Robert Gates: Obama Should Step Up Military Assistance To Iraq

May 23, 2015
Originally published on May 23, 2015 9:48 pm

The self-declared Islamic State gained a real grip on Iraq and Syria this week, capturing the cities of Ramadi and parts of Mosul in Iraq, and the ancient town Palmyra, Syria.

Most recently, ISIS has claimed credit for a suicide bomb attack inside Saudi Arabia on a Shiite mosque during Friday prayers. That attack killed at least 19 and could represent a significant escalation of the extremist group's operations in the kingdom.

NPR's Leila Fadel reported that it was the first time a Saudi branch of ISIS known as Najd Province has claimed responsibility for an attack inside the kingdom.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells NPR's Scott Simon that the U.S. should increase its assistance of Iraqi forces in the region.

Gates, who served under both President George W. Bush and President Obama, also spoke about the latest suicide bombing. His best-selling memoir, Duty, has just been published in paperback.

Gates is now president of the Boy Scouts of America and spoke to NPR from the scouts' annual convention in Atlanta. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Simon: What is the significance of the suicide attack in Saudi Arabia?

Gates: I think it's evidence that they do have the capability to reach into various parts of the region in addition to consolidating their position in Syria and in Anbar province in Iraq. They clearly are getting a lot of recruits from all over the region and all over the world, and it's not surprising that they can carry out an isolated attack.

How would you characterize current U.S. strategy?

I think the president has the right strategy in the respect that he demanded the political change in Iraq before we did pretty much anything to help them, to get rid of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and bring in somebody who was willing to be less sectarian — although the new man, Haider al-Abadi, is facing his own challenges. I also think the president was right in saying that the primary boots on the ground need to be Arab and Kurd, not American or Western.

I think that the pacing of the provision of assistance needs to be stepped up, as well as changing the rules of engagement for our troops.

Are you confident that those steps would keep ISIS in check?

No, I'm not confident, but I do think those are measures that can be taken. There's no certainty about any of this. It's a very fluid situation. It's a very difficult situation, frankly.

Would letting ISIS come to power now mean that U.S. soldiers in Iraq had given their lives for nothing?

It's very troubling to see places, like Fallujah and Ramadi in particular, but also Mosul, where a lot of American blood was spilled, fall into the hands of these fanatics. I'm sure that every soldier and Marine that was involved in these places is looking at it and wondering whether the sacrifice was worth it.

The truth is we had a pretty good situation in Iraq in 2010, 2011, and in some ways, that was a mark of the success of our troops, in terms of security, in terms of a political dialogue. It's a sad commentary both on the actions of al-Maliki as well as the spillover from the Syrian civil war that the situation that our troops fought so hard to create has, to a considerable extent, been squandered.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The self-declared Islamic State, ISIS, gained a stronger grip on Iraq and Syria this week, capturing the ancient town of Palmyra, Syria, and in Iraq, the cities of Ramadi and parts of Mosul. There are reports today that pro-Iraqi forces are headed toward Ramadi in an apparent counterattack.

We spoke yesterday afternoon about the spreading crisis with Robert Gates. Mr. Gates was Secretary of Defense under both Presidents George W. Bush and President Obama. We asked first about the news that broke yesterday - a bomb attack by ISIS on a mosque in Saudi Arabia.

ROBERT GATES: I think it's evidence that they do have the capability to reach into various parts of the region in addition to consolidating their position in Syria and in Anbar province in Iraq. They clearly are getting a lot of recruits from all over the region and all over the world, and it's not surprising that they can carry out an isolated attack and in one or another place.

SIMON: But you'd consider it an isolated attack?

GATES: This is the first I've heard of it, frankly, so I don't know if ISIS has claimed credit for it, whether it was a local volunteer, if you will, or whether it was somebody's ISIS sent in from outside. If it's somebody local, in some ways I think that's even more problematic.

SIMON: Let's get your reflection now on Iraq, and obviously the fall of Ramadi and parts of Mosul. That invites the question as to how you would characterize the current U.S. strategy?

GATES: I think that the president has the right strategy in the respect that he demanded the political change in Iraq before we did pretty much anything to help them, to get rid of Maliki and bring in somebody who was willing to be less sectarian - although the new man is facing his own challenges. I also think the president was right in saying that the primary boots on the ground need to be Arab and Kurd, not American or Western. I think both of those decisions were the right decisions. I think, though, that the pacing of the assistance as well as the role of our own military that's there need to be stepped up.

SIMON: And a difficult question that has to be posed to you - do you have any concern that events now might be somehow taking away from U.S. forces - some of the victories that they won a few years ago in Iraq?

GATES: It's very troubling to see places like Fallujah and Ramadi in particular, but also Mosul, where a lot of American blood was spilled, fall into the hands of these fanatics. I'm sure that every soldier and marine that was involved in these places is sort of looking at it and wondering whether the sacrifice was worth it. The truth is, we had a pretty good situation in Iraq in 2010, 2011, and in some ways, that was a mark of the success of our troops, in terms of security, in terms of a political dialogue. And it's a sad commentary both on the actions of Prime Minister Maliki as well as the spillover from the Syrian civil war that the situation that our troops fought so hard to create, in terms of measure of stability and security in the country has, to a considerable extent, been squandered.

SIMON: Mr. Gates, you say that you think President Obama has the strategy about right, but in almost the same breath, you seem to say, but it doesn't seem to be working.

GATES: Well, what I said was that I thought his decision to not provide support until there was a change of government in Iraq was correct. And I said that his strategy of not putting a huge American force back into Iraq was correct. But I do think that, as I've said, changing the rules of engagement for our troops and accelerating the provision of assistance and training can be accelerated.

SIMON: And you're confident that would do it?

GATES: No, I'm not confident, but I think those are measures that can be taken. You know, there's no certainty about any of this. This is a very fluid situation, it's a very difficult situation, frankly.

SIMON: Another matter while we have the benefit of having you with us - Seymour Hersh, who probably needs no introduction to you, has an article in the London Review of Books where he refers to the 2011 raid, which killed Osama bin Laden, as quote, "one big lie."

GATES: Well, I know that Mr. Hersh has done some remarkable and very good work in the past, but on this one he's just dead wrong.

SIMON: He says that there was a walk-in, a Pakistani military officer walked into the U.S. Embassy and tipped the U.S. government as to where bin Laden was - that it wasn't the benefit of exhaustive U.S. intelligence. Is that true?

GATES: That is just not true.

SIMON: And he says the Pakistani government helped conceal Osama bin Laden and set him up. That's not true?

GATES: I mean, the truth of the matter is it was hard for us to believe that they didn't know given his location. But in all of the lead up to the raid and in all the materials that we captured when bin Laden was killed, there wasn't a shred of evidence that the Pakistanis knew. So was there a suspicion that they knew where he was? Yes. But we never found any evidence to support that. And in the notion that they set him up is, I think, a fiction.

SIMON: Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, now president of the Boy Scouts of America, meeting at their annual convention this week in Atlanta. Mr. Gates's memoir "Duty" is out in paperback this week. Mr. Gates, thanks so much for being with us.

GATES: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.