Gates in the Lion’s Den

Monday night’s speech by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the ultra-hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) must have deeply disappointed most of his audience, particularly when it came to his brief discussion of Iran. While Gates repeated the adminstration’s mantra that “all options are on the table,” the degree to which he emphasized diplomacy and omitted any mention of the growing list of charges by other U.S. military and administration officials regarding Tehran’s alleged “proxy war” against U.S. forces in Iraq — let alone its support for Syria, Hezbollah, or Hamas — was truly remarkable given the Likudist views of his hosts. As made clear by a quick visit to its website, JINSA considers Iran second only to the creation of a Palestinian state as the greatest strategic threat to Israel.

Gates was the recipient of JINSA’s annual Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor, named after the Washington State senator whose Washington, D.C., office served as a hatchery for future neo-conservative luminaries, including Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, and Elliott Abrams in the 1970’s. As a heavyweight on the Senate Armed Services Committee and an ardent supporter of Israel and Soviet Jewry in the run-up to his unsuccessful 1972 and 1976 presidential bids, “Scoop” was also known as the “Senator from Boeing” who helped marry major defense contractors with Israel-centered neo-conservatives, a marriage that was symbolized by JINSA’s launch in 1976 by Michael Ledeen and Stephen Bryen, with Perle’s help.

In his four-page acceptance speech, Gates did indeed attack Iran, calling its government “an ambitious and fanatical theocracy,” noting that, in 28 years, he had failed to find “the elusive Iranian moderate,” and warning his audience that, “We should have no illusions about the nature of this regime or its leaders — about their designs for their nuclear program, their willingness to live up to their rhetoric, their intentions for Iraq, or their ambitions in the Gulf.” But he devotes only one paragraph to how Washington should deal with Tehran, and, as you can see below, his “all-options-on-the-table” language appears almost as a throw-away line:

“This Administration is keenly aware of the threats posed by Iran. It is also keenly aware of the challenges we and our allies face with a regime that seems increasingly willing to act contrary to its own national interests. With a government of this nature, only a united front of nations will be able to exert enough pressure to make Iran abandon its nuclear aspirations – a source of anxiety and instability in the region. Our allies must work together on robust, far-reaching, and strongly enforced economic sanctions. We must exert pressure in the diplomatic and political arenas as well. And, as the President has said, with this regime, we must also keep all options on the table.

Having said that, however, he immediately changes gears by explicitly distinguishing — through the use of the word “but” between Iran and the threat posed by Sunni extremists (no doubt inflicting intense irritation on Ledeen who asserted through a press release on his new book, The Iranian Time Bomb, put out by his American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Tuesday, “that it is difficult today not to conclude that Iran was involved in the 9/11 attacks.” Here’s how Gates changes the subject:

“But, obviously, instability in the region is not just driven by state actors. The recent history of the Middle East has demonstrated the lethality and persistence of armed militias and movements that have no allegiance to any government, only to death and destruction and chaos. Where extremists have seized and controlled territory – in western Iraq or eastern Afghanistan, for example – the result has been misery, and poverty, and fear. The future they promise is a joyless existence – personified not by piety or virtue, but by the executioner and the suicide bomber. Symbolized by men kneeling not in prayer before their god, but kneeling and waiting for the executioner’s sword.

From there, Gates goes on to argue that the principal danger resulting from a premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq lies with an emboldened al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, omitting, quite significantly in my view, any mention at all of Iran in this context. “That would surely dramatically embolden an entire generation of Islamic extremists, and encourage countless others to join their ranks and wage war on our allies and our interests in the region, in Europe, and ultimately here at home,” he asserted.

In that same connection, consider this sentence which appeared relatively early in the speech, noting, in particular, the implied distinctions he makes between the Islamic extremists and Iran:

“And yet, despite ongoing violence perpetrated by militant, jihadist organizations – as well as the strident posturing of Iran – progress has in fact been made.

“Posturing” is obviously very different from actual “violence,” and that difference — and the juxtaposition of the two words — not only flies in the face of Ledeen’s contention that Iran stands behind the al Qaeda and other violent Sunni groups — remember, Gates is speaking to an organization co-founded by Ledeen sees Baathism, al Qaeda, and Iran as all part of the same phenomenon called ”Islamo-Fascism”, but it also tends to undermine the whole “proxy war” thesis on which the increasingly frequent calls for cross-border strikes is based.

A couple other observations about what I think is a truly remarkable speech, particularly given the audience before which it was presented:

First, instead of hyping threats to Israel’s security — an evergreen theme at JINSA’s annual dinners — Gates takes a much more positive view of Israel’s strategic position, suggesting that recent diplomatic developments, in particular, offer “some degree of hope that Israel will not forever be watching its back.” As noted above, it is also interesting that he dwelt so briefly on Iran and never once mentioned Syria, Hezbollah, or Hamas by name.
Second, the order in which he lists U.S. objectives in the Middle East:

  • A unified and stable Iraq;
  • A just and comprehensive peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people, including, as the President has said, a two state solution;
  • An Iran that does not attempt to dominate the region by subverting its neighbors, by building nuclear weapons, or by holding Israel hostage with the threat of attack; and
  • A reversal of the growth and influence of extremist networks and sectarian militia organizations that have become, in the words of our former theater commander, “the curse of the region.”

Again, his placement of a two-state solution ahead of containing Iran is, in my view, quite remarkable, even gutsy considering the extremist views of the host organization.

A final consideration: Gates speaks very carefully, and this speech was not an extemporaneous presentation. Remember that Gates spent much of his career as a CIA Soviet analyst, a Kremlinologist; that is, poring over speeches by Communist Party officials and articles and photographs published by Party newspapers and magazines to try to tease out what was really going on inside the Kremlin — what were the major policy disputes and who lined up on each side of them; which faction was ascendant and who backed it for what reasons, etc. etc. Because of the secrecy and opacity that has so characterized the foreign-policy making process in this administration, speeches like this one need to be read with similar care and attention.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Thanks for this, Jim. Most of the other media reports about the Gates speech led with the “all options are on the table” reiteration, but didn’t take the story beyond that.

    Your contextualization is, obviously, much more enlightening.

  2. If I recall correctly, Gates’ rather premature book of memoirs, “From The Shadows”, (Simon & Schuster 1996) makes much of his close relationship with Connie Rice over kremlinology.

  3. Any astute observer of the Bush administration over the past 7 years should have learned at least one thing… Don’t believe a word that they say.

  4. It’s hard to believe that someone in this administration can operate with such subtlety. Thanks for dissecting Gates’s speech. I, for one, eat these kinds of analyses up.

    While I’m wary of Gates with his Iran-Contra and possibly worse background, he does seem genuinely opposed to attacking Iran.

    Gates may be militating against a military solution. But what public figure is actually making a mission out of preventing war? Only one that I can see and he’s not American — Mohamed ElBaradei.

    We need more public figures to make this a priority. Especially presidential candidates: Otherwise, he or she who’s elected may have handed off to them one of the biggest messes in history.

  5. Jim Lobe is one of the best journalists writing today. These incisive probing articles take our understanding miles above the crowd: unfortunately Britney rules. He is one of the prime reasons that I send $$$$ to http://antiwar,com

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