on what brings us together as a people. When it comes to facing challenges, we can have our disagreements, but why can’t we treat each other with respect and dignity? Frankly, I don’t see many politicians in either party who are stepping up to that plate.
Michael Goldhaber is the IBA’s US Correspondent.He can be contacted at email@example.com