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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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