Bob Gates and Mike Mullen are not happy.
I don't mean they are unhappy on a deep, metaphysical, soul-crushing level, but rather on the more mundane level of "they think the country is going to hell" and they're not pleased about it. And why do they think this? It's the national debt.
Both Mullen (the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Gates (the former defense secretary) have for several years now been publicly complaining about dysfunction in Washington, America's growing red ink, and the potential impact on their beloved military institutions. Most recently they have been on a tear about the prospect of sequestration cuts taking a meat ax to the Pentagon's budget. Two weeks ago at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)-sponsored confab focused on the debt crisis in America, they made the argument again. Mullen repeated his now oft-repeated assertion that growing debt is the "most significant threat to our national security," and Gates renewed his claim that this will lead to cutbacks in military spending that will weaken the military at a time when America is facing myriad foreign threats.
Both men are wrong. The U.S. national debt isn't a security threat. Indeed, for all their high-minded rhetoric about the risks of growing indebtedness -- and their image as elder statesmen above the grubbiness of politics -- Mullen and Gates's goal is rather mundane and parochial: ensure that U.S. military budgets stay on their current inflated course.
At its core, the fundamental problem with the debt/national security argument is that, well frankly, it doesn't make much sense. National debt in and of itself isn't a threat. It's rather an issue of how that debt guides policy choices. So, for example, Mullen claims that "a nation with our current levels of unsustainable debt, being this far out of fiscal balance, cannot hope to sustain, for very long, its superiority from a military perspective or its influence in world affairs."
This is a highly dubious notion. There really is no reason a country even with unsustainable levels of debt (which isn't actually the case with the United States, which I'll get to later) can't maintain military superiority or influence in world affairs. Over the last three years -- as U.S. debt levels have risen dramatically -- the United States has intervened in a war in Libya, surged in Afghanistan, and, with the notable exception of drawing down in Iraq has done very little to pull back from a leading role in global affairs. Moreover, given how historically low interest rates are, there's reason to question the notion that America's deficit is "unsustainable" or that it couldn't be reversed by some good old economic growth and an expiration of George W. Bush's tax cuts. If anything, the problem in America today is that the country is disinclined to take on more debt in order to grow the economy.
Although it's certainly possible that more debt could mean a reduced U.S. role in the world, there's nothing about this scenario that's written in stone. Indeed, it should provide some comfort to Mullen that this year the House of Representatives took a sledgehammer to many social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid in order to spare the Pentagon the possibility of spending reductions. After all, if there is any lesson to take from how Congress handles military spending, it's that the country's elected representatives generally have the Pentagon's back.