tv Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Public Service CSPAN November 24, 2021 1:37am-2:06am EST
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washington post for a discussion on public service and the need to recruit young people to help reform government agencies. david: welcome to washington post live, i am david ignatius, a columnist for the post. today we are going to focus on public service with two people who served our country in significant ways. bob gates, former cia director and defense secretary who spent a half-century in public service, and later, we will talk with stephanie thompkins, director of darpa. let's start with secretary dates, welcome back to washington post live. good to see you. mr. gates: thank you, great to see you. david: you started working for the cia back in 1966 while you you are studying at indiana university.
you took a stand to serve in the air force, then came back to the cia. tell us what drew you to public service in the first place. mr. gates: i was at the russian and eastern european institute at indiana university, earning a masters degree, and the cia recruiter showed up on campus back in the day when that was still possible, happily back in better days, but to tell you the truth, i met with the recruiter mainly as a lark in the hope of getting a free trip to washington, d.c. but when they offered me a job, i think because i was -- had been studying the soviet union, and this was at the height of the cold war, i decided that i would try that for a while and perhaps do my bit in the cold war, in the struggle against the soviet union. so it was an outgrowth of my academic focus. i thought i would teach in college, but when the opportunity came to work for the agency, i agreed to do that. i never anticipated that it would be a career.
but it was so interesting and they just kept offering me interesting jobs, and all of a sudden, it was a quarter of a century later. audience -- the cold war is now long past, thank goodness. the motivation that he felt as a young man is not present in the same way. what would you say to young people in terms of what would motivate them today, to think about it in public service? mr. gates: the struggle for democracy, particularly in the foreign policy arena, the struggle for democracy is still as important and clearly as needed today as it was in the mid-1960's. there is the idealistic aspect of, first of all, how can i
protect democracy here at home? how can i advance democracy and human rights abroad? there is also the other side of it is the opportunity to serve this country and to advance our interests. we've got a lot of division today, a lot of polarization, even paralysis. but the fact is most people would not choose to live in any other country. so how do we protect our own interests? how do we protect our own democracy? these are idealistic reasons for going into public service, in addition to the more personal aspect, that it is just a very gratifying and personally satisfying way to spend part of your life. david: let's talk about the cia for a minute, where you spend so much of your career. how do you think the agency has done in holding onto his public service ethos, and in
particular, i have to ask you what you felt when you heard president trump and people around him attacked the cia as part of a deep state that they were arguing people should be suspicious of. what would you say in response to that? mr. gates: i have been through -- i, like most career people at cia, have been through many ups and downs. the investigations of the mid-1970's, cia has never, shall we say, gotten a great press in this country, at least not in the last 40 years or so. most people who work for the agency are accustomed to those ups and downs in public perceptions. it never hurts our recruiting. what really mattered was in terms of morale was whether or not what we were doing was valued. and although we would get bad
press and although there would be congressional investigations and someone, the fact is most presence found the agency and the work that it did, both in the espionage, and what was going on around the world as well as the clandestine part and covered action, to be a value and as long as the president thinks what you are doing is important and of value, then the external ups and downs are less important. and for -- david: and for people who worry about a deep state with the intelligence agency at the center of it, what is the bob gaetz answer? mr. gates: i haven't part of those agencies for a long time and the notion that they could conspire or collaborate with one another, both within a single agency and between one agency and others, is laughable on its face.
as cia director and a secretary of defense, i heard a lot about conspiracy theories and so on and i always thought it was laughable because first of all, no one in washington can keep a secret. if there was actually a conspiracy or some deep state trying to program or plan something, the notion that it would not leak is contrary to every experience of the last half a century. either somebody would leak it because they would not want to be part of it or somebody would think there was a lot of money in being able to write an article or book about it. i, in fact, wish that there were better collaboration and cooperation among the agencies of the federal government, particularly those dealing with foreign threats and domestic threats. one of the reasons for 9/11 was the absence of such
collaboration between domestic and foreign policy agencies. david: i want to ask you about some questions in the news, the sorts of things that people think about when they are considering working for the government. let's start with afghanistan. you were secretary of defense for nearly five years of that war. i remember traveling as a journalist with you a bunch of times to afghanistan. i remember your comments. i want to ask you what you felt in august with the fall of the government, the taliban taking over in kabul, a somewhat chaotic retreat. you lived this war as secretary of defense. what did you feel watching that? mr. gates: well, particularly the events surrounding the kabul airport really left me feeling pretty low.
