Cable exclusive: Robert Gates explains why he's critical of Obama on 'Hannity'
This is a rush transcript from "Hannity," January 14, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
SEAN HANNITY, HOST: And joining me now to explain more is the author of the brand-new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Mr. Secretary, good to see you. It's an honor to have you here on "Hannity."
GATES: Thank you.
HANNITY: I don't want to make you stretch out.
HANNITY: Is your neck OK?
GATES: Yes, I -- you know, I tripped on a rug. I wish it were something more adventuresome, but I tripped on a rug and cratered.
HANNITY: Before we get to all the politics -- and there's a lot, and you have a lot of observations about the president, the vice president, Hillary, Congress you're not very fond of -- one thing that struck me about you is something that you did every night as secretary of Defense before you went to bed. You know what I'm talking about, right?
HANNITY: Tell -- I want you to tell the audience what you did.
GATES: Obviously, I was -- every evening, I had to write condolence letters to the families of those who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I quickly -- I -- I would sign them at first and then very quickly started writing handwritten notes.
And then I was very concerned that they not become statistics for me. And so I -- with each package that would come to me, I asked for all the hometown news accounts and the interviews with their parents and their families, their brothers and sisters and their coaches and teachers, and so on. So I -- so I go to know a little bit about each one of these mainly young people who had made the supreme sacrifice for our country.
And it -- and you know, there were stories of people from -- of kids from wealthy families who chose to serve because they felt they owed it to the country, kids who were aimless and found direction in life in the military, how they liked to fish and hunt and do things like that.
And I -- so I felt like I knew them as individuals, and -- and that was -- that became very emotional for me.
HANNITY: You told -- and every night, you cried. Every -- or most every night.
HANNITY: Tell the story about how you went, I think, to a burn unit. I think I was at either Bethesda or Walter Reed. And you had a hard time.
GATES: Well, I -- I -- actually, the -- the Army's burn unit in San Antonio, and I turned to General Chiarelli, who later became vice chief of staff of the Army, and he was my senior military assistant. And we were on our way to the hospital, and I was going to see the amputees and so on.
And I said to him, I -- I said, "I don't think I can do the burn unit. I don't think I'm strong enough."
And at that time, there were a lot of kids in the burn unit because they were in these Humvees that were becoming funeral pyres for them. And -- and he didn't say anything. And -- and a couple of minutes passed, and I said, "Do they think I'm coming?" And he said, "Yes, sir." And I said, "Well, then I have to do it."
And amazingly, I walk in the rehab unit, and who's the first kid I lay eyes on is a young man who was a Marine first lieutenant, and I had handed him his diploma when I was president of Texas A&M, and I ended up signing his deployment order. And here he is with his wife and his little baby. And he asked me to give him his medal at Texas A&M.
HANNITY: Pretty touching. And well, it speaks volumes about you and how much you care and how much we all ought to give thanks for these brave men and women.
Moving on to the commander-in-chief -- "He doubts the course that he charted in Afghanistan. Doesn't believe in our strategy. He's skeptical, if not outright convinced it would fail." That's President Obama?
GATES: My concern -- it was an evolutionary process. I believe that when he made the decision on the surge, which I believe was a courageous decision because it was against the advice of all of his political advisers and virtually everybody else in the White House. I'm convinced he believed that the strategy would work.
As we went through 2010, I think in particular, the civilian side of the strategy, the non-military side of the strategy, clearly was not working. We were not changing Pakistan's hedging strategy. We were not making the Afghan government less corrupt or more effective. We weren't getting enough civilians into the field to help.
Our military operations, such as Marjah, were taking longer and were tougher than originally anticipated. And -- and so I think he had these reservations.
I will give him credit, as late as December, 2010, he was still going out in front of the public and announcing the results of the latest review and saying, you know, "We're moving ahead, we're doing a good job, we're accomplishing what we set out to do."
But I think behind the scenes, he was -- he was continually worried that the thing wasn't working and -- and expressed those concerns in large groups, as well as face to face.
HANNITY: Let me -- let me put up on the screen something that you quote in the book. You said, "Where this lack of passion mattered most for me was Afghanistan. When soldiers put their lives on the line, they need to know that the commander-in-chief who sent them in harm's way believes in their mission. They need him to talk often to them and the country not just to express gratitude for their service and sacrifice but also to explain and affirm why that sacrifice is necessary, why their fight is noble, why their cause is just and why they must prevail. President Obama never did that."
