Interview With Cynthia McFadden of ABC's Nightline
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Well, thank you both. I came over on your plane, I’m going home on your plane. His is bigger.
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) I’m not surprised.
SECRETARY GATES: Proportionate to the budgets.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I don’t know. He has a plane with no windows. Did you bring the no-window plane?
SECRETARY GATES: Yes.
QUESTION: The Doom’s Day plane. I told –
SECRETARY GATES: It’s like being Fed-Exed around the world.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Did you get scanned and screened?
QUESTION: Well, that’s a good point. Historically, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense have not exactly been best buddies. Fair to say?
SECRETARY GATES: More than fair to say.
QUESTION: So I’m interested in the relationship that the two of you have forged over the last couple of years.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we didn’t get the memo about how we were supposed to be diametrically opposite of everything. And, in fact, we’ve had, both us, the experience of former Secretaries of Defense and Secretaries of State and former National Security advisors sort of shaking their head in wonder, like, you guys are not in the groove here; you’re supposed to be constantly at each other’s throat.
It’s been, for me, a real please to work with Bob and to find that we have a lot in common. We have different experiences that we bring to the table, but I think we have very – a very common view about some of the National Security challenges we face.
QUESTION: Well, do you share a core – a sort of world view, do you think? Is that the basis of the relationship?
SECRETARY GATES: I think we have a very compatible view of the world, but I would just, in terms of the question that you put to Hillary, I think my approach has been shaped very much by the fact that I spent almost nine years on the National Security Council staff under four different Presidents. And I would see the interagency bicker, and every now and then I’d say at a meeting, “There, for a moment, I thought we all worked for the same government.” And I came out of that experience believing that the President was very badly served by senior members of the government who bicker and quarrel with each other, and particularly in public.
And that – and I think the starting point is the Secretary of Defense acknowledging that the Secretary of State is the principle spokesperson for American foreign policy. And so we have our role, but the Secretary of State has her role. And I think acknowledging that – because a lot of time in the past where I have seen this conflict, and it’s been more characteristic than not going back a long time of conflict, I think it’s because the Secretary of Defense has been unwilling to sort of see this division of labor within the government.
SECRETARY CLINTON: With Bob’s extensive experience in government and different positions – because, obviously, he was in the White House, he was at the CIA, he’s now at the Defense Department – he’s developed this perspective of trying to cut through the shaft. I mean, get to the meat of the matter, figure out what it is we’re trying to accomplish, what our goals are, what’s the best way of getting there. And it’s not that we agree on everything, but we come to our internal debates with a respect for the other person and an understanding of the institutional prerogatives that we both each represent. For me, it’s been a particular pleasure to work him.
QUESTION: So I’m going to go back before you all became so kum-ba-ya with each other. (Laughter.) Like, all right, so you got appointed first. Right?
SECRETARY CLINTON: No, he was there.
QUESTION: Well, no, but Obama – had the President asked you to stay?
SECRETARY GATES: We were actually all announced the same day.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yeah, in Chicago.
SECRETARY GATES: In Chicago.
QUESTION: And so when you heard she was Secretary of State, you thought – because you didn’t really know each other.
SECRETARY GATES: Yeah.
QUESTION: What did you think? What was the first thing that went through your head?
SECRETARY GATES: I was – I thought it was going to be interesting. That’s – all I knew about Hillary was what I’ve seen on TV and so on.
QUESTION: And what did you think? Tough?
SECRETARY GATES: Yeah.
SECRETARY GATES: Yeah. And – but somebody who also was very effective in communicating.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I had been on the Armed Services Committee, so I had the experience sitting on the other side of the table from Bob when he came to testify as Secretary of Defense. And it was such a change from his predecessor, Mr. Rumsfeld, because this Secretary would actually answer questions. He would express his opinion. He was extremely straightforward, and I welcomed that. So – although I didn’t know him personally until we started serving together, I had observed him on several occasions and believed that he was a straightforward Midwesterner who could get to the heart of an issue and stake a claim as to what he thought was the right thing to do, and I admire that.
QUESTION: Because you do understand from a distance, you look at the two of you and just say, “Mm, maybe not so much.” Besides the Midwestern thing, we’ve got a Republican, we’ve got a Democrat, we’ve got a guy who’s married to a woman who can’t stand politics– (laughter) – we‘ve got a woman whose married to a guy who – most days he likes politics.
