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Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday issued a scathing criticism of lawmakers who he claims are willing to cripple the U.S. economically and strategically in the world to retain the votes and financial backing of the ideologues they’ve become beholden to.
“Too many are more concerned with winning elections and scoring ideological points than with saving the country,” he said in remarks at a meeting of the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington.
Gates, along with former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, took part in a discussion on the potential impact of sequestration -- $500 billion in cuts to planned defense spending over the next 10 years. Both former Pentagon leaders agreed it would wreak havoc on the military.
As much as the Pentagon would fight against it, the cuts would result in a “hollow force” of decreased training, cutbacks in maintenance and reined in operations, Mullen said. The retired Navy four-star warned Congress two years ago that debt was the greatest threat facing the U.S.
Mullen is pessimistic that the government will be able to resolve its differences over the next budget in time to stave off sequestration.
“I’m not as hopeful as others we won’t drive off this cliff. I’m worried sick about it, frankly,” Mullen said. “Already, the comptrollers in our government are pulling back. Already there are plans that wherever this budget axe may fall [next year], not to spend money this year.”
Gate called the across-the-board cuts dictated in the sequestration legislation found in the Budget Control Act that was voted on by Congress and signed by President Obama, cowardly.
“Across the board cuts are the worst possible way to exercise budget discipline,” Gates said. “When Mike and I were working together, my guidance was if we had to cut or find more resources we would never resort to across the board cuts. I referred to it as managerial cowardice, a refusal to make choices and establish priorities,” he said. “Sequestration does all of that on steroids.”
Gates, who is now the chancellor of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said he tried to prepare the Pentagon for the cuts he knew would be coming as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came to a close. Before he retired, he cut or put on the chopping block billions of dollars in programs.
Early in 2009, he cancelled or cut more than 30 programs, saving taxpayers about $30 billion. Two years later, in drafting his last budget as defense secretary, he trimmed an additional $80 billion from the military’s five-year defense plan, he said.
“By the time I retired as secretary of defense in 2011, defense spending already had been cut by nearly $900 billion over the next 10 years,” he said.
This was before Congress – having failed to come up with a budget through a so-called “Super Committee” – passed its sequestration law in an attempt to make its own members finally hammer out a budget.
Gates likened sequestration to a scene in the Mel Brooks Western spoof, “Blazing Saddles.”
“The sheriff holds a gun to his own head and warns the crowd not to make him shoot,” Gates said.
Gates said if the politicians are serious about getting the country’s spending under control, they have to look at Social Security and Medicare, which constitute a much larger percentage of federal spending than defense.
“The United Sates must get its government finances in order,” he said. “Doing so requires our country’s political class to show leadership and make decisions that may be unpopular in the short run but which will strengthen the country for the long haul,” he said. “So far there appears to be little evidence this is taking place.”
Gates ran down a list of what he views as the reason governing has become almost impossible in Washington.
The reasons included gerrymandering, with both parties complicit in creating “safe” districts within the states where they can retain their partisan edge and keep their seats yet remain beholden to their “most hardcore ideologues.”
“Wave elections” are also a problem, he said, when one party or another sweeps in to power, determined to carry out an agenda that makes it difficult to maintain policies and program that need to be carried out over time.
Gates, who served in government for more than 30 years, 26 of them at the Central Intelligence Agency, also lamented the “decline of powerbrokers” in Congress. They could be tough, he said, but they also had the ability to make deals and keep their committees and caucuses from simply blocking legislation.
Finally, he slammed what he called “the 24/7 digital media environment [in which] the most extreme and vitriolic opinions” have led to what he called “a coarsening and dumbing down of our national political dialogue.”
Gates said he hopes that, following the November elections, “whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country back in orde