Why the defense secretary's position on Iran will haunt his legacy.
As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prepares to retire to private life—following 5 years as the head of the Department of Defense in both the Bush and Obama administrations—praise is being heaped on him by Democrats and Republicans alike. Herein a dissenting view. History will not be kind to Gates. Despite some noteworthy accomplishments, he will be remembered as the single most important facilitator of an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons. Future historians will compare him to Neville Chamberlain’s military advisers, who—like Gates—strongly opposed all forms of military intervention against the greatest potential danger of the century: An aggressively armed Nazi Germany in the 20th century; a nuclear armed Iran in the 21st century.
In a farewell interview with The New York Times, he put it this way:
If we were about to be attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go,’ I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.
This certainly sounds reasonable—at least to anyone unfamiliar with the history of the 1930s. As Hitler was rearming in a clear violation of Germany’s treaty obligation, and making it clear what he intended to do with his planes, tanks and submarines, Neville Chamberlain was arguing against his nation becoming involved in a war of choice. He prevailed and took the military option off the table, thus encouraging the Germans to continue to violate the Versailles Treaty without fear of intervention. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was warning against allowing the Nazi regime to rearm. Even the Germans expected those nations that defeated them in the First World War to march against them before they could fully rearm. This is how Goebbels put it in his diary.
[W]e have succeeded in leaving the enemy in the dark concerning Germany’s real goals…We wanted to come to power legally, but we did not want to use power legally…They could have arrested a couple of us in 1925 and that would have been that, the end. No, they let us through the danger zone. That’s exactly how it was in foreign policy, too….In 1933 a French premier ought to have said (and if I had been the French premier I would have said it): “The new Reich Chancellor is the man who wrote Mein Kampf, which says this and that. This man cannot be tolerated in our vicinity. Either he disappears or we march!” But they didn’t do it. They left us alone and let us slip through the risky zone, and we were able to sail around all dangerous reefs. And when we were done, and well armed, better than they, then they started the war!
I strongly suspect that the tyrants who currently rule Iran and who have sworn to destroy America and wipe Israel off the map will someday write something similar in their diaries. If Iran does develop nuclear weapons and does use them against the West, the major responsibility will be on Robert Gates.
In his interview, Gates boasts of having “prevented [the US] from doing some dumb things over the past four and a half years.” His “confidants” have made it clear that this refers to Iran:
He prevented further adventures, particularly with countries like Iran that could have turned into military intervention had he not become Secretary of Defense.
He was the first secretary of defense to openly take the military option against Iran entirely “off the table,” as headlines around the world attested. This foolish act—why take any option off the table?—encouraged Iran to move forward with their programs of developing nuclear weapons without fear of an American attack on their nuclear facilities. This is not to advocate such an attack—except as an absolutely last resort. But to announce to the Iranians that they not need be concerned about any military action by the United States was, to paraphrase Gates, one of the dumbest things he could have done.
Moreover, under Gates’ watch, the United States knowingly issued a false report on Iran’s intentions regarding the development of nuclear weapons. The report essentially denied that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons. This report was known to be false at the time it was issued since American intelligence became aware of the nuclear weapons facility at Qum before the report was issued.
The publication of this report sent a powerful message to Iran: The Americans have fallen for your bait and switch game in which you hide your capacity to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of purported civilian use. This encouraged the Iranians to move full-throttle ahead on their program.
At the same time Gates persuaded the Bush administration to change Israel’s green light to yellow and then to red, as it related to United States approval of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The end result is that Gates has successfully persuaded the United States to change its policy from an absolute unwillingness to accept a nuclear armed Iran, to a policy of “containing” an inevitable nuclear armed Iran. This alleged policy of containment is no policy at all; it is an admission of failure. It is similar to Chamberlain’s failed policy of “containing” Nazi Germany. A nuclear armed Iran will endanger the peace of the world. It will be a “game changer,” in the words of President Obama (before he became president and reappointed Gates). And this potential disaster will be largely the fault of the departing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.