If you go

What: Robert Gates at CU Boulder

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St.

Tickets: The event is sold out, according to the university.

More info: Visit http://bit.ly/2mqqv15 to learn more.

At a time when American politics are as polarized as ever, Boulder will be treated to a visit from an increasingly rare breed: a statesman trusted by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Dr. Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense of the United States — among many other key positions — will speak at the University of Colorado on Tuesday evening, and will remain in town on Wednesday to spend time in classrooms.

His speech, which is sold out, will be the first in a newly launched series on leadership.

Over a five-decade career, he’s served eight different presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter and ending with Barack Obama. He served as defense secretary under Obama, despite the fact that a political opposite, George W. Bush, appointed him to the position. He was CIA director in the early 1990s, president of Texas A&M University in the early aughts and president of the Boy Scouts of America until last year.

Gates isn’t involved in politics anymore, but he made headlines recently for a ringing endorsement of Donald Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis.

In an interview ahead of his appearance, Gates, 73, discussed his career in public service and what he thinks is next for American military policy.

How confident should the public be that there are safeguards, through the CIA and the secretaries of defense and state, to limit a planned or spontaneous act of war by the president and his advisers?

The president, in foreign affairs, has a great deal more independence and authority than, for example, in domestic affairs, where there are both legal and political constraints on bringing change. One of the characteristics that I have noticed about the presidents is their willingness to surround themselves with strong people who are independent-minded and will tell the president exactly what they think, but the president is the decision maker.

I’ve worked for a lot of presidents who have brought very strong people around them .. sometimes they did what those advisers recommended and sometimes they didn’t.

What’s the most memorable point of your career in which a president did not take your advice?

I recommended (to Obama) against military intervention in Libya. We’ve never had that explicit a conversation about it, but I think his actions and comments since that time would suggest that he thought I was right.

Have you spoken to President Trump at all recently? If so, how’d it go?

I haven’t had any conversations with him since I met with him in New York on Dec. 1. Considering what I had written about him in the Wall Street Journal in September, he was actually quite gracious. It was a serious, thoughtful meeting. He asked for my recommendation (for defense secretary) if the slate was completely blank.

“Gracious” is a word many would not associate with the president. Was the Trump you met with different from the one we see on television?

All I can say is that in the meeting that we had he was serious and asking good questions. I felt like it was a very business-like meeting.

But most presidents do have a different demeanor. Most politicians — not just presidents — have a different demeanor in private meetings. When the red (camera) light comes on, it has the same effect on members of Congress as a full moon on werewolves.

Trump regularly says the country’s military is “depleted.” Do you agree?

The military, we spend a lot, for sure. But the fact is our military has been at war for 15 years with a volunteer force that is, to a considerable extent, exhausted. Stock of supplies have been depleted, run down. Maintenance has been deferred and delayed in all the services on critical equipment.

A significant portion of marine aircraft cannot fly, a lot of Navy ships are overdue for maintenance. So, we have not had either the time to begin recovering from 15 years of war nor have the services had the resources to begin to recover.

Do you expect Donald Trump to engage the U.S. in new military conflicts?

I think to say that we will or won’t have a military conflict is just an exercise in futility, because you don’t know what’s going to transpire in the international environment. One thing that’s pretty clear is that the country is pretty exhausted with war. I think that this new president understands that.

Alex Burness: 303-473-1389, burnessa@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/alex_burness

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