WAC Returns: Robert Gates and the World

After more than one year of COVID lockdown, the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston returned with an in-person event, one featuring former Secretary of Defense, former Deputy National Security Advisor, and former CIA Director (not to mention President of Boy Scouts and President of TAMU). Approximately 100 people attended this event, with many more tuning in live.

The Executive Director of WAC, Maryanne Maldonado, welcomed guests; she was followed by Board Chair Mark Anderson

… who introduced Robert Gates, a potentially lengthy process, given Gates’ extensive experience. Indeed, Gates’ almost unparalleled resume in foreign affairs was on full display during the hour-long session. Expertly hosted by WAC’s Ronan O’Malley…

…the discussion highlighted concerns over Iran’s quest for nuclear power while focusing on the activities of Russia and China.

Gates was convinced that, whatever one thinks of the original Obama-era deal with Iran over nuclear weapons, that deal is now obsolete. He encouraged the resumption of talks, but made it clear that events had surpassed what was agreed in to 2015, and a new approach will be called for.

Gates clearly has little regard for Vlad Putin, regarding him as a nationalistic holdover from USSR days. But he is more concerned about China, which he believes has surpassed Russia in both economic and intelligence capacities. Fortunately, China and Russia’s alliance is mostly superficial, primarily based on a desire to the US perform poorly.

Previously, Gates has expressed much warmth toward Joe Biden, albeit balanced by little confidence in the President’s decision-making capacities. He noted that he stood by those judgments, reminding people that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the last four decades.” Biden, Gates noted, thought the fall of the Shah in the late 1970s would lead to improved civil rights records in Iran; he opposed aid to South Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War; he opposed to most of the weapon systems that brought the US to military dominance; and perhaps most tellingly, he opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Having said that, though, Gates has also indicated that the President is “impossible not to like,” is a man of great integrity, and is reliable. Moreover, he expressed optimism about many of Biden’s early moves and decisions, and he was impressed with Biden’s team of advisors.

Gates was, as usual, sharp and incisivie, but the real treat was getting back to an in-person WAC event. We had a chance to see old friends such as Ronan O’Malley, Jahan Jafarpour, Viridiana Otamendi, Sandija Bayot, and Maryanne Maldonado. In addition, we ran into another old friend: Ambassador Chase Untermeyer. Ambassador Untermeyer previous served as Ambassador to Qater, Texas Legislator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Director of White House Personnel.

Feeling a bit more knowledgeable and worldly following the World Affairs Council event, we ended the evening with Ethiopian Food in a nearby restaurant by the name of Blue Nile. At Blue Nile they had a vast variety of dishes ranging from vegetarian, lamb, beef, and poultry, with the option of making each of them spicier with Ethiopian spices.

As an appetizer we had a beef and a vegetarian Sambus, it is like an empanada, and to my surprise the vegetarian was my favorite despite never having tried lentils, with which the Sambusas are stuffed.

For dinner Quinn ordered the Yessiga Wot, a beef dish cooked in their Berebere sauce, I had the beef tibs, beef cubes cooked with vegetables and spices, Ms. Stephanie had the chicken tibs, and Professor Yawn had the Spicy Doro Wot, a popular traditional chicken dish.

All the dishes were served with Injera, a spongy bread the size of a flour burrito tortilla that is used as a tortilla to eat the food. 

It is a tradition for LEAP students to try new cuisines that are themed related to the prior event and, as expected, it was my first time eating Ethiopian Food (Quinn’s too). It is always nice to end our day trying something new.

Talking Presidential Power with Robert Gates

Former CIA Director got quite the introduction from Mark Welsh, Dean of the Bush School.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Center for Law Engagement And Politics, Bush School at TAMU, Dean Mark Welsh, Andy Card, Robert Gates, Exercise of Power


But given that Gates has served as CIA Director, Secretary of Defense, President of TAMU,Chancellor of the College of William & Mary, and President of the Boy Scouts, the introduction was well deserved.

Gates has written “Exercise of Power,” an analysis of presidential power since the Eisenhower Administration. Interestingly, Eisenhower, according to most scholars–and Gates–ranks near or at the top of Presidents for foreign policy and use of power. Gates contrasts this strongly with “where we are today.”

SHSU, LEAP Center, Center for Law Engagement And Politics, Bush School at TAMU, Dean Mark Welsh, Andy Card, Robert Gates, Exercise of Power


Gates argues that the many failures in US foreign policy over this periods stems from the “over-militarization of our foreign policy,” which he blames on the gutting of our intelligence agencies (during the Clinton Administration) following the Cold War. This left little in the way of intelligence and much in the way of weapons. “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Interestingly, Gates spent much time discussing “cyber power,” because, as he notes, it can be used militarily, politically, and economically: “It can be used to dismantle infrastructure, to thwart or change the direction of weapons, it can be used to get into people’s political systems and affect elections.” This is something that has long interested the LEAP Center/Ambassadors, and today’s current leaders may not be fully up to date on this power. The last four nominees of the two major parties, for example, have been 69 years or older.

Gates also mentions the US’s power in Science & Technology, Economics, Development Assistance, Intelligence, Strategic Communication (he points out that China has surpassed us in this area), Religion, Ideology, and our Alliances–the latter of which he laments, as he watches our international strength wane).

When these “instruments of power” are working together, it becomes a “symphony of power,” which has been notably lacking “in the past thirty years.”

Following a discussion of Gates’ book, Dean Welsh welcomed Andy Card, who served as both Chief of Staff for President George W. Bush and Secretary of Transportation for President George H. W. Bush, the President of Franklin Pierce University, a House member in the Massachusetts State House –and is now the Interim CEO of the Bush Foundation.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Center for Law Engagement And Politics, Bush School at TAMU, Dean Mark Welsh, Andy Card, Robert Gates, Exercise of Power


With Card in the discussion, he and Gates shared stories of working for George H. W. Bush, whom Card referred to as the “greatest one-term President in US history.”

Gates highlighted the fact that Bush assembled a team from his foreign policy advisors–by team, he meant a group of individuals who knew each, could work together, and whose strengths and weaknesses complemented and overlapped each other. And both he and Card praised Brent Scowcroft, who served as National Security Advisor. The NSA is designed to be an “honest broker,” taking the other foreign policy actors, learning their views, and communicating them to the President so that the Chief Executive had all the information needed to act.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Center for Law Engagement And Politics, Bush School at TAMU, Dean Mark Welsh, Andy Card, Robert Gates, Exercise of Power


It’s always great to hear smart, mostly non-partisan discuss policy, but it was especially great to hear two people that the LEAP Ambassadors have had a chance to see or meet in person.

Thanks to the Bush School at TAMU for their consistently excellent programming. To see the whole program, click here.