NYT: Secret Gates memo warns that U.S. has no strategy for dealing with a nuclear Iran

A Saturday night bombshell to scramble the scheduled Sunday morning chat show salutes to Obama’s dopey nuclear summit. Read it now so that you’ll have the proper frame of mind when Paul Krugman or whoever starts prattling on about what a big accomplishment it was to get Ukraine to give up their uranium.

Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, touched off an intense effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a revised set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course…

Pressed on the administration’s ambiguous phrases until now about how close the United States was willing to allow Iran’s program to proceed, a senior administration official described last week in somewhat clearer terms that there was a line Iran would not be permitted to cross.

The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal…

Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the upper echelons of the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well-prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed.

Of course they didn’t prepare alternatives. How could they possibly fathom that diplomacy might fail? The core plank of “smart power,” such as it is, has always been the Obama charm offensive. Simply by being the anti-Bush and offering an open hand to Iran, he would convince Tehran to unclench its fist and open a dialogue. Bush was the problem (he always is!) and once the problem was removed, solutions would inevitably follow. So why bother developing a Plan B? The result: Iran’s now enriching uranium to 20 percent purity and rolling out advanced centrifuges, which means nuclear “breakout” capacity, i.e. the ability to build a bomb quickly even if they haven’t yet done so, won’t be long in coming. I can’t believe The One would ever order a strike on Iran — see this Aussie op-ed citing security sources who claim the U.S. has all but given up on stopping them from building a bomb — so Israel’s going to do what it has to do sooner rather than later. In fact, in my darker Machiavellian moments, I wonder if one of the reasons The One has picked a fight with Netanyahu lately is because he knows they’re planning to act and wants to put maximum distance between America and Israel before they do. Iran will blame Washington for ordering the attack anyway, but plausible deniability may limit the extent of the reprisals.

No need to put all the blame on Obama here, though. Bush knew what it would mean to hand this issue off to a Democratic president and he went ahead and did it anyway. Invading Iraq necessarily left him with fewer military options against other threats; now the bill is coming due. As for Europe, Russia, and China, here’s the Times’s almost poignant description of the White House’s naivete: “Administration officials had hoped that the revelation by Mr. Obama in September that Iran was building a new uranium enrichment plant inside a mountain near Qum would galvanize other nations against Iran, but the reaction was muted.” The fact that western powers had been waltzing with Iran over its nuke program for fully seven years at that point might have given them a clue that no action would be taken, but that’s “smart power” for you.

Exit question: Why was this leaked now? The memo was written in January but only today are “government officials” finally whispering about it to the Times. Normally I’d assume that it was leaked by the White House itself in yet another naive attempt to pressure allied powers about the severity of the threat, but the story’s simply too embarrassing to Obama. Presumably the leakers are insiders who are worried that, three months later, we’re still not taking the prospect of an Iranian bomb seriously enough. We will be tomorrow.

Update: One further thought. From time to time, to illustrate how thoroughly U.S. military strategists prepare for all possible contingencies, you’ll hear pundits remark offhandedly that the Pentagon even has war plans against Great Britain or Canada stashed in a drawer somewhere. I used to believe that was basically (if not literally) true, but good luck reconciling it with this story. Again: Iran’s nuclear program was publicly revealed seven years ago. Obama was still years away from running for Senate when the idea of Iranian nuclear weapons popped onto the world’s radar screen. And yet here we are in 2010 racing to come up with options in case Iran … develops nuclear weapons. Simply unbelievable.

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