By Matt Goodman, CBSDFW.COM
gates Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates Speaks At UNT

Former defense secretary Robert Gates spoke at UNT on Sept. 7, 2011. (Credit: Matt Goodman/CBSDFW.COM)

DENTON (CBSDFW.COM) – To hear former defense secretary Robert Gates tell it, the decade before the worst terrorist attack in America’s history was littered with signs that the nation’s “singular dominance” was going to be challenged in a tragic, deafening way.

And to continue to sniff out similar threats in the decade ahead, Gates said Congress must not demand any more cuts than the “manageable” $400 billion over the next 10 years that has already been agreed to.

“Defending Americans is the one unambiguous role given to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “Anything beyond $400 billion would be a threat to Americans.”

Gates told nearly 1,000 at the UNT Coliseum Wednesday that America “put its feet up” in the years following the Cold War and Desert Storm and warned against repeating that.

The nation’s “superpower swagger,” as he put it, caused widespread resentment among a different type of enemy that boiled over on Sept. 11, 2001. He said that the nation is now in a similar position, and demanding more defense cuts would lessen presence abroad.

Because “the diplomatic cocktail and tennis circuit,” Gates said, will not get the information needed to battle Al Qaeda and narcotics trafficking.

Gates spoke at the University of North Texas Wednesday night as part of its Distinguished Lecture Series, which has also brought former President George W. Bush and former president of Mexico Vincente Fox to campus.

The nation’s 22nd defense secretary is the centerpiece of the university’s weeklong remembrance of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center, which will have happened 10 years ago on Sunday.

He began his speech by ribbing Washington, joking about seeing a politician pace down Lovers Lane holding their own hands.

But the light tone quickly segued into an analysis of the decade before 9/11 and the one after, which was devoid of another similar-scale terrorist attack but found the military waging two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As such, Gates’ speech wasn’t without controversy: A group of about 11 from Code Pink and the North Texas branch of the International Socialist Organization calmly stood outside the Coliseum grasping signs calling Gates a war criminal.

The North Texas Daily reported on Aug. 30 that Gates was paid $108,000 to speak at the University, much to the chagrin of the protestors.

“We’re opposed to the university using our tuition money to bring Robert Gates onto campus,” said Liz Clinton, spokeswoman for the North Texas ISO branch and a junior anthropology major at UNT.

And about 20 minutes into his speech, a group of about nine were escorted out of the building after they began loudly chanting “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”

But Gates paused, smirked, and countered, joking, “I thought there for a second that I was back in a congressional hearing,” getting loads of laughs and applause from the receptive audience.

Other than those brief disturbances, the UNT crowd welcomed his message and offered up no fewer than three standing ovations.

Gates said the United States “mustn’t forget the lessons of history” and continue to push forward politically, funding government agencies like the CIA that can detect threats like 9/11 that may pop up in the future, avoiding the deep cuts that he said happened in the 90s.

“If not confronted abroad,” he said, “they will come to our door step.”

But Gates closed on an optimistic note, saying that America’s continued dominance as the world’s power was on its own terms; not any other country’s.

“If we slide from preeminence,” he said, “it will be because we failed, not because others succeeded.”