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) Yeah, but Cynthia, I mean, part of the experience of working with someone is to get beyond all of that – I mean, the caricatures and the stereotypes, the superficial kinds of characterization. And what I know about Bob Gates is that he’s a real patriot. He loves our country and that’s how I feel about myself. I mean, I took the job I have, in part, because I felt like when your President asks you to serve, you should serve. And this man has spent the better part of his life serving our country. So I am not in any way surprised that we have developed a good working relationship, because despite what are, from my perspective, superficial differences, we both have a highly developed responsibility gene, and we have a long history of service, and we approach this job with a great deal of seriousness.
SECRETARY GATES: I’d make a couple of other points I think. I think we both recognize that many of the challenges we face require what we call a whole-of-government approach. And that means the State Department and the Defense Department above all have to work together, and that signal has to be sent from the top. And if the people who work for us know that we get along and work cooperatively with one another, or even when we’ve come at problems with a different perspective, it radiates through the entire bureaucracy.
So the people who work for every cabinet Secretary who come in every day trying to set their hair on fire, that some other cabinet officer’s done some egregious – committed some egregious sin and therefore we ought to set the whole place on fire, once they realize that’s not career enhancing that, well, that doesn’t sound like what Hillary’s told me. I’ll just pick up the phone and call her. And then all of a sudden they realize – and so that becomes, I think, also very important.
QUESTION: In the new Woodward book, the two of you are referred to as “blocks of granite.”
SECRETARY GATES: I (inaudible) that.
QUESTION: Do you plead guilty?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I have no idea. I don’t know. Is that a compliment? I mean –
QUESTION: I’m asking you. Two of the five blocks of granite in terms of setting Afghanistan policy, and if the book is to believe – be believed, really pushing President Obama toward increasing troop strength in Afghanistan.
SECRETARY GATES: I think that – let me just put it this way, I found the review that we went through a year ago really an important one.
SECRETARY GATES: Because I learned some things. I adjusted some positions. I changed my views on some things in the course of that four and a half months or so. Well, the July ’11 date to begin withdrawal is one example. I had opposed any kind of dates or deadlines in Iraq, relentless, but –
QUESTION: Because you felt it gave comfort to the enemy?
SECRETARY GATES: Yeah, and denied us flexibility. But the way that it was framed and the President’s decision, and the way we talked about it – about how do you give the Afghan Government a sense of urgency that they have to take ownership of this thing, we’re not going – how do you assure, tell them and the American people we’re not going to be there forever, and you weigh that against – well, does it give some relief to the Taliban? And because of the way we discussed it and the way that the pace of the withdrawals beginning in July ’11 will be based on the conditions on the ground – if the Taliban are telling their supporters and their soldiers today, the Americans are leaving in July of 2011, they’re going to discover very quickly in August and September of 2011, we’re still there and we’re still out there killing. And so weighing those two things, I came to believe that that was the right decision. So – but that was a change of position for me.
QUESTION: What about you, Secretary Clinton?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think Bob has described the process well. It was very thorough. We had many meetings where people freely expressed their views. There was a lot of give-and-take, and I, too, learned different perspectives. There was a lot of drilling down into what was meant by counterinsurgency, what it would take in various districts in Afghanistan to win the trust of the people, what we would have to do to improve governance. It was a complex and serious effort. At the – I did not enter into it with any preconceived opinion. I entered into it with an open mind because it was a very serious undertaking.
QUESTION: Do you feel the two of you entered that pushing the President, or do you feel that he, at the end of the day, felt comfortable?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think the President was committed to the process and was open and very clear that he was going to make this decision, which he did after listening to everyone. I don’t think his conclusions agreed with any one person. I think he drew from many of us to compose what he thought was the best policy.
QUESTION: So defeat al-Qaida and downgrade the Taliban, the goal? Yes? Still the goal?
SECRETARY GATES: Reverse the momentum on the Taliban, deny them control of the populated areas, degrade their capabilities, build the Afghan National Security forces so that between the degrading of the Taliban and the elevating of the Afghan forces, within some period of time, the Afghans will be able to make sure their territory is no longer – can never again be a platform for launching attacks against anybody.
