April 29, 2015


Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Amherst History
Professor Frank Couvares speak at Johnson Chapel on April 28

The use of U.S. military force in the world has become “too easy” for American presidents, having become “the first option rather than the last resort,” said former Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a talk to a full Johnson Chapel on April 28.

“My view is that …. we send our men and women in uniform into harm’s way when our vital interests are threatened,” he told a crowd of more than 550 students, faculty, staff and area residents. “We must not become the world’s policemen …. We need to be extremely careful where and when we deploy American forces.”

The event began with a compelling conversation between Gates and Frank Couvares, the E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies, titled “Our Era of War and American Democracy: A Conversation with Robert Gates.” In that discussion and in taking audience questions afterward, the former Pentagon chief under presidents Bush and Obama discussed a wide range of other topics, including the Middle East conflicts, relations with China, and government leadership.

The event was the last in a day of campus activities for Gates. Now the president of the Boy Scouts of America and the chancellor of the College of William and Mary, the 22nd Secretary of Defense began his morning in Amherst breakfasting with 15 fellow Eagle Scouts among the College’s students, faculty and staff.  

In the afternoon, he met with a group of 30 Amherst students who peppered him with questions about U.S. foreign policy, including the moral and geopolitical consequences of engaging with totalitarian regimes and such contemporary matters as tensions with Russia, Iranian sanctions and the battle against ISIS.

The video recording of this conversation is available to all Amherst students, faculty, staff and alumni until July 31, 2015. A special video interview with Dr. Gates from his visit to campus is available to all.

His Johnson Chapel talk typified his comments throughout the day: candid, bipartisan and full of detailed anecdotes from his 40-year career in the CIA and cabinet. 

Couvares asked him several thought-provoking questions on the counterinsurgency in the Middle East, his approach to nation-building in Afghanistan and his concerns about the draft Iran nuclear deal.

“The negotiation itself is testimony to a successful U.S. policy pursued with our allies starting with President Clinton that intensified under President Bush and then significantly intensified under President Obama,” Gates said of the last topic.

“I think it’s those economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation that brought Iran to the bargaining table,” he continued. “They didn’t come out of goodwill; they came because the regime knows it’s facing an increasingly restive population.”

Gates fielded questions on a long-term strategy in the Middle East, the future of U.S.-Chinese relations, American military struggles since the Korean War, and the role of special operations units in counterinsurgencies and nation-building, among other topics.

One student asked Gates what the audience could do for returning veterans. He argued that former members of the military simply want to be made welcome and they want jobs. He urged institutions like Amherst to continue campus programs that enroll veterans. “The skills that they bring in terms of leadership, in terms of being team players, in terms of loyalty, in terms of trainability, in terms of decision-making under stress—these are not things that you get with your ordinary new hire,” he said.

“What these men and women need is the opportunity to reintegrate in their community, get a good job and be giving back again,” he added. “For students, be welcoming and supportive when you can. For administrators and business people, [give them] jobs.” 

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During his visit to Amherst, Robert Gates sat down for an interview, answering questions about a range of topics, including understanding adversaries and holding civil dialogues.

Gates, In His Own Words

“My mantra [as secretary of defense] was to have the greatest possible versatility in terms of military training and equipment for the broadest possible range of conflict because we don’t know where we’ll be engaged next.”

“The Pentagon is designed to plan for war, not to wage war.”

“We vastly overestimate our ability to shape outcomes in countries with very different cultures and histories.”

“In Afghanistan, there has to be a negotiated settlement at the end [of the conflict], and the Taliban has to be a part of that. But they will have to be willing to behave as a political party and not as an insurgency. They are a part of the political fabric in [the country].”

“I don’t believe the alternative to the [Iran nuclear] deal as it stands is war. I think the reasons that got the Iranians to the table in the first place still apply. The threat to the regime [from its] own people because of economic deprivation is still very real.”

“By the fall of 2010, the security situation in Iraq was pretty good. There were fewer murders in Baghdad than there were in Detroit.”

“One of the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis was to leave the other guy a way out. We need to figure out a way for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to be able to ease off on what he’s trying to do in Eastern Ukraine.”