BENTON HARBOR - Look out for Iran, says a man who should know.
He’s Robert Gates, the former U.S. secretary of defense, and he addressed the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan Wednesday night at the Lake Michigan College Mendel Center.
The only secretary of defense asked to remain in office by a newly elected president - Barack Obama, in 2009 - and the only career officer in the Central Intelligence Agency to rise from entry-level employee to CIA director, Gates warned that Iran has pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons program while the U.S. has wrestled with its deficit and economic problems.
He’s convinced, he said, that Iran is determined to build such weapons, adding the consequences could be disastrous. Taking out such weapons via air strikes wouldn’t be easy, he said, because they’d likely be hidden in multiple sites, many deep underground.
“In short, if you think Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran, in my opinion, would be a catastrophe,’’ he said.
There’s the potential, he added, for Iran to close the Persian Gulf to oil exports just by sinking a few ships in strategic locations, creating hardships around the world. It’s a situation the U. S. must consider, he said, given Iran’s proclivity for violence.
“Iran’s behavior has been a challenge for 32 years, and I’m sorry to say it’ll only get worse,’’ he said.
As for other potential threats to U.S. security, Gates, the defense secretary from 2006 until early this year, said China’s economy has now surpassed Japan’s as the second largest in the world, allowing it to invest heavily in its military and weapon technology. But with its wealth have come problems, mainly energy needs, prompting Gates to characterize China as a partner and competitor but not necessarily an enemy.
“There’s no fundamental reason for it to be our enemy but, if you treat it like one, it will become one,’ he said.
Regarding Russia, the only developed country with a declining life expectancy, as Gates pointed out, it, like China, has its own problems and doesn’t currently pose a significant threat. And while Iran is by far the biggest potential thorn to the U.S. in the Middle East, Gates said Israel’s worsening relations with its neighbors need to be closely monitored.
As for Iraq, Gates mentioned it only in passing, without attempting to defend the decision to invade the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“There are no do-overs,’’ he said, adding time will determine whether it succeeds as a democracy.
Gates acknowledged the problems in Washington are many, with the U.S. seemingly having lost the ability to solve the basic problems of government. He called for an overhaul of the redistricting process that shapes Congress, allowing for representation by a wider range of candidates, and he said both major parties need to show more humility after major victories so they can better work toward compromise. The willingness to compromise is a cornerstone of the Constitution, he said, yet it’s now viewed by many in Washington as selling out.
And while he has heard calls for shrinking the military, he said that would be a mistake, given the extremists who make it their goal to kill Americans.
“It’s better to face them on their 10-yard line, not our 10-yard line, or, worse, our goal line,’’ he said.
Staff writer Lou Mumford: