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By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register

Many of us around the country have had about enough of the intense political divisiveness showing up in campaign ads. But our angst apparently is nothing compared to the frustration being felt in the nation’s capital on both sides of the political aisle. There, members of the defense establishment believe the partisan divide is actually undermining our national security.

At a two-day national security conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism this month, speaker after speaker voiced the same frustration over the budget sequester and the failure of Congress to negotiate.

“Congress is about as worthless an outfit as I’ve seen in 40 years,” declared Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps. major general, who chairs the National Defense Industrial Association and the Reserve Forces Policy Board, which advises Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Reserve and National Guard matters.

“The sequester is one of the stupidest things Congress has ever done.”

Yet that “worthless outfit” holds ultimate power over our national security, Punaro said. The defense budget that came out of the sequester’s automatic spending cuts is both bloated and insufficient to meet current military demands, he said.

He predicts that in ten years, the United States will have a fighting force that is both too small and unprepared to deal with the new nature of the threats we face while “health care costs and entitlements are turning DOD into an entitlements company that occasionally kills a terrorist.”

We might disagree on those entitlements, but Punaro is worth listening to when he says we can’t use the same deterrence methods to deal with ISIS as we did to deal with the Soviets during the Cold War, without getting to the root causes of the fight.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Leon Panetta, President Obama’s former defense secretary, recently said Obama should not have warned Syria’s President Bashar al Assad against using chemical weapons and then failed to follow through in 2013. Panetta said the empty threat left international allies reluctant to join us in fighting ISIS. Obama wanted congressional authorization — in my view, appropriately — which he didn’t get.

But it’s one thing to say we want members of Congress to stop pointing fingers and cooperate, and another to hear experts say we are less safe because of their failure to do so.

Michele Flournoy was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012 and now is CEO of the Center for New American Security. She shares the view that the failure to get a “rational” budget deal and the paralysis of Washington will become a national security issue, breeding a lack of confidence in the United States and opening the door for terrorism.

“It will hurt us in our ability to lead and in the perception of us as a power,” said Flournoy, who was principal adviser to the defense secretary on security and defense policy.

She says there are workable solutions, but the politics, rather than the substance of the disputes, is blocking them. Members of Congress fear they won’t win primaries if they are seen as working with the other party.

“Now the most dangerous thing you can do is agree to compromise,” said Flournoy.

“My fear is that something really bad will happen. We will have some operational failure because we were penny-pinching.”

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, senior leader for the U.S. Army Reserve, said sequestration is affecting its force.

“I’m 20 percent of the total Army but 5.8 percent of the Army’s budget,” he said noting the majority of U.S. Army missions, including now fighting Ebola, “can’t be done without us.”

Congress funds only 39 days of training for the Reserve a year.

When the government shut down a year ago, training for the Army Reserve and the National Guard was halted. The Guard and Reserve account for just under half of the 2.3 million men and women in uniform.

Joseph Collins, a retired Army colonel who served in the Pentagon for a decade and was active in the early planning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is now a director at the National Defense University. He argues that the U.S. is “pricing ourselves out of superpower status,” and Congress should be closing unnecessary military bases that cost too much to maintain. Taxpayers are also “spending huge amounts to modernize the nuclear arsenal,” though nuclear weapons are redundant, he said.

“This government is not going to work if the Congress won’t do the work it’s supposed to,” he said.

From my view, the blame is not equally shared between the two parties. The Tea Party element has pushed Republican members of Congress to the far right and made it a matter of honor not to negotiate with the president.

“Our revolution was a compromise,” said Punaro, who also noted the corrupting effect of political spending by outside groups on our politics. “Our Constitution is a compromise.”

Here’s the bottom line: How can we expect to win any foreign wars if some of our elected leaders have made their top priority being at war with each other?

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at

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