In April of 2011, after an extensive search the U.S. Secret Service thought they had finally found the hiding place of Osama bin Laden: a house outside the tourist center in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The plan was to enter the residence with an elite commando group to capture the founder of the terrorist network Al Qaeda. A plan that Robert Gates, the former Director of the CIA and then Secretary of Defense of the U.S., thought to be too bold. The best authorized and most prepared to advise the President for such an important decision, he explained his arguments to Barack Obama and tried to convince him to back down. Two days later, Obama did the opposite.
In the following, Robert Gates, speaker at World Business Forum New York 2012, reveals memories and his point of view on leadership and politics in a preview of the interview that will be published in the next edition of WOBI Magazine.
Why were you against the operation?
Because there was no physical evidence that proved the presence of Bin Laden in that place. It was only a hypothesis strung together by CIA analysts.
What did you tell the President?
I reminded him of the hostage situation in Tehran when we tried to liberate a group in 1980 and lost eight soldiers. “Please forgive me, Mr. President,” I said, “but understand after the failed experience in Iran, I prefer to be cautious.”
And how did Obama reply?
He replied that if we bombarded the place we wouldn’t be able to collect information. It was a decision made with a lot of courage on his part. If the mission was a failure, he would have put at risk the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would have complicated relations with Pakistan.
Is there a characteristic all leaders have?
Yes, the ability to motivate people, so not only do they work better but also really desire to do a better job and be part of constructive change. Leaders generally stand out for their ability to negotiate these types of things, but the most important characteristic to me is the capacity to motivate those around them to achieve a vision.
How would you compare current conflicts to ones you lived in the past?
They are smaller now, but a lot more difficult to manage. I used to say to Presidents Bush and Obama that the difference between the crisis today and those of the ‘60s and ‘70s is that before a war was fought and ended. For good or bad, things were resolved; you could leave it behind. Today wars are unending, they never go away.
However the fear of the ‘80s, of a battle that would destroy the planet, seems to have lessened…
Yes, the possibility of a conflict of such magnitude seems to have dramatically decreased, but the possibility of little wars, terrorist attacks and acts of violence have increased significantly. The threat of the Soviet Union was largely theoretical because the probability of a real, armed hostility with the U.S. was quite unlikely. In the 45 years of the Cold War, there were few occasions where peace was seriously compromised. Today, threats are smaller but the possibility that something could happen is much higher. It has become increasingly more difficult for the government to lead through these challenges because there isn’t one problem, like the Cold War, but many. There isn’t one frontier to battle, but multiple. Leaders must make decisions in a more complex, constant and urgent scenario.
If for a company it is difficult to be agile, for a country it must be much more difficult. How can a government face this challenge of needing to make rapid, constant decisions?
This is a good question, because the bureaucracy of a country is larger than that of a company, and in the U.S. there exists a huge bureaucracy in terms of national security. But the key resides in making the final decisions between eight people: the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, the Joint Chief of Staff, the Director of National Intelligence and the director of the CIA.
Do you feel younger generations are interested in politics?
I hope they are. I say to them: “Someone has to step up to the public function. If the good, intelligent and honest don’t, then the bad, ignorant and dishonest ones will.”
Preview: this was extracted from an interview by Viviana Alonso to be published in the next edition of WOBI Magazine, V. 17, December 2012-January 2013. Interested in subscribing and reading the full article? Become a WOBI Member.