Sunday's New York Times had a bombshell leak about a memo Secretary Gates circulated in January regarding the Administration's floundering Iran strategy. The leak prompted a vigorous push-back from the administration. "Nothing to see here" was the official response; or, as the NSC strategic communications czar Ben Rhodes put it, "It is absolutely false that any memo touched off a reassessment of our options."
For my part, I found the original leak more reassuring than the administration's efforts at damage control, even though as a general rule I think leaks like this are bad for policymaking. The original story had Gates warning his administration counterparts in January that their Iran strategy was failing and that they needed to scrutinize more carefully military contingency options. I am fairly confident the NYT reporters had that part of the story right; the reporters (David Sanger and Thom Shankar) are very high caliber and, as they point out in their own follow-up story, no one in the administration could point to specific examples of anything mischaracterized in the original article. More to the point, what is alleged to be in the Gates memo is true, almost inarguably so: after a year of patient effort, President Obama's Iran strategy was failing and showed little prospect of actually deflecting the Iranian nuclear trajectory. At that time, the administration's Plan A of unconditional outreach to Iran had clearly failed, the administration was walking back from its stated Plan B of "crushing sanctions," and many observers were beginning to talk about Plan C as "learning to live with the Iranian bomb."
So the original story amounted to this: the most impressive member of President Obama's Cabinet sent around a memo describing fairly and accurately the perilous condition of one of the administration's most important national security initiatives. I can understand why the administration didn't like the story, but I would have been far more worried if the story was untrue.
The leak, though damaging, may not be as damaging to the Iran strategy as the administration's damage-control efforts are likely to be. The urgent priority (and stated goal of Obama's policy) now is to ramp up as much diplomatic/economic pressure as possible on the Iranian regime in a last ditch effort to shift the Iranian regime's decision-making calculus in the direction of a peaceful diplomatic resolution. Diplomacy would have had a better shot at succeeding if the administration had intensified the pressure track last September, but better late than never.
The Chinese and to a lesser extent the Russians are dragging their heels on this pressure track for reasons that my Foreign Policy colleague Steve Walt rightly says come straight out of Realism 101: China is not as worried about the Iranian bomb as we are and would like to curry favor with the Iranians to keep its privileged access to Iranian oil and natural gas. The implication of this (and what Walt fails to note) comes straight out of Realism 201: the only way to dissuade China from this foot-dragging course is to convince the Chinese that their dilatory tactics are driving the United States (or others) to reconsider the military option. The original NYT leak revealed that this was exactly what was happening back in January. If the Chinese take that seriously, then there is some hope for diplomacy.
If, on the other hand, the Chinese listen only to the damage-control spin, they may get the idea that the administration still believes that its 2009 Iran strategy has legs and that no reassessment was done or warranted. In that case, why should the Chinese get on side? They likely won't and we can expect watered down sanctions that will have a low likelihood of success in pressuring Iran toward a peaceful resolution.
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