Former Secretary of Defense and Wichita native Robert Gates said the world is “more turbulent, more unpredictable and in many respects more dangerous” than it used to be, and cautioned against making further drastic cuts to the Pentagon’s budget.
Gates spoke Monday night at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting at Century II in celebration of Veterans Day. The event honored the nation’s veterans and recognized U.S. military forces, specifically McConnell Air Force Base.
Gates, who was born in Wichita, graduated from East High in 1961 and served under eight U.S. presidents. He also poked fun at Washington, D.C., and the egos that inhabit the city, calling it “the only place you could see a person walking down Lover’s Lane holding his own hand.”
But for the most part, his speech offered a sobering review of the threats facing the world, calling them “a potentially toxic mix of rogue nations, criminal networks, and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”
He addressed dangers presented by China, North Korea, Iran and the turbulent Middle East. Unlike problems the U.S. faced in the past, these problems don’t go away, he said. The nation’s biggest challenge is that it faces more challenges, Gates said..
The U.S. needs to prepare for a broad range of threats “by fielding a diverse portfolio of capabilities with maximum versatility across a wide range of conflicts, “ Gates said.
“Why? Because over the last 35 years, since Vietnam, our record of predicting where we would use military force next is perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”
He cautioned against a military response to Iran’s nuclear program, either by the U.S. or Israel. At best an attack by the Israelis would delay Iran’s nuclear program by only a couple of years. And an Israeli attack on Iran would be seen as underwritten by the U.S., Gates said.
An attack by the U.S. could do more damage to Iran’s nukes, but it also would make a nuclear Iran inevitable, he said.
“It would just go deeper and more covert,” he said.
While Iran doesn’t have the capacity to attack the U.S. yet, it does have the capacity to disrupt oil shipments through the Persian Gulf and “launch a wave of terror across the Middle East and potentially here at home, as well,” Gates said.
A nuclear Iran would threaten the region and the world, he said, but there is still time before trying a military option against Iran. Sanctions are beginning to have an impact on the country and hurting the regime, as well, he said..
To meet the challenges, the Pentagon budget should not face the so-called sequestration cuts due to kick in January, which has been forecast at about $600 billion. Gates said the Pentagon already has been reduced enough.
He said he began $900 billion in cuts over the next decade before he left 17 months ago. Those cuts are sustainable for the nation’s defense, he said. But the sequestration cuts would be catastrophic to national security, he said.
Defense spending isn’t the cause of the fiscal crisis in America, Gates said. While the Pentagon accounted for more than 50 percent of total U.S. expenditures when Dwight Eisenhower warned of the “military-industrial complex” in 1961, it now accounts for less 15 percent of expenditures, which is less than before World War II.
Gates said he hoped that with the election over, “Whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country’s finances back on track. Doing so would remove the pall that hangs over the economy at home, and American power and credibility overseas.”
During a media conference before his speech, Gates, who also was director of the CIA and spent nearly 27 years in intelligence, said the resignation on Friday of CIA Director David Petraeus – after he admitted to an extramarital affair – was “a tragedy in every respect.” He declined further comment.
Gates also was asked about his legacy. He said he hopes troops on the front lines of the two wars that were waged while he was in office consider that they had a defense secretary who “had their back, who would do whatever it took, spend whatever it cost to protect them, allow them to complete their mission, and to come home safely.
“And if they didn’t come home safely then to provide them with the best care in the world,” Gates said. “That’s the only legacy that I care about."