Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates doubled down Wednesday on his fiery rhetoric about the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, maintaining that they're clueless when it comes to strategizing against the Islamic State group and the global threat of extremism in the Middle East. The former Pentagon leader also targeted President Barack Obama, China and North Korea during a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City that all but doubled as a promotional stop to showcase his new book on the same topics.
“These men and women are making these pronouncements and it’s clear they don’t know what they are talking about," Gates, 73, told moderator and veteran news broadcaster Tom Brokaw. Gates, who served under presidents George W. Bush and Obama, also ridiculed current GOP candidates' vows of "carpet bombing" to make the "sand glow," references to military action Republicans promised to take in the Middle East should they be elected president.
For Gates, America's response to dealing with Islamic-inspired terrorism has been weak and prompts concerns on a larger level than the country's political establishment and presidential candidates are letting on. "The worrying thing is if they actually believe the things they are saying, and if that’s the case, we really are in trouble," he said one day after the release of his new book, "A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform From Fifty Years of Public Service," copies of which were being sold at the event.
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Criticism of how Obama has dealt with ISIS and the Middle East in general has long been a point of contention in the GOP, and one wholly shared by Gates, who said during the hourlong conversation that he resented being micromanaged by the administration.
“I think the president has all along misestimated ISIS and has underestimated the degree of fear they have been able to provoke," said Gates. "[He has] completely misread the psychological impact of these lone wolf attacks or these 'small scale attacks' that have resulted in multiple casualties.”
Gates served as secretary of defense during the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and during the infamous troop surge into the former Saddam Hussein-led country that put more than 160,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground.
Moving from the Middle East to Asia, Gates said the Obama administration should have challenged the Chinese in the South China Sea far sooner than it did. However, Gates admitted, Chinese President Xi Jinping now had full control of his military, which he said was good news for the U.S. Still, any notions of Beijing being in a position of power over North Korea was false, Gates warned.
“China has influence in North Korea but doesn’t have control,” said Gates, who called current leader Kim Jong Un "stupid" and "dangerous." Kim “wants to develop a hydrogen weapon, but my guess is he doesn’t have one yet,” he added.
During other media engagements this week, Gates took aim at Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump over his recent proposal to ban all Muslims from traveling to the U.S. The former CIA intelligence director told Yahoo News Tuesday that Trump's comments would be used by extremist organizations like the Islamic State group to radicalize Muslims as a way for “trying to reach [the] alienated living here in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world.” Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton made the same assertion last month during a debate, and shortly afterward ISIS propaganda proved Clinton's and Gates' suspicions correct.
There is also the fear that the Republican Party, of which Gates is a member, was fragmenting itself while the Democrats would likely just get stronger as a result. Gates served under the last four presidents, including under George W. Bush and then Obama as secretary of defense between December 2006 and July 2011. Gates, who also served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as director of the CIA from late 1991 to early 1993, worked for the federal government starting in the days of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid- to late-1960s.
While Gates used harsh terms Wednesday to condemn some of what he saw as the political failings of the current administration and the unrealistic approach of certain GOP candidates, he did heap praise on the U.S. military, which he helped lead for five years.
“I think we have the talent and the knowledge and insights in the military to deal with ISIS”, he said. “But the problem has been a political one in terms of a reluctance on the part of the administration to realize that [ISIS] is a major challenge and that it does have a big impact around the world.”