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Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates discusses current world crises in Wichita

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, March 31, 2014, at 10:34 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 6:34 a.m.

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Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense for two presidents, took the stage Monday in his hometown of Wichita.

It has been three years since he left the world stage, but problems and people he considers dangerous or disappointing still persist, he said.

Gates discussed several recent and current world crises for about an hour with a capacity crowd Monday at Duerksen Fine Arts Center at Wichita State University. A graduate of Wichita East High School, he later signed copies of his book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”

Among those crises he commented on is the current situation in Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved troops into Crimea.

“President (George W.) Bush once famously said he’d looked into Putin’s eyes and read his soul,” Gates said.

But Gates, who met Putin a number of times, told Bush later that when he looked into Putin’s eyes, he saw “nothing but a cold-blooded killer.”

Putin conned President Obama into backing down on the Syria crisis, he said, a development Gates regards with dismay. And now Putin is playing a long game to build a wall of adversaries against the West, starting with Crimea, Gates said.

He said the U.S. must press economic sanctions against Russia to make it hurt and put troops in places like Poland to set up a trip wire to deter Putin from going farther.

In Syria, which is embroiled in a deadly civil war, had Obama done what he should have done, Gates said, the U.S. would have pushed much harder to overthrow the Syrian government early in that country’s conflict.

“Now we have to look at that in the rearview mirror,” he said.

Obama decided not to attack after Syria slaughtered its own people with chemical weapons. Gates said he had told Obama and other presidents that if you ever cock a pistol, be prepared to fire it; “backing away from a red line was a real mistake.”

And for the sake of getting rid of those chemical weapons, Gates said, the U.S. let Syrian President Bashar Assad off for killing 140,000 Syrians with conventional weapons.

In Iran, Gates said, “the Persians” plan to drag out negotiations – with the help of the Russians and Chinese – while they continue to work on nuclear weapons. Gates said the U.S. should say a six-month deadline is six months and threaten sanctions far tougher than the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. We’re not doing that, he said.

Most of Gates’ hourlong talk concerned his years as defense secretary, from 2006 to 2011, serving Obama and Bush. And in that talk, as he did in his recently published book, Gates heaped scorn on Congress and bureaucrats at the Pentagon.

Our nation’s leaders squandered great initial victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, and then got a lot of young people killed through disastrous mistakes.

Members of Congress treated anyone trying to solve those problems with rudeness and contempt, Gates said. Senators and congressmen fought for military installations in their states not because it was good for the country but because they were trying to get re-elected.

“Television cameras seem to have the same effect on members of Congress that a full moon has on werewolves,” Gates said, one of several scornful descriptions of Congress that drew applause from the audience.

The best reason Gates said he found for putting up with maddening work like his was that he fought hard to protect the lives of U.S. soldiers.

The people who usually push our country into war – “fire-breathers,” as he called them – are almost always civilians who have no idea what war is like. They nearly always mistakenly think that the war will be short and will be won with advanced technology, he said.

But predictions about war, Gates said, nearly always go wrong with the first shots, the first bombs. And they are usually fought not with technology or plans but “block by block, hilltop by hilltop, house by house.”

He didn’t say it in the speech, but in his book, he said he is entitled, as a former defense secretary, to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

He wrote that he can think of no greater honor.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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