Green Room

Why Secretary Gates Pre-Emptively Surrendered to Iran

posted at 1:47 pm on May 1, 2009 by

The estimable Allah Pundit admits to being “stumped” about why Defense Secretary Gates, mistakenly promoted by some as a conservative ally rather than merely a competent functionary, would publically discount the possible effectiveness of the “military option” against Iran’s nuclear program:

Even if it’s a bluff and the Pentagon does think it can stop the program, what do we gain by telling Iran we can’t? It doesn’t give us any extra leverage during negotiations. And is he kidding about convincing them that nukes aren’t in their best interest? The risk of a Middle East arms race was long ago priced into their decision to go nuclear, as was the endless sanctions dance in the UN. Short of Obama threatening to actually give nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia and Iraq to check the Iranian threat, what’s left to discuss except buying them off somehow? It’s all carrot, no stick.

Allah Pundit’s confusion is easy to understand – if you presume that the military option was still on the table in any meaningful sense.  Eric Trager at CONTENTIONS appears to suffer under the same misapprehension – that Gates effectively “withdrew” a “key lynchpin” of US strategy, the credible threat of force, in exchange for nothing.  What Trager and the divine one fail to consider is that Gates would have had to overcompensate – dramatically, even blood-curdlingly – to make anyone even begin to believe that the US might “mean business” after all in the Age of Obama.

That’s not to say that the US really doesn’t have any military options – in fact, to the extent Gates’ comments have been accurately reported, he was bald-faced lying.  The US has extensive military options, including the option of leaving not one brick stacked on top of another from Khoy to Zahedan.

The salient point is that the Obama Administration sees no compelling reason to re-assert the obvious truth.  A detailed, professional’s assessment of US (and Israeli) options vis-a-vis Iran – from “delay” through “reverse” to “end” – can be found at JE Dyer’s “Optimistic Conservative’s Blog” in a series of posts under the deceptively amusing “Hit ‘Em Hard” title.  Her conclusion gets at what Gates was really saying, and why he or the administration he loyally serves (as in the past he has loyally served every other flavor of political master) has chosen to prevaricate:

The comprehensive attack option against Iran is, thus, feasible from an execution standpoint. I doubt I am far off in guessing that, for most people, it is nearly unthinkable, if not absolutely so, from a political one. This is the point on which everything turns – because critical thinking about all the options against Iran, each in its turn, leads inexorably to the need for something like the comprehensive attack option. It has been necessary up to now to look at each option in isolation, and assess its feasibility and probable effectiveness. But the inescapable truth is that each option is likely to provoke Iran into retaliation at some level. That retaliation could not be contained or countered, short of eliminating the means and will of Iran’s current leadership..

In brief, the US does not lack the military capacity.  We lack the will to deal with the costs and consequences.

Gates apparently does not want to admit that fact, not least because it would be an inconvenient admission for an administration that, in keeping with years of bipartisan US foreign policy, has maintained that an Iranian nuke would be “unacceptable,” “intolerable,” a “game-changer.”  Instead, by discounting the effectiveness of any military option, he achieves two objectives.  He makes any face-saving agreement achieved diplomatically look like a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, and, should Iran celebrate its N-Day ahead of some important round of US elections or other political test, he has helped prepare the political battlespace, allowing Obama to claim that there wasn’t really any other choice.

The observations of longtime Middle East observer Amir Taheri suggest that the first objective is primary.  He describes how an epochal US policy failure can be made to look like a success:

The 5+1 talks expected to open later this month will focus on a formula to “walk the camel down the roof” — that is to say, find a face-saving way to give Obama his first diplomatic success while allowing the Islamic Republic to pursue its program.

The formula would include a provision under which Iran will make a solemn commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. This is not hard to do. The “Supreme Leader” Ali Khameini has already issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against nuclear arms. Iran analysts believe that, for the time being, the regime is interested in acquiring the wherewithal needed to make nuclear weapons without actually taking the final step towards manufacturing them.

