The NY Times continues its recent tradition of publishing the contents of secret memos with information from one about our strategy, or lack thereof, for dealing with Iran:
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.
If true, it certainly isn’t unexpected. In fact, the US has spent more time saying what it won’t do (i.e. taking things off the table) than what it will (“serious” sanctions). However it appears that may be changing, finally. If the Times is to be believed (which, anymore, is not an automatic) it is beginning to dawn on the brain trust that a) Iran isn’t at all intimidated by the prospect of sanctions b) feels no serious threat to their intentions and c) doesn’t plan on discontinuing them.
So this memo, if reported correctly, is an apparent effort to ramp up a more coherent and comprehensive approach to dealing with Iran – an actual strategy. And that includes some military options should “diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course.”
Is there really anyone out there holding out hope that “diplomacy and sanctions” will have the desired effect?
Of course, and as expected, White House officials deny the absense of a strategy. National security adviser Gen. James Jones claims:
“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.”
Except -according to the NYT – the Secretary of Defense, certainly someone who would be privy to any military options, doesn’t seem to think 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.
Then what? Testing nuclear weaponry’s design no longer requires actually detonation of a nuclear device. Sophisticated computer simulations now serve that purpose. So Gates’ point – if he made it – is entirely credible. They could indeed become a “virtual” nuclear state without us ever knowing about it (although I doubt their arrogance would allow the Iranian government to pass up an opportunity to rub the world’s nose in it).
The Times also contends:
According to several officials, the memorandum also calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran’s power if it decided to produce a weapon, and how to deal with the possibility that fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the terrorist groups Iran has supported, which officials said they considered to be a less-likely possibility.
But if we’re talking the “full range of contingencies” certainly one which has to be taken seriously and for which a strategy has to be formed.
In fact, other than “senior officials” and the NYT, there’s not much to verify the memo exists or the strategy doesn’t. And a Gates spokesman has even gone as far as to claim, in the Secretary’s name, that such a strategy does exit:
“The secretary believes the president and his national security team have spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort considering and preparing for the full range of contingencies with respect to Iran.”
So does the Gates memo actually say what the NYT says it says?
I’m inclined to say yes, despite the statement of the Gates spokesperson because of this:
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.
“Should the president call for military options, we must have them ready,” the admiral wrote.
That clearly indicates that at least Adm. Mullen didn’t believe the strategy included the necessary and appropriate military options. And, as the NYT further reports, that seemed to be confirmed recently in some Senate testimony. Speaking of the military contingencies against Iran, the Times says:
Administration officials testifying before a Senate committee last week made it clear that those preparations were under way. So did General Jones.
So I think it is fair to conclude that Sec. Gates may have written this memo that the NYT is reporting on and, in fact, that there isn’t yet a comprehensive long-range strategy to deal with a nuclear Iran. To translate that a bit more, what that means is the administration’s focus has been almost exclusively on diplomacy and sanctions and Gates is making the case that those don’t appear they will yield the desired results and a more broad spectrum strategy which includes military contingencies be included and seriously considered.
He’s right. But this may also be an effective way to get the word to Iran that time is running out and the military guys are beginning be taken more seriously in discussions about how to react to Iran’s nuclear intransigence.
While at a conference in Singapore with Asian defense leaders, Sec. Gates did a little podium thumping about North Korea’s recent nuclear test:
“We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia — or on us,” Mr. Gates told a major defense conference here that has been dominated by North Korea’s test this week of a nuclear device and the firing of at least six short-range missiles, all in defiance of international sanctions.
It took a foreign journalist to point out to Sec. Gates that while the US may not recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, it was, in fact, already a “defacto nuclear weapons state.”
And, of course, it was important that Gates do a little apologizing to the assembled group as well, since this seems to now be an integral part of any foreign visit:
Mr. Gates concluded that the United States, “in our efforts to protect our own freedom, and that of others” had “from time to time made mistakes, including at times being arrogant in dealing with others.” Mr. Gates did not name names, but then said, “We always correct course.”
