Gates Shows Optimism for Afghan Fight, U.S. Leadership

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)

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