Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
offers insight during visit to OSU, Oklahoma
Robert Gates served under eight U.S. Presidents, met with world leaders from China, Israel, South Korea and numerous other nations during his term as the 22nd United States Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, and also spent 26 years in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council.
The 69-year-old Gates shared his experiences with nearly 5,000 Oklahomans during a two-day stop in the state this week as part of the Spears School of Business speaker series.
He spoke to the Oklahoma City business community as part of the Executive Management Briefings on Tuesday afternoon, and addressed business leaders at the Tulsa Business Forums on Wednesday morning before traveling to Stillwater later in the day where OSU students, faculty and staff had the privilege of hearing Gates speak.
Gates addressed a number of topics but one that was asked in each venue was about the upcoming election in which President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are involved in a tight race.
He believes the Nov. 6 election is one of the most important in the nation’s history, and he also says that the economy is the number-one issue for Americans going to the polls.
“I think it is more important because as a lot of commentators have pointed out we really have two very starkly different approaches to the role of government in the life of the country and in the economy,” Gates said. “I think actually both (Obama and Romney) have framed the issue pretty well.
“At some point, financial insolvency at home becomes strategic insolvency abroad,” he said. “We cannot sustain our leadership position militarily or politically around the world if we don’t have a strong economy here at home. That’s just the reality.
“So, I think addressing that domestic issue actually is one of the most significant elements of the national security policy as well. As my comrade in arms, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, put it when we were still in office, the debt really is one of our biggest security problems.
“The other big issue is really what I would call the ark of instability from the Middle East, and the reality that you have Syria, Libya, Egypt, all the way to Pakistan. There is a lot of turmoil and a lot of instability, and I think this is going to get harder before it gets easier. Really, of all the countries in the world, I can’t think of any that have the potential to be as influential as we do.
“A lot of statements that get made in the campaign are about what we will do and what won’t do and what we’ll accomplish and so on, but I think those are more ambitious than reality. But, if anybody has any influence in trying to make these things come out in a positive way, it will be us,” said Gates, who has been Chancellor of the College of William and Mary since February.
Gates, the only Secretary of Defense to have ever been retained by a newly elected President when President Obama asked him to be a Cabinet member, says no one is ever prepared to become the leader of the United States.
“I’ve worked for eight Presidents and there is nothing that can prepare you to be President of the United States,” he said. “I think at the end of the day what people need to look at is character and temperament. The temperament is really important rather than specific skills or command of certain issues.”
Americans from coast to coast were thrilled on May 1, 2011 to hear the news that U.S. Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Photos soon surfaced of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gates and many others in the war room at the White House as the attack unfolded.
Gates says the death of the founder of al-Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 were bittersweet as they brought back some painful memories.
“For me, I think it was in some ways more meaningful than the rest of them because I’ve been in that situation 30 years before, almost exactly 30 years before when the attempt to rescue our hostages in Tehran failed, and the failure began with a crashed helicopter,” said Gates. “So, I about had an aneurysm when that helicopter went down. But what you saw was 30 years of reform, change, adaptation, training and investment in the skills of the team that went in there.
“We were monitoring it very closely, but once they went inside the compound itself, inside the house, we didn’t know what they were doing. We had no communication for 15 minutes or so, and it was just dead silence until we got the code, Geronimo EKIA, enemy killed in action.
“Even then, there wasn’t any kind of celebration or high fives or anything. Obviously, it was gratifying to get him, but we had to get the team and him out of there, and out of Pakistan as well. That was a very complex operation that took about another hour and a half.”