Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Cabinet holdover from the Bush years, is in the news regarding two major issues, and in each case is challenged to demonstrate that he remains in charge of the enormous Pentagon.
In one case, he has disagreed sharply with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding Iran's nuclear weapons capacity. In the other, he appears to disagree with himself, at least in institutional terms, regarding Mexico's enormous expanding drug traffic.
The problems represented by developments in both nations have very strong implications for Asia and indeed the comprehensive international system of nations. Iran is steadily growing in influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, one byproduct of the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq not anticipated by the Bush administration. The problem of Islamic radicalism, and the development in turn of associated terrorist groups, is however global in scope, reflected recently in the violence in Mumbai India. The largest Muslim population in the world is found in Indonesia.
Drug trafficking likewise is a global problem. Illicit manufacturers as well as traders are to be found in literally every country on the globe. Southeast Asia traditionally has been a major source of supply.
On NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Gates stated that Iran is “not close to” having nuclear weapons, concluding that “there is some time.” That same day on CNN's State of the Union, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen was explicit that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
Without doubt, Iran is escalating the long-term confrontation with the U.S. and Israel in particular, and Western European nations and the United Nations in general, over development of nuclear weapons. On Feb. 2, Tehran launched a space satellite. Despite declarations that the rocket was launched for peaceful purposes, the dramatic development is rightly regarded as a provocation when the new Obama administration is searching for ways to reopen useful policy dialogue with the fundamentalist regime.
Concerning Mexico, a just released Pentagon report states that the power and violence of the drug cartels there could result in a failed state. Reacting to the rapid growth of cartel violence as well as influence, the U.S. State Department recently issued a travel warning. So far this year, more than one thousand people have been killed as a result of violence related to the drug trade.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has taken the Pentagon report as a personal affront, complaining about lack of credit for efforts to combat corruption overall as well as the cartels. Gates in turn this week has reacted quickly and diplomatically, devoting strong praise to Calderon for courage and determination in attacking corruption comprehensively as well as focused efforts to destroy drug trafficking.
Mexico deserves our support as well as praise. Operation Clean-up, the government's aggressive anti-corruption campaign, has included deeds as well as words. Approximately 50,000 Mexican troops have been deployed to combat drug trafficking in the most affected areas of the country.
Of these, 5,000 are devoted to action in Ciudad Juarez, now the most violent city in Mexico and directly across the border from El Paso Texas, a gateway in the enormous North American drug market. Gates has promised military support efforts of the sort that have greatly weakened the once enormous national drug cartel in Colombia.
The stakes in both Iran and Mexico are very high for the United States, regional neighbors and the UN community of nations. Iran's radical fundamentalist regime represents a threat to more than just Israel. Mexico's domestic challenges of corruption and drugs could threaten the stability of the Western Hemisphere in general, including the U.S.
Regarding both challenges, Secretary Gates is a credible as well as effective representative of U.S. foreign policy interests. Obama's decision to keep him in place at the Pentagon provides him with an implicit nonpartisan base, with the country as well as with the Congress.
Gates' career in intelligence, capped by tenure as CIA director, is ideal preparation for leadership in addressing security threats involving enemies who are devious and deceptive as well as determined.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.”
He can be reached at [email protected].