robert gates 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates sailed through his confirmation hearings this week. Congress was looking for an "un-Rumsfeld," as The New York Times gleefully called Gates, and even an "un-Bush." Along with their enthusiasm, however, it is unfortunate that Gates's problematic testimony did not meet with more serious questioning.
While everyone was looking for Gates's exit strategy on Iraq, he said what he should have, namely that the objective - even if it is not now being met - is still to win and there will be no precipitous withdrawal before achieving that objective. No real surprises here.
The real news came from his answers on Iran, which raise serious questions about the direction of US policy.
When asked by a senator whether he thought Iranian President Ahmadinejad was "kidding" when he denied the Holocaust and called for "wiping Israel off the map," Gates responded: "No, I don't think he's kidding. But I think that there are, in fact, higher powers in Iran than he, than the president. And â€¦ while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent.
"They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons - Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf."
The senator followed up, "Can you assure the Israelis that they will not attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, if they acquire one?"
Gates responded coldly, "No, sir, I don't think that anybody can provide that assurance."
These are shocking responses, not so much for what they say about what the US will do, but for what they reveal about the thinking of the man poised to become the top defense adviser of the president of the United States. Gates's first instinct when asked about Iran's potential nuclear capability is not to explain why he views such a prospect as inimical to US interests, but why it might not be such a dangerous thing.
Gates assures us that although Ahmadinejad may be wacko, his Iranian leadership higher-ups have got to be more responsible. These moderate, reasonable, Iranian leaders, Gates calmly explains, have perfectly understandable reasons to want nukes to defend themselves. Not to worry, it's just the Cold War Iranian-style. Israel, the US, and Pakistan have nukes, why not Iran?
But what if this sunny analysis is wrong and Iran lobs a weapon of mass destruction at Israel? Well, that's a risk that Gates seems willing to take.
In another response Gates said, "I think that the consequences of a conflict - a military conflict with Iran could be quite dramatic. And therefore, I would counsel against military action, except as a last resort and if we felt that our vital interests were threatened."
Unfortunately, no senator thought to ask whether Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon itself would threaten America's vital interests. But it is not too hard to read between the lines of his response when asked to describe the consequences of a US attack on Iran: "While Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror both in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country is very real. They are certainly not being helpful in Iraq â€¦ but I think they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq.
"They could provide certain kinds of weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons, to terrorist groups. â€¦ They have the capacity to do all of these things, and perhaps more, that I just described."
Gates has now made the case for tolerating an Iranian nuclear weapon and against taking military action to prevent that eventuality. In doing so, he elicited no discernible alarm from his Senatorial inquisitors.
We wish one of them had pointed out that an Iranian nuclear weapon would dramatically increase both Teheran's capability to inflict increasing damage against US interests and the likelihood of Iran doing just that. Now it falls to President Bush to reveal whether Gates's thinking reflects his own, or whether he is still committed to preventing the world's most dangerous regime from obtaining the world's most dangerous weapons.