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Gates vs. Gates

Everybody's talking about this New York Times story by David Sanger and Thom Shanker, which tells us that U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates sent a memo in January to "top White House officials" warning them that the United States "does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability." Some are reading the story as a bombshell, but I think there's less here than meets the eye.

This is the quote that folks have seized upon:

One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Gates fired back today with an unusual statement on a classified memo, saying the Times and its sources had "mischaracterized" him. "The memo was not intended as a 'wake up call' or received as such by the President's national security team," Gates said. "Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process."

That's probably an accurate explanation of what Gates was trying to do, but clearly some in the administration are trying to push a different narrative.

The Times also reported that Adm. Mike Mullen,  the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged his staff in December to make sure they had military options ready in case President Obama chose that course. Shocking! Mullen also made an effort Sunday to respond to the Times story, stressing that a military strike against Iran would be "the last option for the United States." 

The Times is standing by its characterization of the memo: "Senior administration officials, asked Sunday to give specific examples of what was mischaracterized in the article, declined to discuss the content of the memo, citing its classified status."

So how about it: Do the Obama folks have a clear strategy for stopping Iran? National Security Advisor Jim Jones insists they do, but aren't about to tell the whole world. 

Fair enough. But can we divine one? Easy. It's largely a continuation of George W. Bush's Iran strategy. Sure, the Obama team spent a few months in a largely fruitless effort to engage the Islamic Republic, a policy made more complicated by the June 12 election and the rise of the "green movement." But ever since the new administration shifted to the "pressure track," the goal has been the same: to get a fresh round of multilateral sanctions though the U.N. Security Council -- this time with teeth. And efforts to sabotage or otherwise disrupt Iran's technical progress toward a nuclear bomb have no doubt continued.

There is, however, one major difference: Obama is relying on sweet reason to persuade the Security Council to back tough sanctions, whereas Bush tried to scare the world into thinking he was ready to let the bombs fly at any minute unless he got the votes in Turtle Bay. Administration officials say that initiatives like the New Start treaty with Russia help deflate Iran's argument that Washington isn't meeting its own nuclear obligations, so Tehran shouldn't be held to such a strict standard. And they've roped Saudi Arabia into guaranteeing China a supply of oil to replace its reliance on Iran. Presumably there are other inducements on offer.

We'll learn in the next few months whether the softer approach is an more effective than Bush's "madman strategy," which produced three weak sanctions resolutions and often opened up space between the United States and its European allies. Keep in mind, though, that the point of all this isn't the sanctions themselves, but a change of heart in Tehran. So not only do the sanctions have to pass, they need to work. And that's another matter entirely.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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New Kyrgyz leader: "The Russian press showed us the truth"

This morning I had the chance of attend a satellite roundtable with interim Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbayeva organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Reuters' Andrew Quinn has a good rundown of Otunbayeva's comments on the writing of a new constitution and the status of Manas airbase. 

I was struck by Otunbayeva's answer to a question on whether her new government's foreign policy would be oriented more toward the U.S. or Russia. :

I want to assure you that we would make the right balance in the sake of national interest in my country and we would certainly underline and stress our geographical situation and our common cultural and language traditions, and economically we are very tied with Russia. I must stress that before the 7th of April, the Russian press showed us the truth. The right information would come from the Russian TV screens if everything in my authoritarian country was closed.... Yes, sometimes you might [say] there is a lack of democracy in our part of the world. But we offer hands to each other when we need each other's support.

At the same time we didn't get such support or any condemnation regarding very outrageous cases toward human rights defenders and killed journalists when we needed it. I think we would value the strong sides of both countries and learn from both countries and view both relations for the sake of my nation.  

The Russian media doesn't often get praised for breaking through government censorship. (The U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Europe was taken off the air by Bakiyev's government.)

I didn't get a chance to ask a follow-up and it wasn't exactly clear if the "we didn't get such support" line was directed at the United States, but it was similar to what Edil Baisalov, now Otunbayeva's chief of staff, told me last week when discussing the U.S. State Department. It certainly doesn't sound very good for State's democracy promotion efforts, if the Kyrgyz opposition was reyling on Russian television for its unbiased information.

As an amusing aside to all this, one Foreign Policy editor overheard the following exchange in Washington last week between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Clinton administration Russia hand Toby Gati as they walked in to hear President Dmitry Medvedev's speech at the Brookings Institution: 

Lavrov (walking in to hear Medvedev) to Gati: So, looks like we have a new "orange revolution."

Gati: But this time you are responsible for it.

Lavrov glances backwards, obviously expecting more criticism of Russian policy towards the near abroad.

Gati: And I meant that as a compliment.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake arrived in Bishkek this week to try smooth over relations with the new government and more high-level visits are reportedly on the way, but it does seem like there may be some catching up to do.