Gates: Despite fiscal problems, US must maintain a strong military

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Notre Dame graduates Sunday that America must resist withdrawing from the global stage and maintain a strong military – even amid fiscal hardship – capable of fighting foes with “size, steel, and strength.”

In one of his final major public speeches, the outgoing secretary cautioned against the dawn of an era of U.S. isolationism. He told the graduates “the ultimate guarantee” of success against the world’s “evil” forces is a strong U.S. military.

“A recurring theme in America for nearly a century has been a tendency to conclude after each war that the fundamental nature of man and the iron realities of nations have changed,” Gates said. “That history in all of its unpredictable and tragic dimensions has come to a civilized end. That we will no longer have to confront foreign enemies with size, steel and strength.”

The latter was a reference to a peer military of a large nation. The remark is likely to give new fuel to lawmakers who view China as America’s top military threat.

“The lessons of history tell us we must not diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon, because ultimately they will need to be confronted,” Gates said.

Since becoming secretary during the Bush administration, Gates has been a vocal advocate of using soft power – meaning all of Washington’s diplomatic, economic and other tools, not just military.

But as he prepares to step aside this summer, Gates is leaving the nation with a statement about U.S. military strength.

“But make no mistake, the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power – the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military,” Gates said Sunday.

Recent polls show most Americans have grown skeptical of the war in Afghanistan, prompting some to question whether the U.S. will be less involved in world affairs after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“Beyond the current wars, our military credibility, commitment, and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries from making the kind of miscalculations that so often lead to war,” the secretary said.

Gates also addressed the need to repair the nation’s dire fiscal standing, and made clear the Defense budget must be further scrutinized as part of those efforts.

An era of Defense cuts has arrived. The White House and congressional leaders slashed $18 billion from the administration’s $549 billion 2011 spending plan; the White House ordered $78 billion in Pentagon spending cuts over five years late last year as the department was building its 2012 budget plan. 

Senior lawmakers say more cuts will be made to that 2012 budget in coming months.

“At some point fiscal insolvency at home translates into strategic insolvency abroad,” the secretary told the Golden Domers. As part of America getting its financial house in order, the size of our defense budget must be addressed.”

How to handle defense budget cuts will be up to his likely successor, current CIA Director Leon Panetta. Still, Gates called for more efforts to eliminate “bureaucratic excess and overhead.”

He also said it will be necessary to take “a hard look at personnel levels and costs.”

The latter is considered a touchy subject because changes to things like military healthcare programs are a tough political sell for lawmakers while the nation remains involved in two hot wars. But groups like the Defense Business Board, an advisory group that reports to the defense secretary, have warned if left uncheck, such costs are a poison pill for the Pentagon’s annual budget.

Gates also said Washington must reexamine “missions and capabilities to separate the desirable or optional from the essential.”

The Defense Department will do just that as part of a government-wide study it will lead as part of efforts to find $400 billion in national security cuts over a dozen years as ordered by President Obama.

But, Gates warned, those cuts should not dull the combat power of the U.S. military.

“Throughout this process we should keep in mind historian Donald Kagan’s observation that the preservation of peace depends upon those states seeking that goal having both the preponderant power and the will to accept the burdens and responsibilities required to achieve it.”