WASHINGTON -- In a blistering attack on Washington for failing to confront the nation's worsening debt and budget problems, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Republican and Democratic politicians Monday of being "more concerned with winning elections and scoring ideological points than with saving the country."
Gates, who retired 15 months ago after 31 years of serving presidents of both parties at the CIA, the White House and the Pentagon, said the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to take place at the beginning of the year would result in a "smaller, less ready, less modern military … the risk to our men in women in uniform will increase."
During his tenures at the CIA and the Pentagon, Gates was known for his ability to work with politicians on both sides. But in remarks Monday to a forum sponsored by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, Gates dropped his normal tone of civility.
Blasting Republican and Democratic "zealots" for failing to reach agreement on budget and deficit reform, Gates accused them of refusing "to put their reelection at risk for the sake of the country."
A noted historian, Gates said the history of democracies dealing with impending crises is "not encouraging." Most democracies, he said, have had to be spurred into action by a full-scale calamity exploding on their doorstep. "Many of us today would agree that the crisis is here, now."
Under the process known as sequestration, automatic cuts will carve out $1.2 trillion over nine years, with Pentagon spending and non-defense discretionary spending -- on education, air traffic control, road-building and other budget accounts -- each taking an annual hit of about $55 billion. That amounts to a 15 percent budget cut each year, after the 10-year Pentagon budget plan has already been cut by some $900 billion.
Spending on diplomacy and diplomatic security, under sequestration, would lose about $1.2 billion.
According to Gates, defense cuts of this magnitude would mean fighter pilots would be allowed fewer hours to fly, soldiers would have less time to train and fewer bullets to train with and warships would stay tied up at pierside.
The reason is that of all the budget accounts in the Defense Department -- for salaries, health care, acquisition of major weapons systems and other programs, funding for maintenance, logistics, training, ammunition, aviation gas and other costs can be cut immediately.
"These are things you can get your hands on," he said. "But the consequences for our military would be dire."
Devastating repercussions of the automatic sequestration would storm through the economy, many analysts believe. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist Washington think-tank, the full defense and non-defense budget cuts mandated by sequestration could throw the national economy back into recession and cause more than one million jobs to be lost.
Gates' pessimism about the ability of Congress and the White House to agree on a budget and deficit-reduction plan before the automatic budget cuts begin taking effect in January was seconded Monday by Erskine Bowles. The former Clinton administration official was co-chair with former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) of the Simpson-Bowles commission on budget reform and deficit reduction.
That bipartisan commission negotiated a detailed plan of fiscal reform, which failed to win bipartisan support in Congress and has since become an object of political scorn.
"I am really worried -- afraid that if we can't get members of Congress to put ultra-partisanship aside, we face the most preventable economic crisis in history," Bowles said. "They are going to destroy the country from within if we don't do something."
Gates and Bowles, along with Simpson and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared with a former generation of congressional politicians known for their ability to work across the aisles: former Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a Democrat, and Republicans Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Bill Brock of Tennessee.
All of them decried the crisis of burgeoning debt, overspending and political gridlock, but none had a solution for breaking the political impasse.
Part of the problem was illustrated as Gates pleaded that defense spending be cut no further, and Simpson was adamant that defense be included in any long-term budget reform. Already, he observed, the Pentagon spends more on defense "than the next 15 countries combined and that includes China!"
Said Mullen, who has often described U.S. debt as the nation's most serious national security threat: "I'm not as hopeful as others that we aren't going to drive over the cliff. I'm worried sick about it, frankly."