How Secretary Gates prevented a war with Iran
Although the Arab Spring has recently drowned out the drumbeat calling for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, we should remember that, not long ago, this drumbeat was so loud that many observers considered such a strike imminent. As Washington commentator Steven Clemons put it in 2007, "An irrepressible and perhaps irresponsible certainty that America will attack Iran now dominates commentary across the political spectrum." This scenario failed to materialize because the political forces pushing for active consideration of the military option —Vice President Dick Cheney's camp in the George W. Bush White House, hawkish pundits, key congressional leaders and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — have been outmaneuvered by an informal antiwar coalition that included the Pentagon, the military's top brass, the intelligence community and the Department of State. This coalition was ably led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is stepping down from his post at the end of the month. If one person were to receive the top credit for preventing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, it would be Gates. Beginning in his Senate confirmation hearing in December 2006, Gates has repeatedly spoken out against attacking Iran. After President Obama decided to retain him as defense secretary, Gates declared that "a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time."And in a recent West Point speech Gates bluntly stated that any future defense secretary who would advise the president to launch a major war in the Third World "should have his head examined." It was not merely by making public statements that Gates became, as Newsweek aptly put it, "the best insurance" that America's war-making machinery would not be used against Iran. Gates became such an effective leader of the bureaucratic-political pushback against bombing Iran by virtue of three assets: His first source of strength was simply his position atop the chain of command of the organization that would actually be doing the fighting. The president, of course, could have removed Gates, but only at a substantial political cost. The second asset that strengthened Gates' hand in the struggle over Iran policy was his considerable political autonomy. Gates had spent 13 years away from Washington before assuming the defense secretary post, and his statement, at his Senate confirmation hearing, that he "didn't owe anybody anything" was as true as it was candid. Because of the urgency of the main mission Gates was expected to accomplish — turning Iraq around — and because Gates appeared to have no need for the Pentagon job, President Bush was dependent on the secretary as much as the other way around. By the same token, President Obama depended on Gates, a Republican, for political cover from right-wing attacks on the administration's foreign policy. Partly for this reason Gates was able to establish himself as probably the most powerful member of Obama's cabinet. The third asset that allowed Gates to successfully lead the opposition to bombing Iran was the tremendous bureaucratic skills he developed in his many years of government service. During his first year as defense secretary Gates effectively pared down strike options against Iran, and he impressed upon military commanders in the Persian Gulf the need to avoid provoking the Iranian military. Additionally, Gates shrewdly allowed, possibly even encouraged, the top brass to publicly express their reservations about attacking Iran, thus making it difficult for the White House to steamroll the generals. Most important, Gates is a natural alliance-builder, and he knew how to work effectively with other opponents of the military option, especially the secretary of State. That the leaders of Defense and State would work well together can hardly be taken for granted. For example, the relationship between Gates' predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell was famously quarrelsome. By contrast, Gates established a collegial relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and he subsequently formed a remarkably tight alliance with Rice's successor, Hillary Clinton. The alliances Gates built with Rice and Clinton made his opposition to bombing Iran more effective than it would have been had he behaved, like many of his predecessors, haughtily toward Foggy Bottom. As Gates persistently warned the American public, a military strike against Iran's nuclear installations would probably have proven ineffective and counterproductive. Preventing such an adventure may well have been the greatest political achievement of Defense Secretary Gates.
Ido Oren teaches international relations at the University of Florida. He is the author of "Our Enemies and US: America's Rivalries and the Making of Political Science" (Cornell University Press).