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Transcript: Robert Gates on 'FOX News Sunday'

The following is a partial transcript of the Sept. 16, 2007, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace":

"FOX NEWS SUNDAY" HOST CHRIS WALLACE: Well, with us now to discuss the way forward in Iraq, Iran and other hot spots is the secretary of defense, Robert Gates.

And, Mr. Secretary, welcome to "FOX News Sunday."

DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: Thank you.

WALLACE: You made news Friday when you said that you hope we can get down to 100,000 troops by the end of 2008. What would it take? What would the situation on the ground have to be for that to happen?

GATES: Well, first of all, what didn't get covered was the fact that I indicated very strongly that that depended very much on what happened on the ground and that if we were to continue drawdowns, it would be because the situation in Iraq had continued to improve dramatically.

The key here, it seems to me, is what kind of conditions we will have in Iraq in March when General Petraeus makes his re-evaluation. Then we can...

WALLACE: But what is it we'd have to see in terms of improvement for troops to draw down?

GATES: Well, I think you'd have to see, first of all, the same thing that you're going to have to see for the drawdowns between December and July, and that is not only continuation of the successes that we've had now but additional success, additional security, in Iraq.

WALLACE: Also additional political or some would say the beginnings of national political progress?

GATES: Well, there's so much going on below the national level that we didn't expect that has had a big impact — for example, the turn in Anbar, obviously, that everyone's been talking about.

But there also, it seems to me, is growing unhappiness in the Shia areas with the excesses of Jaish al Mahdi, the Shia extremist group. And so you may see some political developments on that side.

But the other part is what the president has talked about, what we've all talked about, that although some of these laws haven't been passed that we've put as part of the benchmarks and so on, things are actually happening in terms of oil revenues being shared, provincial empowerment, Baathists from Saddam's army being brought back into the army and so on.

So there — some of these things that we refer to as reconciliation are taking place on the ground.

WALLACE: Now, you made it very clear that this was your personal view about the 100,000 troops, but you're also a pretty careful guy. Fair to say that the president also shares this hope that, if things continue, you could get down to 100,000 by the end of the year?

GATES: You know, I didn't actually use the number. Somebody else — one of the people who asked the question jumped to that number. What I said was...

WALLACE: But you said the math was...

GATES: What I said was that I hoped the conditions would improve in Iraq to the extent that not only could we complete the drawdowns that General Petraeus has said he would like to make between now and July, but also that they could continue thereafter.

So everything depends on the conditions on the ground.

WALLACE: And because we're going to talk about this with the next guest, Senator Biden, let me ask you, what happens if we pull out too quickly?

GATES: Well, I think if I'm disappointed in the quality of the debate here in Washington about anything, it is the failure to address consequences.

If we get this next phase wrong — no matter how you feel about how we got to where we are, the consequences of getting this wrong for Iraq, for the region, for us are enormous.

The extremist Islamists were so empowered by the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. If they were to be seen or could claim a victory over us in Iraq, it would be far, far more empowering in the region than the defeat of the Soviet Union.

So I think we — as we think about — everyone is focused on timetables and this, that and the other thing. What I think people need to also be talking about are the consequences of getting this thing wrong.

WALLACE: Let's talk about the situation on the ground in Iraq, because the president told the American people on Thursday about progress in the Iraqi military. But the one independent expert that he cited gave Congress a very different report. Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: According to General Petraeus and a panel chaired by retired General Jim Jones, the Iraqi army is becoming more capable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. JAMES JONES (RET).: The Iraqi army cannot yet operate independently due to a chronic lack of logistics, supply, mobility, and national command and control capabilities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: In fact, Mr. Secretary, General Jones said that the Iraqi army is still 12 to 18 months away from operating independently.

So by talking about success or becoming more capable, wasn't the president sugar-coating the situation?

GATES: Well, I don't think so. I was briefed by General Jones and by several members of his panel, and in truth, they were very optimistic, very upbeat about...

WALLACE: Do you think that sounded optimistic?

GATES: Well, let me finish — upbeat about the progress of the Iraqi army.

There's no question that they still lack the logistics capabilities — that was what he was focused on — and the ability to have their own intelligence, their own air cover and so on, and we will have to continue to provide those kinds of things.

But they were very upbeat about the quality of the army, about the ministry of defense, about their fighting capability, about the numbers, about the training, about the quality of the soldiers and their ability to carry on the fight.

You know, the situation in Iraq is not just one — all one color, if you will, and I think General Petraeus talked about this. You know, there are some provinces where there are no coalition forces at all.

There are others where the Iraqi army is in the lead, and then there are the others where the heaviest fighting is going on where we're in the lead. So you have to look at the different parts of the country as you evaluate it.