QUESTION: So how are we doing? Because a report that was leaked in October from the White House indicated not so well.
SECRETARY GATES: Well, I – this is – as I reported to the President when I came back from Afghanistan a month or so ago, this is a struggle that unusually, the closer you are to the fight, the better it looks. And –
SECRETARY GATES: And if you look at the progress that General Petraeus and the Afghan troops and our troops have made in clearing the areas around Kandahar that have been Taliban safe havens for years and years, and you read the intelligence about Taliban leaders going back to Pakistan and so on, the signs are encouraging; it’s early, it’s a tough fight.
QUESTION: And history is against us, isn’t it?
SECRETARY GATES: Actually, history isn’t against us. The people who have failed in Afghanistan have invaded Afghanistan. They’ve tried to impose a foreign system of government on the Afghans. And this is – and they have acted unilaterally.
QUESTION: So when Mr. Gorbachev –
SECRETARY GATES: So we are in Afghanistan, first of all, with the sanction of the United Nations. Second, as part of the NATO alliance. Third, and perhaps most importantly, at the invitation of the Afghan Government. And we are there to help the Afghans. This is why civilian casualties are so important and why sovereignty is so important, and observing their sovereignty, because we are there as their partners in this process, and that’s different from a foreign presence ever before in that country.
QUESTION: There are so many Americans who feel that this is a hopeless cause and that we’re spending our treasure both in terms of the money of this nation, which is one could argue, sorely needed at home right now, and the treasure of our youth – a hopeless proposition.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I know that some have that opinion. But, certainly, what we’re seeing on the ground is that progress is being made. Is it as fast as any of us want? Of course not. It’s a very difficult struggle against the Taliban. But we are making progress. And I think that the sacrifice that we’re making is very painful for all of us who are involved in our government. But we know what the down side is of walking away from an area that can once again become a launching pad for attacks against us and our friends and allies around the world.
QUESTION: Isn‘t the real problem Pakistan?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Pakistan has a major responsibility and they need to be working with us as they are to root out the Taliban and al-Qaida. I think in the last 20 months there has been a considerable change in their strategic calculation about what is in their own best interests.
QUESTION: But when?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I know when I became Secretary of State, when I was first testifying, the Government of Pakistan had made a kind of peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban in an area called Swat, and they were ceding territory in return for basically an understanding that the Taliban would leave everybody else alone. And of course, they wouldn’t, because they are aggressive in their desire to attack and undermine the Pakistani Government as well as to support the activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan. That has changed. The Pakistanis have lost far more military men and civilians than any of us have in their fight against the Taliban.
QUESTION: But isn’t it a strange, open, duplicitous, bizarre relationship? You go to Congress and ask for $2 billion for the Pakistanis, and we know that, in part, they’re supporting the – al-Qaida?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, they’re not supporting al-Qaida. They are –
QUESTION: They are certainly supporting the Taliban and the Taliban supporting al-Qaida.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, they have in the past hedged against both India and an unfriendly regime in Afghanistan by supporting groups that will be their proxies in trying to prevent either India or an unfriendly Afghan Government from undermining their position. That is changing. Now, I cannot sit here and tell you that it has changed, but that is changing. And again –
QUESTION: And if it doesn’t change would you recommend not getting the $2 billion next year?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, what we have done is, through intensive consultations with both the civilian, the military, and the intelligence leadership in Pakistan, had very frank conversations about what we expect. But I think it is important to note that as they have made these adjustments in their own assessment of their national interests, they pay – they’re paying a big price for it. And it’s not an easy calculation for them to make. But we are making progress. We have a long way to go and we have to – we can’t be impatient. We can’t say, “Well, the headlines are bad. We’re going home.” We cannot do that. Part of what we are fighting against right now, the United States created. We created the Mujahidin force against the Soviet Union. We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody name Usama bin Ladin. And then when we finally saw the end of the Soviet army crossing back out of Afghanistan, we all breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay. Fine, we’re out of there,” and it didn’t work out so well for us.