two different presidents, one republican and one democrat, made the decision, elected by the american people, and be the decision it was time to leave. we can argue about whether leaving 3500 or a few more soldiers in kabul or in afghanistan for a protracted time might or might not have been the right policy for us to follow, but you have two presidents of different parties who made this decision. what was unnecessary, in my view, was the way it turned out. it did not have to end that way. beginning with president trump's decision or deal with the taliban in february of 2020, the planning for an evacuation not just of the americans but of the afghans you helped us should have begun right then in terms of making contact with these people, getting their contact information, perhaps getting biometrics on them, getting visas prepared, and figuring out
contingency plans ready to have multiple evacuation points so we were not limited to the airport. there was a lot of time where planning should have taken place , because it does not take great intelligence, just common sense, to understand that if we announce we are leaving altogether and we are taking with us the maintenance and the logistics, all those capabilities that had enabled the afghan military, the notion that there would not be -- that things would not go downhill pretty quickly, i think, is naive, and whether it took two weeks or two months or a year, it was clear the direction events were going to go in afghanistan and we should have prepared for that and we had a lot of time to prepare for it. david: question that is very much on our minds this week is
russia, russian troops on the border of ukraine. russia was an area of your specialization as a cia analyst, you know russia as well as anybody that i talked to. what is your reading of the situation? what do you think putin is up to and you think an actual russian move in the ukraine is likely? mr. gates: i think putin loves keeping the west and the united states in a state of -- to quote from mel brooks -- high anxiety. and he loves us not knowing what he is going to do next. he loves us getting all worrying and making public statements where it is not clear what we would do if they did act. whether or not they would move in to easton ukraine, i would be surprised because i think that would have significant
consequences for russia, particularly on the economic side. but i know our military is very concerned about that presence of 100,000 russian soldiers on the border of easton ukraine and the capabilities that they have, and the afghan army is pretty forward deployed, about 50,000 people. the ukrainian army, i'm sorry, is forward deployed, at a pinterest movement could do some serious damage there. i think our military is concerned if putin did decide to act, what he would be able to do. but i think he also sees this as a way of continuing to gem up nationalism in ukraine, he points to u.s. and british and other naval activity in the black sea and the u.s. helping
ukraine, so he uses this at home to try and justify both his repression at home and his behavior toward the west, and whether it is going along with television leader -- with the relevant russian leader and greeting problems -- with the belusian -- belarusian leader and problems at the polish border, at the end of the day, he is a classic bully and we have not quite figured out how to push back on him and how to make him understand that there are consequences for him as well as for russia of his aggressive behavior, so i think the worry about ukraine is justified.
the question is whether he actually pulls the trigger, and frankly, i think a major military move into easton ukraine, i would say the odds are against that, but i would not bet a lot of money against it. david: no one whose judgment about this is more useful than secretary gates. i want to ask you before we return to public service about another issue young people think about, that is that u.s. relationship with china. president biden this week had a zoom summit with xi jinping. i'm curious about whether you are worried that china, under president xi, may move sooner rather than later to try to reunify taiwan. he said he does not want to do it by force but he is clearly determined to do it. is that something that you think
we can address better than we are doing now? mr. gates: i think the likelihood of a full-scale invasion of taiwan, the odds of that are pretty low right now. that chinese have a very limited amphibious capability. they barely exercised it. this would be an operation on the scale of d-day, and there are so many other tools that he has available to him to bring pressure on taiwan do not involve high risk of war with either taiwan or the united states or both, and by the way, a large-scale war would likely bring in the japanese, the australians, and other countries as well so it would not necessarily just be the united states. but he has the cyber capabilities to cripple taiwan, he has the ability to bring great pressure to bear because of the extensive economic connections between taiwan and the mainland, rocky has ability
to bring great economic pressure to bear. if he wanted to be more aggressive, he could potentially see is one or more small taiwanese islands that are close to the chinese coast. either the united states nor taiwan would go to war with those but it would be a nibbling strategy that would send a signal, we are coming. but at low risk of conflict. or if you want to be aggressive, he could impose some quarantine -- if he wanted to be especially aggressive, he could impose some quarantine enter the united states to break it, therefore it would be the united states starting a conflict by challenging an economic blockade. there are a number of tools short of an outright invasion that he has available to him and with the economic pressures that he is beginning to deal with at home, with the other picks coming up, i think risking a
major war is pretty low on his priority list, but there are a lot of ways in which he can bring a lot of pressure to bear on taiwan. david: let's go back to government subject today, that is public service. he said at the outset -- you said at the outset, it is a time of great polarization in our country. washington is unpopular to put it mildly. there is an inclination -- a disinclination to come work for the government. you lived through other periods where there was similar turn away from government, after the vietnam war, after watergate, we were covered for most. spewed what you see -- covered for most periods. what you see as the path to making washington more
attractive for young people? mr. gates: the message has to start at the top. over the last 10 presidents, just two encouraged young people to go into public service. president kennedy's inaugural address where he talked about ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, that inspired me. then george h w bush and his consistent message that public service was a noble calling. most other presidents have run against the government that they want to leave. so -- lead. so a message from the president that serving your country is important and not just in the military, they often will say that, but in terms of the rest of the government whether it is the state department, intelligence community, domestic agencies, law enforcement agencies, so that message needs to come from the top.