WALLACE: The Democrats' lead idea to try to change the president's plan at this point seems to be a measure that's going to be offered by Senator Jim Webb that would require that troops spend as much time at home as they do deployed in the field.

It sounds like a good idea. What's wrong with that? And would you recommend that the president veto it?

GATES: Well, I think it's a well-intentioned idea. I think it's really pretty much a back-door effort to get the president to accelerate the drawdown so that it's an automatic kind of thing rather than based on the conditions in Iraq with all the consequences that I talked about earlier.

I think that the — if, as I believe, the president would never approve such a bill, it would mean that we would — if it were enacted, we would have force management problems that would be extremely difficult and, in fact, create — I think affect combat effectiveness and perhaps pose greater risk to our troops.

We would have to be looking at gapping units where there would — a unit pulling out would not be immediately replaced by another, so you'd have an area of combat operations where no U.S. forces would be present for a period, and the troops coming in would then face a much more difficult situation.

We'd have to look at potentially making greater use of the Guard and Reserve. We'd have to cobble together units from individuals and other units. We'd have to track the service in Iraq of each individual soldier.

So it becomes a very difficult, if not impossible, force management issue if we were to be constrained in that way.

WALLACE: Direct question: As secretary of defense, given all of that, would you recommend, if it does pass the Congress, that the president veto it?

GATES: Yes, I would.

WALLACE: General Petraeus said this week that Iran is training and equipping Shiite militias to fight a proxy war against us in Iraq, and I asked him if he knows where this is being done across the Iranian border.

Let's take a look at what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAJ. GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. ARMY: We believe that we know where some of the training camps are. We believe that we know where some of the weaponry is made.

WALLACE: You're a straight-talker. Have you have ever discussed cross-border action?

PETRAEUS: As a straight-talker, I've learned to go around certain minefields rather than go through them, and that is one that I'd rather avoid.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: I'm going to take that as a rather — that non-answer as an indication he has discussed this up the chain of command.

As the general's boss, why not cross the Iranian border to take out these camps that are endangering U.S. soldiers?

GATES: Well, first of all, there's a question of just how much intelligence we have in terms of specific locations and so on.

But beyond that, I think that the general view is we can manage this problem through better operations inside Iraq and on the border with Iran, that we can take care of the Iranian threat or deal with the Iranian threat inside the borders of Iraq — don't need to go across the border into Iran.

WALLACE: Let me ask you a more general question, because there's a lot of chatter in Washington now that the administration is more actively considering various plans to take military action against Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program.

First of all, is that true? And secondly, can you promise that the president will consult — will go to Congress for approval before he would ever take any such action?

GATES: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about what he may or may not do.

I will tell you that I think that the administration believes at this point that continuing to try and deal with the Iranian threat, the Iranian challenge, through diplomatic and economic means is by far the preferable approach. That's the one we are using.

We always say all options are on the table, but clearly, the diplomatic and economic approach is the one that we are pursuing.

WALLACE: That's on the front burner still.

GATES: Yes.

WALLACE: Let's turn to another part of the world. Is Syria involved in a covert nuclear program with North Korean assistance?

GATES: Well, I'm not going to get into things that may involve intelligence matters, but all I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully.

WALLACE: How would we regard that kind of effort both by — in terms of the Syrians and the North Koreans?

GATES: I think it would be a real problem.

WALLACE: Because?

GATES: If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern, you know, because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts.

And obviously, any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern for us.

WALLACE: And you can give us no confirmation that, in fact, they are involved in that kind of program?

GATES: Will not address that.

WALLACE: Let me ask you one other question. Was there an Israeli air strike on Syria last week?

GATES: We don't talk about the military operations of other countries. You'll have to ask the Israelis.

WALLACE: Well, they're not going to answer us, but you can't blame me for trying.

Finally, let's talk about that MoveOn.org ad about "General Betray Us" that has caused a lot of comment. What are your thoughts about an attack on the integrity of a U.S. commander leading American men and women in the middle of a war?

GATES: I thought the ad was despicable.

WALLACE: Would you like to go on about that?

GATES: No. That says it all.

WALLACE: And what do you feel about the unwillingness of people running for president, running for commander in chief, refusing to denounce that ad?

GATES: I think they'll have to be the judge of their own reactions to that kind of thing and the voters as well.

WALLACE: But you think it's despicable. And do you view it as something that says something about a candidate for commander in chief that they would refuse to denounce that ad?

GATES: I'll just leave it where I did.

WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, we want to thank you for coming in. Thanks for coming in today and talking with us. And please come back, sir.

GATES: Thank you. Happy to do it.