In a rare joint appearance, two former DOD leaders to take Congress to task for exacerbating the top U.S. threats: budget cuts and the national debt.
Many in Washington are confident that Congress will reach an eleventh-hour agreement that will avert the universally maligned sequestration process. The former defense secretary and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff aren’t among them.
Speaking Sept. 17 at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, respectively, took aim at Congress for its shortcomings, which they said has led the U.S. to the precipice of a “fiscal cliff.” Blaming members for forgoing the greater good in favor of partisanship, the former top DOD brass warned of the dangers posed by the looming $1.2 trillion in across-the-board federal budget cuts – in addition to the burgeoning U.S. debt.
“A nation with our current levels of unsustainable debt, being this far out of fiscal balance, cannot hope to sustain for very long its superiority – from a military perspective or its influence in world affairs,” Mullen said. Facing “abundant disorder in our fiscal house, brought upon us by ourselves, by our own doing,” Mullen pointed out that baby boomers, including Vietnam veterans, have left the country in worse shape than it was received.
“This is a legacy for which we should all hang our heads,” he said.
Mullen stopped short of saying he expects sequestration to happen, but he was not optimistic.
“I’m not as hopeful as others that we won’t drive off this cliff. I’m worried sick about it, quite frankly,” he said.
And while the former Joint Chiefs chairman said he wasn’t there to point fingers – “I don’t have enough fingers” – Gates set his crosshairs firmly on Capitol Hill. He outlined what he believes are the root causes for Capitol Hill’s current state of dysfunction: gerrymandering, partisan ideological zeal, declining congressional power brokers and a 24/7 digital media spin cycle that has led to a “dumbing-down of the national political dialog.”
“American politics has always been a shrill and ugly business, going back to the founding fathers. As the result of several polarizing trends, we have lost the ability to execute even the most basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult, divisive problems facing this country,” Gates said. “Too many of our politicians seem more concerned with winning elections and scoring ideological points than with saving the country.”
Gates touched on his own cuts he instituted when in control at the Pentagon – nearly $80 billion in cuts he requested in his defense budget as he was stepping down in July 2011. By the time he retired, nearly $900 billion had been cut from defense spending over the next 10 years on paper – before sequestration was considered, he said.
The grim figures are compounded by history, Gates pointed out.