Now, when you put that together with he was if not outright convinced it would fail -- if I'm a parent and that's my kid and the Defense secretary's telling me he sent them in a war that he's convinced is going to fail, what would -- what are they thinking?
GATES: Well, I hope that what they will see is that the decisions he made, he stuck to. He continued with the surge. He -- he did as he said he would do. He said he was going to start and that we would end our combat presence there in December of 2014. And I think that the key is to focus on the actions here and -- and the fact that he sustained this effort, despite his reservations. And frankly, that's one of the reasons why I was comfortable continuing to work for him.
HANNITY: Why -- why, when the -- when the military leaders requested, I think it was either 50,000 or 60,000 troops, or risk failure -- I'll never forget those words -- and the -- the term dithering was used. Remember that point now?
GATES: Yes. Yes.
HANNITY: And then the president decided only 30,000. Now, if your commanders tell you they need 50,000 or 60,000 and you give them 30,000 or you risk failure, did that trouble you?
GATES: The -- the commanders both in Iraq, in terms of the -- the drawdown in Iraq, but also in terms of the buildup in Afghanistan, gave the president three choices.
The one that General McChrystal felt most comfortable with was actually a request for 80,000 troops. An alternative that had some higher risk of mission -- of achieving the mission was 40,000, and then there was a much smaller option that he submitted, as well.
And the president -- we debated this long and hard. And -- and the reality was that we couldn't get the last units involved in the 40,000 request into Afghanistan for at least a year in any event.
So I think I played a role in persuading the president to authorize at least 30,000, give me some wiggle room for enablers such as Medevac and intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance, ordnance disposal, and so on, and then go to the allies to try to get them to make up the difference between that and 40,000. And -- and this was one of those occasions where the allies came through.
HANNITY: You talked about a contentious relationship between the president and -- and the military. At one point, you described the president being pretty angry if -- "If I'm being gamed," was the phrase you used. And then you also write that the president -- you said, "As I sat there, I thought the president doesn't trust his commander and can't stand the Afghani president, Karzai. For him, it's all about getting out."
So why did -- how can we fight a mission if the commander-in-chief doesn't believe or trust his commanders? I mean, that's breathtaking to me as an outsider. Maybe I'm -- maybe I'm -- maybe I just don't have enough inside game in me.
GATES: I think that -- I think that the problem was that a variety -- the real problem in terms of the president's suspicion of the military, and I talk about this in the book at some length -- is that various military leaders, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, General Petraeus and General McChrystal, during the debate in the White House made various public statements that, in essence, the White House interpreted as boxing the president in or putting public pressure on him to adopt their recommendations.
And I believe that that was not an orchestrated effort to pressure the president, but I -- as I say in the book, I can show some in the White House could believe that. And I was never able to persuade the president that it wasn't an orchestrated effort, as he would put it, to jam him on the recommendations for the surge.
HANNITY: All right, we're going to come back. We'll continue with Secretary Gates. I think the most explosive allegation you make in the book is about Hillary Clinton. We'll get to that.
HANNITY: And welcome back to "Hannity." Robert Gates -- he served as our nation's Defense secretary from 2006 to 2011 under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
And he's here again to talk more about the different leadership styles when it comes to serving as commander-in-chief. His new book, "Duty" -- it's out in book stores as of today.
I thought the most damning thing that you could ever say about anybody in this book was what you said about Hillary Clinton. You said -- you wrote that Hillary told the president in front of you in 2007 her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing Obama in an Iowa primary, and the president then conceded vaguely that his opposition to Iraq and the surge had also been political. And you say, "To hear the two of them make these admissions in front of me was as surprising as it was dismaying."
Are you -- and you say a lot of nice things about Hillary in the book. Are you really suggesting that Hillary Clinton put her own personal political ambition above our troops?
HANNITY: Because that's how I interpret that.
GATES: First of all, I think the book is pretty clear that when the president responded to Hillary's comment, that -- that he was vaguely agreeing that opposition to the surge broadly had been political. And I absolutely believe that, having lived through that in the spring of 2007 up on the Hill.
