Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered still more evidence this past week that he has become the most important actor in steering the Bush administration’s foreign policy toward a more realist course, particularly with respect to the Middle East and Iran. (I wrote an article about this for IPS at the end of December.)
No, I’m not talking about his critique of the counter-insurgency skills of Washington’s NATO partners, a rare, Rumsfeld-like gaffe, from which he quickly retreated. Rather, I’m referring to his interview on NPR Thursday — just as President Bush was wrapping up his tour of the region — during which Gates was asked whether he considered Iran to be “the greatest threat that the United States is likely to face in the final year of this administration.” His answer must have caused serious heartburn in the Vice President’s office. “Well,, I think Iran is, certainly, one of the most significant challenges,” Gates replied to the question.
“We continue to be concerned about their ongoing enrichment programs, their unwillingness to suspend in the face of broad international pressure to do so. So I think it will continue to be a challenge.”
STEVE INSKEEP: Is there a reason you described them as a challenge rather than a threat?
GATES: Well, when I think of a threat, I think of a direct military threat and, while the jury is out in terms of whether they have eased up on their support to those opposing us in Iraq, I don’t see the Iranians in the near term as a direct military threat to the United States.”
It’s important to put this exchange in the context both of the purported confrontation between U.S. warships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats in the Straits of Hormuz the previous week and of Bush’s trip to the region, a major theme of which was the “threat” posed by Iran not just to its Gulf neighbors, but to all countries, presumably including the United States.
“Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere,” Bush said in his poorly received speech in Abu Dhabi early last week. “So the United States is strengthening our long-standing security commitments with our friends in the gulf and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.” It’s pretty clear that, if Bush had confronted the same question by Inskeep, he would have opted for “threat” rather than “challenge.”
The fact that Gates would downplay the Iranian “threat” — or at least its imminence — in this way and at the same moment that Bush was trying to rally the Gulf states behind a U.S.-led anti-Iranian alliance once again suggests not only the defense secretary’s determination to move policy in a more realist direction, but also a growing confidence that he is succeeding.
(It’s also worth noting how Amb. Jay Lefkowitz, a neo-conservative close to Elliott Abrams and the president’s Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, got slapped down by the State Department for his remarks at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) forum Thursday about the North Korea nuclear deal. The conference keynoter, Lefkowitz asserted that current U.S. efforts to denuclearize Pyongyang were likely to fail and that, as a result, a “policy review” was underway. “Let me make it very clear,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack Friday when questioned about Lefkowitz’s statements. “He is the envoy for issues related to human rights in North Korea. He is not, however, somebody who speaks authoritatively about the Six-Party Talks. His comments certainly don’t represent the views of the administration.” Lefkowitz, it should be noted, reports to the most durable neo-conservative in the State Department, Undersecretary of State for Democracy & Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, rather than to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Chris Hill, who forged the deal and remains very much in charge of the nuclear file. It might also be recalled that Abrams, no doubt backed by Cheney’s office, made his reservations about the nuclear deal clear virtually the minute it was announced in an email from his office that went astray and somehow wound up in the New York Times.)
All in all, it was not a good week for the hawks.