the same is true of members of congress. when was the last time you heard a member of congress talk about the importance of public service , of young people coming to serve their country and their fellow citizens? i think the message needs to start at the top, but i would also say that the leaders of various agencies have the opportunity to entice young people to work in those agencies by showing that they know these institutions need to change, need to perform. -- reform. i am a big advocate of institutions. all government agencies need to perform. we are -- reform. they all are indeed of change in becoming more efficient at better serving people. that is a message that can be sent to young people, come be part of this process, help us figure out how to serve the american people better.
that is a message of change and before, come be part of that. -- change and reform, come be part of that. that is an enticing message, rather than, as my friend would put it, come stamp visas for three years. so i think there are opportunities for young people. young people bring a lot of fresh ideas, a lot of energy. the sad thing is, right now, only 6% of the federal workforce are under the age of 30. nearly half of the workforce is over the age of 50. so something has to be done to change that demographic, and our leaders, our political leaders need to figure out a way on how you make public service and abel and the government more attractive to young people and i
think one of the messages is the inspirational message, we could do this better, come be part of it. david: let me till done on one thing that i hear -- let me drill down on one thing i hear from them people -- from young people and that is that the rules for public servants can be so stringent. the scrutiny, sometimes the humiliation, that it is not attractive to some people. the question is how do you hold public servants accountable to do the public's business and still make this an attractive area where people want to serve, think it is fun, don't think they are going to have their lives raked over the coals? mr. gates: first of all, realistically, that kind of treatment, which i guarantee i know firsthand, really does not come along for quite some time
in your career. i advise young people, if that is the kind of thing that worries you, for the first 10 years, you are not going to have to worry about that. you're going to be doing hard work whether you are in the military or state department or intelligence community. you are going to be focused entirely on doing what it is that you wanted to do when he joined that organization. in the politics that to place inside of that environment are not going to directly affect you. it will affect you when you read your washington post in the morning, it may affect your morale, but in terms of your personal life, until you become a relatively senior person, you're not going to end up in the newspapers, you are not going to end up in front of a congressional hearing. it would be nice if congress would treat the civil servant to come to testify in front of them
in public servants with a little more respect, but i started testifying in front of congress probably 35 years ago and there are some things that just don't change. you just get used to it and you do have to get something of a thick skin. four people, that is not going to be an issue and they don't need to worry about that. what they need to focus in is what can i do to help? a lot of young people will serve for five or 10 years and go do something else. so this will never actually come onto their radar screen in a personal sense. i tell them people, don't worry about that. if you want to be a cabinet officer or sub cabinet officer, at that point, you are going to have to face that reality, and it is a reality that is not going away. but for most of your career, you are going to be focused on doing
what you signed up to do in the first place and not have to worry about these extraneous things, and in terms of the rules and so on, i don't think there are any more onerous than you would find in the private sector or anyplace else. david: last quick question, you famously said in your memoir back in 2014 that joe biden had been bombed on nearly every major issue -- wrong on nearly every major issue. what would you say about him as president? mr. gates: i would say it is next. i applaud his continuation of the emphasis on quad in terms of you just strategy, the relationship with india, australia, and japan. that is important. i think the move with australia
in terms of the nuclear submarines is a very strong, long-term, strategic plus. i think that was a good decision. i think maintaining that tough line on both russia and china has been the right thing to do. i think afghanistan was poorly handled, to put it mildly. the exit from i think afghanistan was poorly handled. to put it mildly. the exit from afghanistan, i think that the diplomacy surrounding the australian submarine deal was unfortunate and probably an unforced error we could have done that in a way that didn't offend the french so deeply. i think the rhetoric of the
administration toward our allies and reinforcing the notion that our alliances matter and this is a huge advantage for the united states is important, but from the allied standpoint it is important that your actions match your words. the way that the australian sub deal was handled, the way the afghan evacuation was handled, i think left a lot of our allies feeling like the rhetoric may have changed, but basic policy decision-making hasn't. i think it is a mixed record, the key thing going forward is going to be the china strategy, getting that out and having it be a comprehensive strategy that is not just military, also
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