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Robert Gates Discusses His New Book: 'Exercise Of Power'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Few people have the kind of firsthand understanding of American power as our next guest. Robert Gates spent decades in the CIA before being appointed to lead that agency. He was secretary of defense for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He served eight presidents from both parties over the course of his career. And this is how he describes the current moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT GATES: I think that we are in a weaker position in the world today than we were three years ago.

MARTIN: We brought you part one of my conversation with Secretary Gates last week in which he weighed in on current events. He supports changing the Confederate names of military bases, and he criticized President Trump's handling of the protests after George Floyd's death. This morning, our conversation looks outward to America's influence in the world. His new book is called "Exercise Of Power: American Failures, Successes, And A New Path Forward In The New Post-Cold War World." I asked him how he would define the foreign policy of President Trump.

GATES: Every president has a responsibility to put American interests as his highest priority. But I think one of the concerns that I have is that the consequence of his decisions is basically an America withdrawing within our own borders and sort of a fortress America, us against the world. And I think that's a mistake. Winston Churchill once said, the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies. And it's one of our unique advantages over both Russia and China in that we have all these allies. Do our alliances need reforming? Of course. But I don't see a strategy vis-a-vis China, a comprehensive strategy. I don't see a strategy in Europe. And so I think it's very difficult to pinpoint a Trump doctrine other than the conclusion that most of the consequences of decisions being made is to withdraw to a fortress America.

MARTIN: Gates writes that America's power lies in its ideals and to forgo our advocacy or freedom and human rights would, quote, "cede not only an instrument of our strength but what truly has made America great." But he also argues that such advocacy comes with limits.

GATES: We obviously had to go in to Afghanistan in 2001 after al-Qaida had attacked us. The difference is once those original military objectives were achieved, did it make sense to stay? And I argue in the book that because of a variety of circumstances, we could have and should have departed Afghanistan early in 2002.

MARTIN: You were the one who approved the troop surge in 2009. General McChrystal wanted 40,000 troops. You approved 30,000.

GATES: Well, once we were in Afghanistan and we had - you know, I became secretary of defense at the very end of 2006. And at that point, the question was, how do we prevent the Taliban from reasserting control of the country? So it was less about continuing to promote the objective of bringing democracy to Afghanistan than it was preventing al-Qaida from returning to power. I thought that objectives beyond that were too ambitious.

MARTIN: So what I hear you saying is there was a moment to have scaled back in 2002, and then after that moment, the door is closed. You have to just go all in.

GATES: I think that after 2002, it got harder and harder.

MARTIN: Although it's still not resolved today.

GATES: And I'm very worried that the gains that actually have been made in Afghanistan, particularly with when it comes to the rights of women, will be reversed. I worry a lot about that.

MARTIN: But at the same time, you wrote in the book that that wasn't worth fighting for, that that shouldn't have been a policy objective, a military objective, freeing Afghan women.

GATES: I agree with that. I - as I said, I don't believe that changing Afghan society should have been one of our objectives when we went into Afghanistan in 2001. But the fact is that over the past 18 years, there have been gains - these gains. And I hate to see them lost.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about China. Beijing is being very high profile about the aid that it's delivering to countries hard hit by the coronavirus. Do you worry that China has started to use soft power in a way that will further undermine America's influence on the global stage?

GATES: Yes. And they intend to do more. And what's worse, we have - as the book points out, we have weakened all of the instruments of power other than our military. And the reality is if we're lucky and we're smart, we won't have a military conflict with China. But the conflict will take place, the rivalry will take place, in all these other arenas, and that's where we are unprepared. And we have no strategy.

MARTIN: When you consider this moment, what is the case for American influence on the global stage when there is so much pain at home?

GATES: The reality is that we can either return ourselves to physical health nor to economic health on our own. The virus reached us from China. Our borders, our oceans on both sides didn't protect us against the virus. Our own future security and health depends on our guiding and shaping that international environment in ways that serve American interests. And the only way you do that is through engagement. A lot of these international institutions and a lot of our alliances are seriously in need of reform and restructuring. But the answer is not to walk away from them and, particularly in the case of international institutions, leave the field to the Chinese who fill all those positions. We are so connected in the 21st century to the rest of the world that the notion we can ignore it or pretend that we can go it alone, I think, is incredibly naive. Those who think we can avoid leadership, who think we can avoid engagement, are seriously mistaken and do not understand the way the world really works.

MARTIN: Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates - his new book is called "Exercise Of Power: American Failures, Successes, And A New Path Forward In The New Post-Cold War World." Secretary Gates, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

GATES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY TRIO'S "MISSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.