Such an agreement would kill two huge ugly birds with one shiny pebble, turning the reality of an abject blow to US prestige into apparent validation for, rather than a fundamental challenge to, Obama’s speak softly and threaten to get a tad snippy foreign policy.  Instead of arguing over “who lost the Middle East?” we would be asked to stand back in awe at the glory of “smart power.”

Whether sufficient numbers of voters are sufficiently mesmerized will likely depend on other factors.  It may be ominous for the Democrats that belief among US voters that we’re “winning the war on terror” has plunged in two months from 62% to 42%.  Time will tell whether dissatisfaction with the rest of Obama’s national security policy will also rise, and impact upon his approval ratings and political strength.  In the absence of obvious losses, unmanageable setbacks, or spectacular attacks, he may skate indefinitely.

And, so, all eyes turn to Israel, amidst widely divergent estimates of Netanyahu’s thinking and intentions, of the Israeli public’s expectations, and of Israel’s true capacities and true long-term interests.  US indications, as last week from the Vice President, that Israeli action would be “ill-advised” confirm what even-handedness means in the Obama Era:  “You’re on your own.”  If the US is otherwise even in the game beyond angling to minimize the appearance of damage under whatever scenario, whatever the front-line players choose to do, it’s a state secret not yet leaked.

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Sounds about right to me.

Alden Pyle on May 1, 2009 at 3:08 PM

Perhaps its a bluff to slow the Iranians down. Think about it, if they don’t believe that they are under threat, maybe they lose the sense of urgency.

I hate to think the alternative could be true.

DJ Rick on May 1, 2009 at 3:11 PM

There could be another possibility. It could be a veiled threat that we will provide nuclear technology to Iran’s rivals in the region.

Gates said that Iran would risk creating a nuclear arms race in the region that would leave it less secure. That seems to imply that Iranian rivals would obtain better weapons than Iran would have. Where might they get them?

crosspatch on May 1, 2009 at 3:21 PM

watch israel bomb iran, and then obama takes credit for stopping them from getting nuclear weapons

Chiasmos on May 1, 2009 at 3:21 PM

I think Gates was trying to signal Netanyahu,
“Hey man, Obama’s not gonna strike. It’s up to you.”

He obviously can’t pickup the phone and call the Israelis to say it. Instead, this is exactly-EXACTLY the kind of winkwinknudgenudge that Israel needs from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the US to get clearance for their strike.

scottm on May 1, 2009 at 3:22 PM

Apparently the Constituion is a suicide pact. Iran should bomb whomever sits there and takes it.

JiangxiDad on May 1, 2009 at 3:22 PM

“You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

the_nile on May 1, 2009 at 3:28 PM

How to defend America? Leave it to Bibi.

Steve Z on May 1, 2009 at 3:43 PM

This was NOT a signal to Israel. They should, however, take it as one.

Gates works for the Obama administration now – and Obama wouldn’t allow this kind of “signal” to be sent deliberately.

I know that everyone was glad that Gates stayed on in DoD after Obama was elected – but I’ve never been a fan of that kind of thing. Gates, under Bush – was empowered to do great things. Under Obama – he will be restrained from doing great things. This is not the way a good soldier should end a stint as SecDef – and this was predictable.

He should have turned Obama down. Now, he’ll either have to oversea the dismantling of the military might and will of the world’s greatest superpower – or he will have to resign.

HondaV65 on May 1, 2009 at 3:44 PM

Are there WWII history classes in affirmative action college?

jukin on May 1, 2009 at 3:46 PM

CKM — thanks for the citation of my blog, and for the good comments here.

One thing it’s always important to do is recognize what one has effectively done, regardless of what one intended. Gates has effectively signalled that we don’t intend to do anything, by stating that a military option would not work. (Some would, some wouldn’t, is the point I make at my blog. There’s more than one option.)

Iran might be confused if this public confession by our SECDEF were not simply the culmination of a weak-hand policy pursued for at least the last four years. But, in fact, it is such a culmination — and Iran has no reason to be confused. Of course Gates isn’t trying to set Iran up to be unwary about a surprise blow. He is, as CKM outlines, setting the Obama administration up to deal with the domestic political consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.

