November 17, 2010

Will the Obama Administration Listen to Gates or Neo-Cons?

As a Bush Administration holdover, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has largely avoided Republican attacks.  A Republican working in a Democratic administration, Secretary Gates seems to enjoy broad support on both sides of the aisle, and his policy recommendations are generally approved of enthusiastically by both political parties.
His recent comments on Iran, however, have the potential to raise some neo-conservative hackles.  Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to convince Vice President Joe Biden, among others, to make the US military threat against Iran “credible.” Gates immediately responded, saying that “We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact in Iran.”
Yesterday, Gates pushed back even further against callously wielding the military option:

A military solution, as far as I’m concerned … it will bring together a divided nation. It will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons. And they will just go deeper and more covert
The only long-term solution in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest. Everything else is a short-term solution.

Pretty strong stuff.  Gates reiterates not only the words of top US civilian and military leadership, but backs up quite a few points madeby Iran war opponents outside the administration.  His comments show that Gates is aware of the tragic consequences a new war with Iran would have for both Americans and the Iranian people.  While military and civilian leaders have consistently voiced strong concerns about the “military option” on Iran, Gates is not just pushing back against a catastrophic decision to go to war, he is pushing back against dangerous advice that the Administration should start saber rattling against Iran.  His comments are particularly significant because they come at a time when Israel’s prime minister, top Republican Senators (and a certain Independent), and US pundits are suggesting Obama start using war rhetoric as part of his Iran strategy.  Gates rightly deserves some recognition for pushing back against such disastrous policy recommendations.
However, although Gates downplayed the “military option,” the Obama Administration must offer more than just the pressure track of sanctions.  The problem with the pressure-only track is that this is exactly what Obama’s opponents have been calling for and it is a trajectory to war.  Republican Congressional staff and neoconservative pundits signaled in the Washington Times the imminent battle: hearings and investigations to press Obama to enforce unilateral sanctions. 
Additionally, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised Netanyahu that he will act as a “check” for Israel on the administration.  Between Senator Lindsey Graham’s proclamation that the US should “neuter that regime”, Netanyahu’s pressure to ratchet up war rhetoric, and Cantor’s “check,” Obama may find that the only way to increase pressure if sanctions fail is to threaten Iran with military force.  By focusing the “dual track” approach almost exclusively on pressure, Obama risks forcing the administration to adopt the very policy that Gates is now criticizing.
With the poisoned political climate in Washington, saying anything other than “all options are on the table” or worse is considered almost sacrilegious.  Secretary Gates should be applauded for his willingness to stick his neck out and endorse what many have been saying for quite some time.  Sadly, however, the administration risks forcing itself into a corner where the only option just may be the one they now oppose.  By trying to help the Iranians “decide” against nuclear weaponization using pressure rather than genuine offers of engagement, the administration is moving away from its own stated desire to create a long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.  Hopefully, the administration realizes this fact before it runs out of options.

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