Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others in the Bush administration led the way toward American appeasement of Iran. Over at Mosaic Magazine, former Bush aide Michael Doran claims that the Obama administration has had a secret strategy to engage Iran from the time it took office. He’s right, but he neglects to mention that George W. Bush and his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, adopted the same strategy from the same source in November 2006, after the Republicans got crushed in congressional elections. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got a pink slip, Vice President Dick Cheney got benched, and “realist” Robert Gates–the co-chairman of the 2004 Council on Foreign Relations task force that advocated a deal with Iran–took over at Defense. Michael Doran reports all of this, all, that is, except Gates’ central role in the plan. That would place a good deal of the blame at Bush’s doorstep.
When he arrived in Washington in 2006, [Obama] absorbed a set of ideas that had incubated on Capitol Hill during the previous three years—ideas that had received widespread attention thanks to the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan congressional commission whose co-chairs, former secretary of state James Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, interpreted their mission broadly, offering advice on all key aspects of Middle East policy.
The report, published in December 2006, urged then-President Bush to take four major steps: withdraw American troops from Iraq; surge American troops in Afghanistan; reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli “peace process”; and, last but far from least, launch a diplomatic engagement of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its junior partner, the Assad regime in Syria.
All correct, except that the 2006 congressional report was a carbon copy of the Council on Foreign Relations report of 2004, written under the supervision of Gates and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor. When Gates replaced Rumsfeld in 2006, I lamented:
Like King Saul conjuring the spirit of the prophet Samuel, President George W Bush has conjured the undead of his father’s administration, namely the Baker-Hamilton “Iraq Study Group”. Samuel’s ghost told Saul in effect (I Samuel 28), “You’re toast,” and the unfortunate president will hear the same message from his new defense secretary, Robert M Gates, and the rest of his fellow spooks.
Doran admonishes Obama for believing that the United States, not Iran, is responsible for emnity between the two countries. That was the central thesis of the 2004 Gates-Brzezinski document, which I quote: The elimination of Saddam Hussein’s regime has unequivocally mitigated one of Iran’s most serious security concerns. Yet regime change in Iraq has left Tehran with potential chaos along its vulnerable western borders, as well as with an ever more proximate US capability for projecting power in the region. By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam’s rule has not yet generated substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with US statements on regime change, rogue states, and preemptive action, recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential deterrent value of a “strategic weapon”.
The 2006 Iraqi elections had put the Shi’ite majority in power, and Iran loomed in the background as an ally and sponsor of the Baghdad regime. To take on Iran (as Vice President Cheney advocated) would have endangered American occupation troops in Iraq, as Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Michael Mullen told interviewer Charlie Rose on March 16, 2009:
What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.
After the 2006 congressional elections, the main concern of the White House was to make Iraq look like a success. That meant placating Iran on one hand, and putting the rancorous Sunnis on the American payroll on the other. The Petraeus surge created the Sunni insurgency in its present form.
Obama justifies his policy towards Iran on the basis of the same “realist” approach that Gates brought to the last two years of the Bush administration. In 2010 I warned of “Gen. Petraeus’ Thirty Years War”;” now ISIS is commanded by Sunni leaders that Petraeus trained through the Sons of Iraq movement. It was America’s misguided effort to force majority rule upon Iraq that left the region in a perpetual state of instability. That is the thesis of Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger (ret.) in his compelling book Why We Lost, which I reviewed here.
The best one can say about the Bush administration is that it never would have conceded so much to Iran, despite its 2006 embrace of the Gates strategy. At some point, no doubt, the Republicans would have given the mullahs an ultimatum, while Obama (as Doran documents) conceded everything at every step of the way. Obama justifies his policy towards Iran on the basis of the same “realist” approach that Robert Gates brought to the last two years of the Bush administration, but there is a difference. McBama and the Weird Sisters–Iran-born Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power–harbor a deep emotional antipathy to the United States, and a deep sympathy for anti-imperialist movements. They believe that the United States is a main instigator of the world’s evil.
The trouble is that American policy in the Persian Gulf was FUBAR before Obama arrived–indeed, that is a large part of the reason that Obama arrived in the first place. Perhaps we Republicans can do without an honest accounting of our own blunders, but this would reduce the likelihood of blunders in the future.
**David P. Goldman is Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and Wax Family Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.