Robert Gates offers insight on today's political hot topics at W&M

Robert Gates, a former secretary of defense and College of William and Mary chancellor, spoke on current political events ranging from de-nuclearization of North Korea to how climate change could become a national security risk at a public forum Thursday evening.

Gates was joined on stage by university President Taylor Reveley. The auditorium at the Sadler Center was packed with students and community members eager to hear Gates’ take on today’s political climate.

As secretary of defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Gates favored more diplomatic solutions when it came to North Korea. He said he does not believe America can “give North Korea a bloody nose” and not have Kim Jong Un retaliate in some way. Gates said in his experience it is almost always civilians arguing for military action and the military urging caution.

“The dirty little secret in Washington is the biggest doves wear uniforms, because they’ve been there and they know what the consequences are. They’ve seen the blood and they’ve seen the gore,” Gates said. “They’ve seen innocent civilians killed. And anybody who does not think that is not an inherent part of war has not been there and does not understand.”

When asked by an audience member if he thought global warming should be treated as a threat to national security, Gates said it should be for two reasons. The first because climate change can contribute to instability and poverty in developing countries.

“In today’s world, those things don’t just stay there, they travel globally,” Gates said.

Gates said climate change is also a threat because of how it could affect military stations on the coasts. He said a half foot to a foot rise in the sea level would affect a lot of stations negatively.

“It is not an imminent threat, but it definitely is long term,” he said.

While the evening had its share of heavy subjects, Gates took time to lighten the mood with a little humor.

“Sometimes people are shy about asking questions, so I usually start these sessions with ‘Look, you need to understand. I testified in front of Congress for 30 years. There is no question you can conceivably come up with which is as dumb as the ones they asked,’ ” Gates told one student.

Gates said he remains an optimist about the nation’s future, despite the Washington Post having labeled him as “someone capable of finding a dark lining in even the brightest cloud.” Gates said his optimism for the future comes, in part, from the work he has done with young people.

“I actually think (young people) are more practical and more open-minded in many respects — not all, but most — and more willing to look at practical solutions,” he said. “So based on my experience, that is what makes me optimistic.”

Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.

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