Robert Gates: In Iraq, US achieved its 'minimal objectives'

Meeting with reporters Friday, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the US accomplished what it intended to in Iraq, but thinks it could push the leadership to do a better job governing the Sunnis.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, author of 'Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,' speaks at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington Jan. 17, 2014, at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says America accomplished what it intended to in Iraq, despite the growing violence on the ground there. 

“We achieved the objectives that I thought were important in 2008,” Mr. Gates said at a press breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor Friday. “We handed the Iraqis a fragile democracy, a stable country, and a high degree of security essentially on a silver platter.” 

With that done, Gates added, America was able to “withdraw our troops without that withdrawal being seen as a strategic defeat for the United States with global consequences.”

The mistakes that have since been made by Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki have included isolating Sunnis in a country dominated by a Shiite-led government and “treating the Sunnis in such a hostile manner over the last couple of years or so.” 

There has also been “spillover” from the war in Syria, which has changed the situation on the ground as well, Gates said. “Things keep moving. You can’t freeze history.” 

If he were sitting in the situation room today, Gates says, he would recommend that the US offer Maliki “a wide range of military assistance,” including both equipment and training, and condition it on his outreach to Sunnis. 

This would include making investments in the western Iraq province of Anbar where the increase in violence has been the most sharp since Al Qaeda forces launched an offensive on Jan. 1.

The point, Gates said, is to “give the Sunnis some reason to believe that this government in Baghdad does represent them, [and] is better than any alternative.” 

They need to be given a reason to cooperate with the Maliki government, Gates said. “I don’t think they’ll throw in with Al Qaeda. But [Maliki] has got to give them a reason to want to help and be constructive.”

Had the United States been able to maintain a residual force in Iraq – rather than leave because Maliki refused to grant US troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts if they were accused of, for example, accidentally killing civilians – US military commanders may have been able to have greater leverage to convene the leadership in Iraq. 

The size of the residual force “really wouldn’t have mattered,” Gates said.

“Whether it was over dinner or for meetings,” Gates said, “They could bring these guys together in a way that they might not be able to on their own initiative and in essence force them to look at each other and talk to each other and have this mediating role by the United States,” he added. “I think that role is largely absent.” 

Still, Gates argues, from his perspective the US withdrawal went as planned. “In terms of handing over Iraq to the Iraqis I think we accomplished our minimal objectives.”

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