This slow-motion train wreck will not start or end with Iran attacking Israel. Nuclear deterrence will work much better against us than it will against Iran. The Middle East, and the entire world, is in for a long session on a hot skillet.

J.E. Dyer on May 1, 2009 at 3:58 PM

Iran could care less about a nuclear balance in the middle east. I believe they feel they have a destiny to destroy Israel and their ability to do that is via a nuclear weapon.

I believe they will use one against Israel as soon as they have one available. They will not wait and play a game of nuclear brinksmanship with Israel, because they know Israel will pre-emptively strike.

The Iranian nuclear option is a dead end. They will use it. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

evenkeel on May 1, 2009 at 4:13 PM

It’s real real simple.

The cabal in the white house intends to let nuclear proliferation happen.

That way, the world will be safer.

Once the first and second waves are finished.

notagool on May 1, 2009 at 4:37 PM

watch israel bomb iran, and then obama takes credit for stopping them from getting nuclear weapons
Chiasmos on May 1, 2009 at 3:21 PM

Watch Iran nuke Israel and then Obama claims there was nothing he could do…

Friendly21 on May 1, 2009 at 4:41 PM

Looks to me as though the Obamanistas are preparing to throw Israel under the bus.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind if the Israelis blew Iran’s nuke facilities clear to Mars, along with Akmedinnadinnerjacket.

As for Gates, he needs to resign and get as far away from this loser administration as he can.


Dave R. on May 1, 2009 at 4:45 PM

Whether Gates says the military option is on the table or not is irrelevant. Under no circumstances would Obama EVER engage in any type of military action against Iran. It’s just not going to happen — ever.

The Iranians know Obama is soft and Gates knows the Iranians know Obama is soft.

jonezee on May 1, 2009 at 5:09 PM

What I’m waiting to see if is Israel says to hell with Obama and launches air strikes.

jonezee on May 1, 2009 at 5:11 PM

All the camel walking is grand…except when he falls on you but that leaves the Israelis out of the picture…Gates has told Israel “you’re on your own” and the conservatives in Israel know that the liberal US administration and their shiny pebbles won’t do anything to stop Iran either…Bibi can’t let it get that far. The question I have is will Israel go limited nuke to end the battle quickly and preserve their forces for the KUDS in southern Lebanon or will they wait till the toll is so high they have no choice? (I’ll bet that to show what nice, fair guys they are, they have a bunch of people die needlessly) and will they then have to take on Russia or China as well….wonder where their subs are and what capabilities they now possess.

colonelkurtz on May 1, 2009 at 5:14 PM

I suppose it would be useless to wonder what Maryland’s and Virginia’s military options are.

Kralizec on May 1, 2009 at 5:51 PM

I think ZERO will start bombing Iran any day now. Don’t you?

tarpon on May 1, 2009 at 6:03 PM

So, the Obama administration’s goal regarding Iran is to set the bar so low that tripping over it is to be considered victory. As they say in the Guiness ads…Brilliant!

This is our best option? This is how we defend our allies? This is Smart Power?

For better or worse, this is the new face of America…feckless country of lowered expectations.

OneEyedJack on May 1, 2009 at 6:35 PM

On the other hand, it may make some of our former allies stronger, as they realize the world can be a dangerous place for the weak, especially if you are alone.

OneEyedJack on May 1, 2009 at 6:36 PM

Looks to me as though the Obamanistas are preparing to throw Israel under the bus.

Bad news time: it’s not just the Obama-stricken. There is a growing section of America that is very ready to throw the beleaguered nation of Israel not just under the bus but out to the wolves.

Spend a few minutes on a popular left-leaning news site like Reddit – if you can stand it – and take careful note of the comments posted to articles that are anti-Israel and/or warning of the impending Islamic threat in general. (Somewhat easier on sites with an upvote/downvote system) Be prepared to be shocked and horrified.

Dark-Star on May 5, 2009 at 10:13 AM