Gates Memo: Reaction Roundup

A hot New York Times scoop on U.S. policy has dispelled much of the warm, fuzzy feeling brought on by last week's nuclear summit in Washington. The paper reported Sunday on the existence of a memo that Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in January, stating that government simply doesn't have a viable long-term plan for dealing with Iran's nuclear program. One official told reporters that the memo was "a wake-up call." Gates is trying to cool off the heated response to the article, insisting that the Times missed the context of the memo: "The memo was not intended as a 'wake up call' or received as such by the President's national security team. Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process."

That hasn't calmed things much. On the right, commentators are worried and angry. Although the potential for an Iranian bomb scares her, Claudia Rosett at Pajamas Media says it's a big duh: "The failure of U.S. policy may be news to Obama, but for some time now it's been glaringly obvious to most of the planet." At the National Review's Corner blog, Seth Leibsohn relinquishes his hope that it only seemed like there wasn't a plan: "If we who've been critical of our Iran non-policy have been tempered in our worry up until now, or given any sense of comfort, it was only because we assumed the government was doing more than they said ... The Times story yesterday, however, blows any such repose." Liberal journalist Spencer Ackerman begs to differ. In fact, he argues, there's been material improvement since January on the Iran situation—getting China and Russia on board for a harsher sanctions regime and showing the international community just how obstinate Iran is. Furthermore, signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are set to meet next month to deal with a loophole Gates identified in his memo: Iran could get all the requisite parts of a bomb but decline to assemble it, leaving them in compliance with the letter of the NPT but in violation of the spirit.

Elsewhere, Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy says "there's less here than meets the eye." The Obama strategy is really just the same as George W. Bush's, but with a spoonful of sugar added—all around, not a big deal. Marc Ambinder wonders about the propriety of releasing the memo, recalling the firestorm when reporters disclosed the existence of a secret National Security Agency wiretap program. The NSA program was at least legally dubious; this is less clear. "Whoever leaked this memo to the Times has to bear the responsibility of knowing that they could very well have fortified Iran's intention to resist international pressure, that it could very well have complicated the careful cultivation of China and Russia on sanctions, that it could steel Israel's spine in ways that would be perhaps deleterious for the region," he writes.

The big question that remains: Whodunit? Paul Woodward puts forward Dennis Ross as one potential culprit, while FP's Daniel Drezner lays out a few broad options:

[One] possibility is that whoever leaked was on the losing side of the policy debate. The White House has been centralizing the foreign policy process, which inevitably leads to some hurt feelings. Furthermore, the bureaucratic politics on Middle East policy have become both nasty and personal. It wouldn't surprise me if someone in the administration thinks that it's payback time. Which isn't to say that the leaker is necessarily wrong, but Marc Ambinder is right—there are multiple possible motivations for the leak in the first place.

So far, ace military blogger Tom Ricks has stayed out of the issue.