Trust him?

Abrams and Iran: There He Goes Again

Elliott Abrams wants to you to know that former Bush and Obama administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates was—gasp!—wrong about something. Particularly, he wants you to know that Gates was wrong about something regarding Israel, with hints of "something much darker" (as Leon Wieseltier wrote of Andrew Sullivan). That must mean Gates can be trusted on precisely zero topics related to Israel and that, in turn, means we shouldn't trust Gates about a bombing run on Iranian nuclear facilities. Why? Because Gates opposes an American or Israeli strike against Iran.

In a post titled "Bob Gates and Israel: There He Goes Again," Abrams recounted for readers of theWeekly Standard's blog that Gates, in 2007, opposed an Israeli strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor. Here, at length, is the heart of Abrams's story and his conclusion:

Secretary Gates was strongly opposed to an American or an Israeli strike. He argued that a strike would provoke a new Middle East war, for surely the Syrians would strike back. The Israelis argued that if we all kept our mouths shut the Syrians would avoid humiliation by pretending nothing had happened: If asked, they would say there was no reactor and there was no bombing. Gates, a former CIA director, dismissed this argument—and Israel's claims to understand the Assad regimes psychology pretty well—as an obvious effort to manipulate the United States. He also argued that if Israel balked at Bush's preference for the U.N./IAEA [diplomatic] route, we should not only refuse to accept their decision but should use all our leverage to back them down. It was time to reassess our entire relationship with Israel. They should be told our political support and our military aid was on the line.

…In September of 2007 Israel bombed the reactor and destroyed it, and the Syrian regime in response … did absolutely nothing, precisely as the Israelis had predicted.

This story should be borne in mind when Mr. Gates now predicts with certainty, once again, that an Israeli or American strike (this time on Iran) will produce only catastrophic results, and expresses, once again, these negative view of Israel's relationship with the United States. To be sure, the case of Iran is very different from that of Syria. But the man who thought the attack on Syria's nuclear program would be catastrophic may not be the most reliable judge of the likely consequences—nor of the entire American-Israeli relationship.

That version of events sounds plausible enough, but perhaps we should take them with a grain of salt. After all, forget about "the man who thought the attack on Syria's nuclear program would be catastrophic" and let's think for a moment that we're being told whom we should and shouldn't trust by the man who was, after the Iran-Contra scandal, indicted for misleading Congress and plead down to lesser charges including withholding information from lawmakers. Abrams's assertion that "Mr. Gates now predicts with certainty" negative consequences for a strike on Iran, for instance, can be readily contrasted with the actual quote from Gates that Abrams uses at the top of his Weekly Standard piece, with my emphasis: "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic." The italicized phrase isn't exactly a hallmark of the sort of hubristic soothsayer Abrams seems to describe.

But presuming that the account sketches the basic outlines of Gates's opposition with relative accuracy, it's not entirely clear that the connection to his analysis actually has much bearing. After all, Abrams himself admits that, as I've explained before, the Syrian case was very, very different than the current Iran case. For one, the strike against Syria in 2007 required that a handful of Israeli and American officials keep mum about it in order to allow the Assad regime plausible deniability. Gates was indeed wrong, but who else was? The secretive deliberations necessary to bring the operation off didn't lend themselves to debate. By contrast, today's discourse about Iran is being flung ever more wide-open. Gates is but one of a host of former top American and Israeli officials who holds the views about Iran that he does, but Abrams never mentions any of the others—perhaps because noting that former Mossad chief Meir Dagan opposes a strike on exactly the same grounds as Gates might undermine Abrams's hints of irrational disdain for Israel.

Elliott Abrams, of course, supports hawkish measures against Iran. Like other advisers to the Romney campaign—notably fellow neoconservative Dan Senor and Paul Ryan, whom Abrams advises directly—what Abrams is saying is that we shouldn't debate the merits and potential consequences of an attack, at least not with a former Republican who served as defense chief to bipartisan administrations. It must have been so much easier during the secret deliberations over an Israeli attack on Syria. Nevertheless, last time there was a public debate like the one around Iran, Abrams was behind the scenes in the Bush White House, pushing, no doubt, for war with Iraq. There he goes again, indeed.