Daniel W. Drezner

Parsing the Gates memo

Parsing the Gates memo

The story of the day, from David Sanger and Thom Shanker: 

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.

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

One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

In an interview on Friday, General Jones declined to speak about the memorandum. But he said: “On Iran, we are doing what we said we were going to do. The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.”

But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.

In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.

Now, if one doesn’t read carefully, the obvious implication to infer from this lead is that the Obama administration has been lax on both policy planning and thinking about military contingencies. 

If one reads the entire story carefully, however — something I highly recommend — two important facts stand out.  First, Gates wrote this in January, but it’s being leaked now, in mid-April.  As Spencer Ackerman notes, the Obama administration has geared up on a variety of fronts on both Iran and nonproliferation.  You can criticize the response as inadequate or misguided — but it’s safe to say that there was a policy response. 

So why leak the memo now?  The Power Line’s Scott Johnson asks that very question

As always with stories like this, one wonders about the motives of the Times’s sources. Why would anonymous officials leak word of a highly classified memorandum suggesting that the administration has no policy beyond what has proved to be empty talk? These apparently well-informed officials must think that we have something to worry about.

That’s one possibility.  Another (not mutually exclusive) possibility is that whoever leaked was on the losing side of the policy debate.  The White House has been centralizing the foreign policy process, which inevitably leads to some hurt feelings.  Furthermore, the bureaucratic politics on Middle East policy have become both nasty and personal.  It wouldn’t surprise me if someone in the administration thinks that it’s payback time.  Which isn’t to say that the leaker is necessarily wrong, but Marc Ambinder is right — there are multiple possible motivations for the leak in the first place.  

The second useful nugget of information comes from this paragraph: 

Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in 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. Separately, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a “chairman’s guidance” to his staff in December conveying a sense of urgency about contingency planning. He cautioned that a military attack would have “limited results,” but he did not convey any warnings about policy shortcomings (emphasis added).

If the senior uniformed officer is skeptical of the utility of a military attack, that strikes me as pretty important.  Sure, one option could be to really ramp up the military option to include a ground assault, but even Iran hawks acknowledge that this is off the table

So, what do I know now that I didn’t know prior to reading Sanger and Shanker?  I’d say the following: 

1)  All policy options on Iran stink. 

2)  The bureaucratic politics of U.S. Middle East policy are getting worse;

3)  The administration has responded to the Gates memo, but not in a way that pleases all of the bureaucratic heavyweights inside the administraion. 

4)  January is apparently a month of foreign policy "wake-up calls" and "bombshells" in the White House. 

What I don’t know, after reading Sanger and Shanker, is whether someone like Gates would approve of the administration’s current contingency planning on Iran.