Robert Gates: Mission to Destroy ISIS ‘Very Ambitious’

The former Defense secretary weighs in on President Obama’s ISIS strategy and divisions between the White House and military officials.
6:31 | 09/21/14

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Transcript for Robert Gates: Mission to Destroy ISIS ‘Very Ambitious’
Let's bring in our chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz for more on this right now. Pretty big prediction there from the U.N. Ambassador, Martha. There will be other nations joining the air strikes against Syria. Reporter: Very confident about that. I haven't heard such confidence before. So they seem to be quite certain others will join in. I would say it was probably very limited. Again, she stressed that there are many other countries who will support military strikes but it's actually carrying those strikes out with the U.S. That's important. Martha, you cover the military so closely. What appears to be a little daylight between the president, his military advisers, the ambassador said the president is following the advice of his military advisers but we did see general Dempsey say this week he would come out and recommend ground troops if he thought it was necessary. Are we seeing an internal debate go public here? Reporter: I think that's exactly what you're seeing. General Dempsey is the president's principal military adviser. He also makes a pledge to the senate when he goes up there to tell the truth as he sees it. I think this is all about language, George. You heard a little of that daylight closing this week saying they might put in forward air controllers, those are the people who call in the air strikes. They are on the front lines. I think what the administration really wants to say is they're not going to send in tanks, they're not going to send in an invading army into Iraq. But what they might have to do is call in those forward air controllers. You need those to carry out strikes, to get accurate strikes. If you don't have them, it really limits the targets and that's what the military is really worried about here and they are also worried if this plan doesn't work and, frankly, the president hasn't explained if this strategy doesn't work what he'll do next after saying Isis is such a threat. That is a big question. Martha Raddatz, thanks very much. Let's take it to the former defense secretary Robert Gates. Robert Gates, Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us this morning. We just showed your clip from this week. You were very blunt this week on the question of ground troops, said the strategy can't succeed without boots on the ground, something the president has ruled out. So do you think the president's strategy is doomed or is he not being straight with the American people? Well, first of all, George, I think that he was absolutely right to wait until we had a new government in Iraq before taking any steps, one that would be more inclusive. Second, he is right that the primary ground action here has to be by the Iraqis, the kurds and the Sunnis in north and western Iraq. What I believe and what I suspect most military people believe is that given the mission the president has assigned, which is degrade and destroy, that to be able to do that, some small number of American advisers, trainers, special forces and forward spotters, forward air controllers are going to have to be in harm's way, and I think that number will be very small. I think Martha has it exactly right. What the administration is trying to communicate is that we're not going to send battalions. We're not going to send brigades, but there will have to be, I think, to achieve the mission the president has assigned some boots -- some American boots on the ground and in harm's way. Would you recommend following that mission if you were still defense secretary? I think the way that the president has framed it, if we were given authority to -- if the mission required it, to accompany, to have advisers accompanying some of the Iraqi units with the peshmerga and so on, I think that I would have supported it. You know, in the past though you've warned against -- warned America against getting involved in another ground war like Iraq or Afghanistan. And clearly that's not something you're calling for right now. But I want to hear how you respond to the idea that we're giving isil what they want, an internal power struggle in the Muslim world, we are making ourselves the enemy rather than forcing those regional powers to take them on. This is a very tough problem and I think a little perspective is in order. Syria in a way is the embodiment of four different conflicts going on in the middle east simultaneously. The first is shia Islam versus Sunni Islam. The second is authoritarians versus reformers. The third is secularists versus islamists and then fourth is whether countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya that are comprised of historically adversarial ethnic groups, religious sects and so on can hold together absent repression. Or whether they will end up like yugoslavia. This is a generational conflict and we need to understand that. We also need to be very modest about how we can shape the outcomes here, and I think one of the things we need to do is step back, look at this kind of cauldron of violence and instability that's going to be with us a long time and what is our strategy overall for the region? What do we want as an outcome and is there a path to achieve that? And I think that broader strategy for the region as a whole really has not been discussed by anybody in this debate. But you don't believe that destroying Isis is a realistic component of that strategy. I'm sorry. You don't believe destroying Isis is a realistic component of that strategy. I think that destroying Isis is a very ambitious mission. I think our goal actually ought to be first to just set ourselves the objective of pushing Isis back out of Iraq, getting them out of there. Denying them a place where they can have a permanent foothold, if you will, where they might be able to carry out plotting against the United States. And we also have to keep in mind there are other groups out there that are threatening us, as well, Al nusra, Al Qaeda is still with us so there are multiple terrorist groups. I think destroying -- we've been at war with Al Qaeda for 13 years. We haven't destroyed it yet. We've changed it. We've certainly degraded it in the afghan/pakistani area but all you have to do is look around the world and particularly in Africa and the middle east to see that it's still around, so I think destroying probably is ambitious, at least in the foreseeable future, but it is a realistic objective to try and push them out of Iraq and deny them a permanent foothold someplace. Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for your time this morning.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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