WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2010 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday gave an optimistic view of the war in Afghanistan and of U.S. leadership overall during a television interview in which he reflected on his four decades of public service.
The secretary reaffirmed to Cynthia McFadden on ABC’s “Nightline” that he plans to leave office next year -– he won’t say when — and that he is optimistic about what he hopes to accomplish in the meantime.
“I would hope that it would be that people would recognize that we’re making progress in Afghanistan — that this is worth doing, and that the sacrifices our young men and women are making is, in fact, producing success,” he said.
Gates joked at the notion that he is irreplaceable in his job. “Sanitariums are full of indispensable men,” he said, quoting a French proverb. But he took a serious tone in describing his “highest priority” of making sure warfighters are well cared for.
“I would say I have a very paternalistic view toward these men and women out there,” he said, adding that when he speaks to young servicemembers, “I say I feel a responsibility for you as if you were my own son or daughter. And I feel that very deeply.”
The secretary confirmed that he writes handwritten notes to families of the fallen, even reading their death notices in hometown newspapers to personalize them.
“I read about what their coaches say about them, what their Boy Scout leaders say about them, what their ministers say about them, what their friends and families say about them,” he said. “I try to know something about every one of these incredible people.”
Gates noted how the threats to the United States and the subsequent demands on servicemembers have changed since the Cold War, when the focus was on averting a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. The threat was simpler then, he said, and though the consequences would be cataclysmic, the likelihood of such a war was low. In today’s world, he added, the danger of a cataclysm is low, but the likelihood of attacks is high.
“We have been both good and lucky since 9/11,” he said, adding that military, government and police capabilities are far better now before the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The diversity of challenges around the world means the United States can’t afford to reduce the size of its military right now, Gates said, adding that the scope of capabilities demanded of today’s servicemembers is broad.
The secretary recounted meeting a U.S. military captain during his first visit to Afghanistan. Based along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, the young officer trained Afghan soldiers, built roads and met with village elders. “He was providing basic services, and he was fighting a war,” Gates said of the captain. “I turned to him and said, ‘It would be a hell of a thing to go back to selling shoes now, wouldn’t it?’ ”
But the secretary said he is optimistic that the United States will prevail in Afghanistan -– and at home. Pressed on how he feels about Washington politics and governance, Gates said he has seen that Washington “is a little out of touch” and suffers from self-serving people. However, he added, that has been true throughout U.S. history.
“I’ve read a lot of history, and I know that the things that annoy me about Washington have been characteristic of the place since the beginning of the republic,” he said. “So that gives me comfort in terms of looking at the future.
“History’s dustbin is littered with countries and powers that have underestimated the United States and our power of recovery,” he added. “We have been through many tribulations. We are the most self-critical nation in the world, and we are the most quickly self-correcting, and you can see it right now.
“We’re going to be just fine,” he added. “I absolutely believe that.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)