Other nations in the region weighed in on the North Korea nuclear test as well:
In Moscow, the Kremlin issued a statement saying President Dmitri A. Medvedev and Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan had agreed on the need for a serious response to the nuclear test, Reuters reported.
As is usually the case in these sorts of situations, no one has any idea of what might constitute a “serious response” . In essence, the most “serious response” discussed thus far at the conference has been tightening sanctions. And we know how well sanctions have worked in NoKo and Iran.
Unofficially, about all that’s gone on is this:
“There’s no prescription yet on what to do,” said a senior American defense official who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The official said that one “prudent option” was “what should we be thinking about in the event that we need to start enhancing our posture, our defenses?” But the official said that it was premature to talk of building up American forces in the region — an echo of comments from Mr. Gates on Friday that the United States had no plans to reinforce some 28,000 American troops based in South Korea.
Well there you go. China also had a few words to say as well:
“We are resolutely opposed to nuclear proliferation,” General Ma said, adding that “we hope that all parties concerned will remain cool-headed and take measured measures to address the problem.”
China is resolutely opposed to nuclear proliferation only after NoKo. That means it wants no nukes in Japan. And its admonishment to all to remain “cool-headed” and take “measured measures” means it is in no hurry to do much of anything about the present problem. Of course, China holds the key(s) to dealing with NoKo and everyone knows it.
So? So as usual, North Korea does what it chooses to do and nothing of significance is being done to “punish” it for doing so. I’m sure, as is the MO of the Obama administration, that the blame for all of this will be laid at the previous administration’s feet, but a quick perusal of history going back later than 8 years will show than no US administration has actually dealt effectively with North Korea and the present one isn’t going to be any different – despite its apology.
There was no “nicety” to this very public change of commanders in Afghanistan. In command for only 11 months, Gen. David McKiernan has been fired. In his place will be LTG Stanley A. McChrystal. Secretary Gates made it clear:
“Our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches by our military leaders,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at a news conference this afternoon announcing General McKiernan’s dismissal.
Gates tried to smooth it over a bit (generals and admirals don’t like to be handled like this):
Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered few reasons for General McKiernan’s ouster beyond generalities that “fresh eyes” were needed. “Nothing went wrong and there was nothing specific,” Mr. Gates said. It was simply his conviction, he added, “that a new approach was probably in our best interest.”
The media will give you the boilerplate on McChrystal’s career including his recent stint as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who ran all special operations in Iraq (and his part in the Pat Tillman investigation which wasn’t quite as sterling).
But there’s more to it than just the fact that he commanded JSOC in Iraq. As abu muqawama points out, there was a big improvement in JSOC after McChrystal took command and how that impressed a certain other commander:
I do know that many policy-makers and journalists think that McChrystal’s work as the head of the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command was the untold success story of the Surge and the greater war on terror campaigns. I also know that McChrystal and David Petraeus forged a close working relationship in Iraq in 2007 and have much respect for one another. (Prior to 2007, the relations between the direct-action special operations task force and the overall command in Iraq were strained at best.)
So my guess is that Gen. Petraeus had a hand in McKiernan’s new status as “former commander”. Apparently he wasn’t seeing in McKiernan the type of thinking Petraeus feels is necessary to win in Afganistan. He may see in McChrystal the type of outside-the-box thinking he feels is necessary to turn the effort around there.
I do not know if the war in Afghanistan is winnable. But I do know that Stan McChrystal is an automatic starter in anyone’s line-up.
Frankly, I’m pleased with the move. Time will tell if it pans out, but it shows me a seriousness about the war in Afghanistan that I wasn’t sure existed within this administration. This isn’t a half-hearted move. Tip of the cap to the Obama administration for doing what I believe is necessary to move the war forward in a positive manner. Credit where credit is due and all of that.