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Robert Gates: Defense Secretary's exit interview

Robert Gates will retire this month as the US Defense Secretary. In his 45-year career, he's served under eight presidents. In a Newsweek interview, Gates discusses Hilary Clinton, Osama bin Laden's death, and emerging US isolationism.

June 22, 2011

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens to remarks at the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee in Washington June 21, 2011. Gates retires this month.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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By John Barry

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Newsweek/DailyBeast

Robert Gates retires as defense secretary at the end of this month, ending a career in government that began 45 years ago. Gates has served eight presidents in both parties, including as CIA director and Pentagon boss. On his farewell foreign trip, Gates talked at length with Newsweek’s John Barry about his fears for the future of American supremacy, his relationship with Hillary Clinton, and his concerns about the more polarized, less experienced Washington that he leaves behind.

Here are some of the Gates extended comments from the interview.

On American supremacy:

“I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position. And it didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time. And the country—and the leadership of the country, both Republicans and Democrats—face, I think, very tough choices.”

“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons why I think it’s time for me to retire. Because frankly, I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government—leave aside Republican or Democrat; that’s got nothing to do with it—I wouldn’t want to be part of a government that is being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world. I don’t know whether that will happen or not. But it’s an issue that is going to have to be addressed.”

“My hope is that those fears are unfounded, that we will figure out a way through this, and a way to sustain our presence around the world—and even increase it in the Pacific. But I think there are some very real questions that are going to have to be answered in terms of the size and shape of the U.S. military.”

On Hillary Clinton:

“We really didn’t know each other. But after the president made [his announcement of Clinton as secretary of state]… I suggested we get together for lunch fairly quickly. We ate in my office, at a little round table that had belonged to Jefferson Davis when he was secretary of war, before he went to the dark side. And I just told her, based on my experience, that how well the administration worked would depend a lot on how well she and I got along together. If we got along, the message would go to the entire bureaucracy, not just our own bureaucracies, but the rest of government as well. She totally understood—first words out of her mouth. So she and I really set out from the very beginning to have a constructive working relationship. And at least from my standpoint, it’s gone well beyond that to a meeting of minds on a lot of the big issues.”

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