Ex-defense chief Gates: Biggest challenges in US come from within
Former defense secretary Robert Gates speaks at the OSU Business Forum in Tulsa, Okla., Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012.
Tulsa (Okla.) World/MCT
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates walked a Tulsa audience through a variety of national security threats facing the United States in the coming years before bringing it all back home to the nation's gravest threat - itself.
Gates, a career CIA agent and director of the agency for three years before taking the reins of the Pentagon for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said the nation has substantial challenges in the Middle East, China and elsewhere, but if it can get its fiscal house in order and its economy on track, no nation can challenge the U.S. as a superpower.
The problem is the American political system may not be up to the task, he told about 900 people at the Oklahoma State University Tulsa Business Forum.
"American politics has always been a shrill and ugly business, going back to the founding fathers," Gates said, but he is worried by polarizing trends in contemporary government - especially congressional districts that are drawn along partisan and ideological lines, "wave" elections that sweep one party in or out of office, the decline of congressional power brokers who are able to make and enforce deals, and the 24/7 digital media that appeals to the most extreme and vitriolic voices.
"The moderate center - the foundation of our political system and our stability - is not holding," Gates said. "Moderation is now equated with lacking principles, compromise with selling out.
"So just at the time when this country needs bipartisan solutions and strategies that must be sustained through more than one presidency and more than one Congress, most of the trends point in the opposite direction."
Historically, great ideas in American government have come from the left and the right, but the laws and policies that implemented the best of those ideas have most commonly come from the center, usually as the result of compromise, Gates said.
"At a time when our country faces deep economic and other obstacles at home and a world that keeps getting more complex and more dangerous, the inability of so many political leaders to step outside their ideological cocoons or offend their most partisan supporters has become a real threat to the future of our country," he said.
In the past, the political arena has been equally divisive, Gates said, remembering the extremes of American politics immediately after World War II.
But he pointed out that a bipartisan effort at that time led to the key elements of America's successful Cold War strategy - the Marshall Plan, containment policy and the creation of NATO.
The current threat is no less serious and calls for the same level of bipartisan cooperation, Gates said.
"When push comes to shove and the future of our country is at stake, ideological zeal and short-term political calculations on the part of both Republicans and Democrats must yield to patriotism and the long-term national interest," he said, "because when all is said and done, whether the United States sustains our global, economic and military pre-eminence will depend not on the actions of others - on what other countries do - but on what we do, on the compromises we forge, the sacrifices we accept and the courage and unity we demonstrate."
Before Wednesday's speech, Gates discussed issues raised in Monday's presidential debate on foreign policy at a press conference.
Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney disagreed over the future size of the U.S. Navy. Romney says it needs to be bigger. Obama says the important thing is ability, not numbers.
Gates' answer: "It's not a question ... that is answerable in a bumper sticker."
Obama is right that a single U.S. aircraft carrier today is more powerful than the entire Navy was before World War II, but Romney is correct that Navy officials have been pushing for more ship-building money and have some aging Reagan-era ships that must be replaced, he said.
Regardless of the winner of November's election, Gates said he won't be returning to the Cabinet.
"I gave at the office," he said with a laugh. "Thanks, but no thanks."
Distributed by MCT Information Services