There were two things that -- that made me remember what Hillary had said. The first was that I was on the opposite side of the table. And -- and Admiral Mullen and I used to joke, particularly in the first months of the Obama administration, when kind of every meeting in the Situation Room, everybody would trash the Bush administration and everything the Bush team...
HANNITY: You talk about that a lot, acting like you're not there.
GATES: The Bush team -- you know, what a bunch of bums the Bush team were, and everything. And we're sitting there and thinking, what, are we invisible? We were integral members of that team. And -- and so the fact that she would say something like that...
But the other thing that struck me and I guess made an impact on me was because, frankly, it was an anomaly. I never -- in the whole two-and- a-half years we served together, that was the only time I ever heard Secretary Clinton ever mention domestic politics in terms of her views or recommendations on decisions for the president.
And the irony is, she used that reference because she was very strongly with me in supporting the surge in Afghanistan against the recommendations of the White House staff and the -- and the vice president.
HANNITY: Well, doesn't it make it worse, though, because she's -- she was supporting the surge. She's with you. She really agreed with the surge back then, but didn't support it. And that means not -- as far as I'm concerned, that -- that's the equivalent of not supporting our troops.
GATES: Well, I -- I guess my attitude is that -- is that there's a difference between when you're a politician campaigning in campaign mode and a senator, and when you have executive branch responsibilities. And when she was secretary of state, I never heard anything like that.
HANNITY: I understand. Maybe I just -- to me, that would be putting her personal ambition above the troops, which, to me, is almost unforgivable, and especially if she has the ambition of being a commander- in-chief at some point.
I really enjoyed -- you had at different points in the book comparisons between President Bush and President Obama. You said, "It's difficult to imagine two more different men than George Bush and Barack Obama," and you had fewer issues with Bush, obviously.
But you also talked about some similarities here. And you talked about from early on, President Obama desiring to win re-election. What are the main differences you saw?
GATES: Well, I think the first big difference was that I was serving President Bush in the last two years of his administration. All the big decisions except the Afghan surge had been made in national security. He -- he knew he'd made his historical bed and would have to lie in it one way or another. And he was never going to run for re-election and neither was his vice president.
I served in the first two-and-a-half years of the Obama administration, and frankly, I suspect that the same kind of sharp-elbowed politicos were present at the beginning of the Bush administration, but they were pretty much gone by the time I got there.
So domestic politics -- what I describe in the book is domestic politics were a factor in every discussion of major foreign policy issues. And the thing I give President Obama credit for is that on several of these issues, like the Afghan -- the surge in Afghanistan, he actually went against the political advice of all of his White House political advisers and the vice president.
HANNITY: Yes. You -- but it is interesting, as -- as I read the differences that you have between them here, stylistically, how Bush, you felt, was more comfortable around the military, where you didn't get the same sense that President Obama was comfortable around military leaders.
GATES: Yes, he was -- the way I describe it in the book is he was always respectful. He always gave the military leaders as much time as they wanted, listened carefully, was never nasty to them.
But I always had the feeling with him, first of all, that he was suspicious of their motives. And second, that time spent with them was an obligation, rather than something he enjoyed. And I -- and I felt that President Bush genuinely enjoyed being around these senior leaders.
HANNITY: What made you come to the conclusion that from day one, President Obama was seeking re-election?
GATES: Well, I think that was pretty obvious.
GATES: It didn't require a political scientist...
GATES: ... to figure that out.
HANNITY: So you felt every decision he made was seen through that political prism?
GATES: It was a part of the discussion. And -- and what I say in the book is that, for example, the vice -- I -- in describing things like the Afghan surge, I say that the president was aware of the politics, but unlike Vice President Biden and then Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, was not driven by the domestic politics.
HANNITY: And interestingly, stylistically, you said they had more in common than you would have thought.
GATES: Well, they -- they -- you know, like most presidents, they liked to spend their time with close friends, and they didn't much enjoy the Washington social scene. I think -- I think one of the references that they -- probably neither one liked was that -- that I didn't think -- that I thought both of them detested the Congress, including members of their own party...
HANNITY: Oh, you had a few nice...
GATES: ... and didn't...
HANNITY: ... choice words yourself for Congress.
GATES: ... and didn't...
GATES: ... and didn't want anything to do with them anymore than they had to. And so...
GATES: ... and comparing them to other presidents I had worked for, I said they had the worst of both worlds. They were neither much liked nor much feared.
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