News & Politics

Robert Gates to Bashar al-Assad: Don’t Tempt Obama

The former Defense Secretary had some choice observations on the mind of the commander-in-chief and the future of the CIA.

Even in retirement, Bob Gates is giving advice. And he has some for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: Do not underestimate Barack Obama

The ex-Pentagon chief popped in for a conversation with Charlie Rose last night and addressed reports that Syria is moving ever-closer to using chemical weapons against opposition forces. If the Syrian regime attempted even to move chemical weapons, “I think based on what the President has said, we would have no alternative to some kind of military response,” Gates predicted. In that case, the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs “would present the President with a rich menu of options,” Gates said, declining to name any specifically, but offering a confident smile. 

Obama warned Assad this week that “the world is watching,” and that if he crossed that metaphorical red line and used a weapon of mass destruction on his own people “there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” 

Rose asked Gates, “Based on everything you know about this President, is he prepared” to take action against Assad? 

“Oh, yes,” Gates replied. “One of the things about President Obama, he is very tough minded…this is a guy who actually relishes making decisions.” Gates cited the President’s risky call to send in Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden. “[Obama] is very deliberative when he has the time to be deliberative. But I have seen instances also where he had to react very quickly and he didn’t hesitate. So I think it would be a mistake, particularly on Bashar al-Assad’s part, to underestimate him.” 

But Gates, who was also once the Director of Central Intelligence, had some cautionary advice about trying to predict when, whether, or how events might unfold. 

I spent most of my career in the CIA trying to forecast what people would do, and how things would turn out. And when it comes to saying what is going to happen, we have every reason to be very modest about our abilities to do that. Because the truth is, we can monitor weapons, we can monitor movements of military forces, but the decision [by a foreign leader] to use them or how to use them is something that often is a mystery to us. And sometimes because the protagonist himself doesn’t know what he is going to do.

The whole interview is worth watching to hear Gates talk about the limits of intelligence gathering and analysis, and of trying to intuit the moves of an adversary. Gates cut his teeth in the Cold War, and like many intelligence officers of his generation worried back then that America’s spies would become too dependent on surveillance technology to take the place of human agents on the ground. He still worries about that today, in the era of drones and global electronic eavesdropping. 

“This is an era in which human intelligence is every bit as important as it ever was during the Cold War,” Gates said. The successful operation against bin Laden, which hinged on human sources, would seem to bear that out. (As an aside, we were bummed to learn that a DC preview screening of the new movie about the bin Laden raid, Zero Dark Thirty, which was scheduled for last night, has been postponed until January.) 

Another timely comment: Gates said he didn’t have a problem with the CIA evolving into a paramilitary organization, one that has become very good at hunting and killing its enemies the world over. “But I do have a problem if that is all the [CIA] director is paying attention to,” he said. There’s been a provocative debate this week over at the New York Times about that very subject. It seems the unexpected departure of David Petraeus, who was closely involved in counterterrorism operations with the CIA as a military commander, has occasioned some soul searching at Langley. 

Gates left the Pentagon in July 2011, and since then, he said, he’s been “doing some speaking, but staying as far from Washington, DC, as I can.” He’s also writing a memoir, which he said he’ll send to his publisher in February.