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Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talks Afghanistan, Capitol riots during Whitworth leadership forum

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 29, 2021

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates touched on his lengthy career, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Capitol insurrection as the featured speaker for Whitworth University’s President’s Leadership Forum on Wednesday.

Gates served as secretary of defense from 2006-11, and shared his insights to nearly 700 registered guests at the Spokane Convention Center.

In his opening speech, Gates spoke to what he believes are the core tenets of strong leaders, such as integrity, conviction and courage, interweaving his reasoning with career experiences.

“If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you certainly can’t persuade others to do what you’re doing,” he said.

Afterward, Gates sat down with Whitworth Interim President Scott McQuilkin for a series of questions.

“His ability to speak in-depth about whatever question was posed to him – about national or international politics and governing – remarkable,” McQuilkin said.

One of the questions concerned the Capitol riot in January. Gates said the attacks – which took place in a building that encapsulates the idea of American democracy, he remarked – “fed the Chinese narrative” that the American political system doesn’t work.

“I think it was a disaster for this country,” he said.

Reflecting on the decision by the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years, Gates said while the military can achieve a specific mission with “extraordinary skill,” ambition can prolong conflicts.

He said U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan should have been handled like the first Gulf War under former President George H.W. Bush. To prevent “mission creep,” Gates said Bush had leaders write down their main objectives.

There was debate over whether to replace the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad.

“We decided we didn’t want to do that, because we couldn’t guarantee success,” he said.

Whitworth last hosted a President’s Leadership Forum in October 2019, when famed journalist Bob Woodward spoke at the Spokane Convention Center.

Another delay looked possible after the forum’s previous scheduled speaker, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, canceled her appearance two weeks ago, McQuilkin said.

Albright, who served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, was unable to attend “due to circumstances unrelated to any personal illness or local COVID-19 concerns,” the university announced earlier this month. McQuilkin elaborated on that Wednesday, saying her cancellation “was related to travel, the length of travel, the number of connections and the exposure that she would have had.”

Rather than cancel, postpone or go virtual, the university worked with the Washington Speakers Bureau to coordinate a replacement speaker, McQuilkin said. They landed Gates, a Northwest native who, McQuilkin said, adjusted his schedule to make the appearance work. Albright, sporting a custom lapel pin gifted to her by the university, offered some brief remarks in a video message ahead of Gates’ presentation.

Gates’ appearance also included separate talks with students and event sponsors prior to Wednesday’s forum.

Gates, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, is the only person to serve as secretary of defense under two presidents from separate political parties. The 78-year-old served under eight presidents over the course of his career, which included 26 years with the CIA. Prior to taking the role of secretary of defense, Gates served as president for Texas A&M University.

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