SECRETARY GATES: This is a problem that we have with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. First of all, I’ll just note, Pakistan is now at 140,000 troops on their northwestern border. They’ve withdrawn an equivalent of about six divisions from the Indian border and moved them. And they are attacking the Taliban. They’re attacking the Taliban – the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and – but they are also attacking groups that – and safe havens that are a problem for us. But the other piece of this, just to pile on what Secretary Clinton said, we face in both countries what they call a trust deficit, and it is because they believe we have walked away from them in the past at the toughest moments of their history. You can’t recreate that in a heartbeat. You can’t recreate that in a year or two. They both worry that once we solve the problem in Afghanistan, or if we don’t solve it, that either way, we will leave and leave whatever remains in their hands to deal with.
Now, we’re not leaving. We will draw down our troops over a period of time, but we have every intention of being active and aggressively involved in Afghanistan and also a long-term relationship with Pakistan. But convincing them that we mean that and that we will deliver on that is something we’ve been working at. And I think we’ve made some headway, as Secretary Clinton said, but it’s a work in progress.
QUESTION: So not to in any way underestimate the problem, but the whole problem of al-Qaida is almost like the game of Whack-a-Mole. I mean, yes, great Afghanistan, but when you look at Yemen which has, what, five or six times the number of al-Qaida, why aren’t we in Yemen? Why aren’t we in Somalia?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, first of all, I think – and I think, frankly, Hillary put it best in the hearing we did together. What you have seen develop – first of all, that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the epicenter of terrorism, because whether you’re in Yemen or in Somalia or in Asia or wherever else, they are getting encouragement, they are taking inspiration, and often they are taking guidance from Usama bin Ladin, Zawahiri, and their minions who are telling these guys what kind of operations to plan, to keep their focus on the U.S., and so on.
Furthermore, they have created what everyone calls a syndicate of terror with – if it’s not just al-Qaida, it’s the Taliban in Pakistan, it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan, it’s the Haqqani Network, it’s the LeT, it’s all these different groups. And a success for one becomes a success for all. So if we don’t deal with that problem, then we are going to have a challenge of our own security and the tentacles spread to a lot of different places – North African, Yemen , and elsewhere.
QUESTION: So what can we do to help the Yemen Government?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we’re actually working with the Government of Yemen, and we’re providing equipment, military advice. It’s their army which conducts the actions against the al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen. But we’re also trying to persuade the Government of Yemen that this is not just about killing bad guys, this is about improving the lives of the people in Yemen. So from my perspective on the diplomacy and development side, we’re trying to assist the Government of Yemen to make it clear that it’s a full, comprehensive effort to try to change direction. You look at what’s happening in Yemen – they’re running out of oil. They may be the first country to run out of water. They have a wealth of problems and there are internal conflicts between tribes in the South with the government, tribe in the North with the government. It’s an incredibly difficult political environment.
So we are working along with a lot of our allies in the Gulf, because it’s not just the United States, it’s Saudi Arabia and others who see terrorism emanating from Yemen. It’s many of our European friends, and as we just saw from the packages that started in Yemen with the Christmas Day bomber who was trained and directed from Yemen, these problems can migrate in many different directions, so we have to work where we are with governments and like-minded friends.
QUESTION: So you tell me you’re not going to stay in office more than another year, Secretary Gates? Any thoughts about who might do a good job at Defense?
SECRETARY CLINTON: We’re hoping that that timeline keeps moving further and further beyond.
SECRETARY GATES: We have –
SECRETARY CLINTON: We came in together, we should go out together. That’s my theory. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY GATES: And what we call the old folks caucus. (Laughter.) The Secretary is so much older than everybody else in the (inaudible). We’re the only ones that had to pick up on our cultural illusions and our jokes and things like that. All these younger people were sitting around going, “What? What was that all about?”
SECRETARY CLINTON: What are they talking about? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Could she do your job?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I –
SECRETARY GATES: Sure.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, yeah, but –
QUESTION: But what –
SECRETARY GATES: No, no, wait a minute, though. I just –
QUESTION: Just a sec, I asked him.
SECRETARY CLINTON: It’s not fair. First of all, we want Bob to stay, so I don’t want him on national television talking about somebody else doing his job. I’ve – .
SECRETARY GATES: I will say this: I think that one of the great strengths that Hillary brings to the job as Secretary of State is as spokesperson for the United States around the world. And to go back to the beginning of this conversation, that’s not the role of the Secretary of Defense.
