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POLITICS: PennAve

Former top military officer sees national debt as biggest threat to country

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Retired Adm. Mike Mullen on Tuesday went well beyond his traditional area of expertise, military affairs, and held forth on issues ranging from the national debt to K-12 education.

Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the main issue that keeps him awake at night is the national debt.

“We just can't be the country that we're capable of ... if we keep spending ourselves into oblivion,” he told a gathering organized by Concerned Veterans for American and the Weekly Standard. “We won't be able to make the investments [we need].”

But with a politician's deftness, Mullen dodged a question about the budgetary costs of President Obama's signature Affordable Care Act -- an issue at the heart of a partisan divide in Congress.

“One of the areas that I just stay out of is Obamacare,” Mullen said, claiming not to be familiar enough with the health care reforms to comment.

However, he distanced himself from the possibility of a political future.

“Short answer: no,” Mullen told the Washington Examiner. He declined to give a long answer.

Mullen's version of a stump speech is a listing the five greatest threats facing America, including the $17 trillion national debt, the insufficiencies of the K-12 education system, political paralysis in Washington, the threat of cyber warfare and the way the country treats its returning veterans.

The U.S. military's former top officer talked about defense cuts imposed by the sequester (“The silver lining … is that spending was reduced -- I hate it”), to the leaks of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden (“traitor”) to his willingness to consider means-testing for military benefits (“everybody's got to sacrifice”).

For him, though, the primary challenge was to get the country’s debt and spending under control.

“From a very strategic level, I believe the military is part of the solution to better outcomes around the world, but at a higher level, it's really about economies,” Mullen told moderator Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Pointing to the decline in government spending over the past several years, Mullen said he was a “a glass-half-full guy in general, so I'm hoping that it's the beginning of being able to turn it around.”

The conversation turned personal for Mullen when he talked about how America was not living up to its responsibilities to returning veterans. He warned that with U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, Americans with no personal ties to the armed forces “will accelerate away from our veterans” who still need care.

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