Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen said Monday that Washington’s fiscal ailments pose a serious threat to national security, but they warned that sharp automatic spending cuts scheduled to start next year were not the answer.
Gates and Mullen spoke at a program on the national security implications of the federal debt, part of the Strengthening of America – Our Children’s Future initiative. Monday’s forum, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, included a second panel discussion, which was on bipartisan plans for fiscal reform.
“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.
To deal with the “abundant fiscal disorder” that afflicts the nation, he said, everything must be on the table, including defense spending. But he decried the “meat ax treatment” that the automatic cuts would mean for both defense and non-defense spending.
Mullen said continued irresponsibility in Washington could mean “huge and poorly targeted budget reductions that would result in “a hollow force” that would be unable to conduct training, maintain its equipment or fight.
Gates, too, offered a grim warning about future risks if elected officials did not act soon to put the nation’s fiscal house in order.
“At some point financial insolvency at home will turn into strategic insolvency abroad,” he said. “We’re not there yet,” he added, but the longer the government delays dealing with its fiscal problems, the “more painful and potentially more risky” corrective action will be.
The automatic cuts starting in January, Gates said, would offer “a preview” of this damaging scenario. He said the “mindless, across-the board spending cuts” were “a catastrophic way to deal with the budget issue.”
Gates said that as the result of several polarizing trends in government and the media, “we have now lost the ability to execute even the most basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing this country.”
Still, he said, he remained fundamentally optimistic because the country has the “power and means” to deal with its challenges.
Former U. S. Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) created Strengthening of America, convening a bipartisan group of former members of Congress for four public forums on the federal debt and related issues in the weeks leading up to the presidential debates.
Nunn and Rudman are co-chairs of The Concord Coalition, which is involved in the initiative along with several other organizations: CSIS, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the American Business Conference, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.