QUESTION: Okay. But you’re interested in shattering those glass ceilings, and with due respect, two other people have been in this job before. There’s never been a woman sitting in the Secretary of Defense position.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, and I hope there is –
QUESTION: The budget is 100 times bigger than yours, the staff is –
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, not exactly 100. It feels like 100. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: How much is it?
SECRETARY GATES: It’s about 12 times, just give or take.
QUESTION: Well, what’s your budget?
SECRETARY GATES: The base budget is $550 billion.
QUESTION: And what’s your budget?
SECRETARY CLINTON: It’s about $50 billion, yeah. No, but I do want to see women break every glass ceiling, from Secretary of Defense to President and everything else. But I love the job I’m doing. I love being the Secretary of State. And it doesn’t matter to me that other people like Thomas Jefferson have done it. I’m doing it right now, and it is a great time to be Secretary of State, because we are having to break new ground in explaining what the United States stands for, who we are, our values around the world in ways that we could take for granted in the past that we no longer can.
I look a lot at survey data of young people. And here, in Australia, I just did a Town Hall at one of the universities this morning. Most young people around the world don’t have the same memories that their parents and grandparents had – U.S. troops fighting side by side in World World I, II, Korea, Vietnam, along with Australian soldiers or New Zealand soldiers preventing the march of fascism and communism to save countries from Singapore and Malaysia all the way to South Korea. They don’t – that’s not part of their experience. So they’re not against the United States, they just – they’re not looking and thinking about us as being important to their lives.
So the job of Secretary of State, today, is to make that case about American values and about partnerships and not just government-to-government, but people-to-people. There could not be a more rewarding and challenging effort than what I’m doing right now.
QUESTION: And if they – if the President asked you to serve as Secretary of Defense?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I have made it clear I love the job that I have.
QUESTION: If he asked you whether she could do it? (Laughter.) Hey, you can’t blame a girl for asking. All right, so what – can we go on for just a second? Because – I mean, Secretary Clinton, you just did a very compelling (inaudible) – in light of all the teen gay suicides, it gets better.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, right.
QUESTION: With the two of you sitting here, is it going to get better for gay men and women who serve in the military? Is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” going to be repealed?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I – let me answer first, because Bob, of course, has the responsibility of carrying out the policy that is in existence and any policy that might come into existence, and say that I certainly hope so. And I think again it’s kind of a generational issue on this issue, like so many issues. Young people have different life experiences. But there does have to be a thoughtful process, which is what Bob’s running right now – a process to really survey this, and examine and analyze it, and come to what is the best decision for our military and what they’re expected to do out in very dangerous and difficult situations.
QUESTION: So assuming this –
SECRETARY GATES: I would say that the leaving “don’t ask, don’t tell” behind us is inevitable. The question is whether it is done by legislation that allows us to do it a thoughtful and careful way, or whether it is struck down by the courts, because recent court decisions are certainly pointing in that direction. And we went through a period of two weeks in October where we had four different policy changes in the space of, as I say, two weeks from striking it down totally, to stay, to appeal, and so on. So I think we have the least flexibility. We have the least opportunity to do this intelligently and carefully and with the kind of preparation that’s necessary if the courts take this action as opposed to there being legislation.
QUESTION: And what about the President taking action?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, the problem that the President faces – I mean, his position on this has been clear from the very beginning and certainly from the State of the Union last year. But this is a law. This is not something – this is not a policy.
SECRETARY GATES: This is the law.
QUESTION: So there can’t be just an executive –
SECRETARY GATES: And so the President – it either has to be changed by the Congress or struck down by the courts. The President cannot do anything unilaterally.
QUESTION: So will the new Congress?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, my hope, frankly, is that if they – if we can make the case that having this struck down by the courts is the worst outcome, because it gives us no flexibility, that people will think (inaudible). I’m called a realist, a pragmatist. I’m looking at this realistically. This thing is going to go one way or the other, and I want to – when I testified last February, I said there’s smart ways to do things and there’s stupid ways to do things, and trying to do this all at once and under some kind of (inaudible), I think is not the way to do it.
QUESTION: All right. There are now seven people (inaudible). Okay. (Laughter.) So all right, when I get all seven. So you’re leaving, she’s staying for five minutes.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Okay, all right.
QUESTION: All right, great. Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Bye, Bob.