Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense, got considerable attention this week when, speaking in Norfolk, Virginia, he said American officials should make it clear to the government of Israel that "they do not have a blank check to take action that could do grave harm to American vital interests." Strongly objecting to an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear sites, he claimed, "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."
Gates has offered such views before. Jeffrey Goldberg reported a year ago, in September 2011, that Gates (then still our defense secretary) told a meeting of the "Principals Committee" of top national security officials in the White House Situation Room that Israel was an "ungrateful ally." In return for all the United States had done for Israel, Gates said, we have received "nothing in return."
But Goldberg also said that such criticism from Gates was "particularly consequential, in part because he’s not considered hostile to Israel." Well: Ungrateful ally, nothing in return, blank check—do we see a pattern here? In fact an important incident from the George W. Bush administration suggests that whether or not Gates is hostile to Israel, his judgment is badly flawed when it comes to evaluating the risks Israel faces and the likely results of Israeli action to address those risks.
In the spring of 2007, Israeli intelligence brought to Washington proof that the Assad regime in Syria was building a nuclear reactor along the Euphrates—with North Korean help. This reactor was a copy of the Yongbyon reactor the North Koreans had built, and was part of a Syrian nuclear weapons program. U.S. intelligence quickly confirmed these findings, and the question now was what to do about it all.
Covert options were quickly determined to be impractical, leaving two paths: A military strike by the United States or Israel, or diplomatic action in the United Nations and the IAEA. President Bush actually settled on the diplomatic option, but immediately acceded to Israel's decision to attack the reactor once we, the United States, decided we would not. Israel viewed a Syrian nuclear program as an existential threat and believed that if the issue were taken to the U.N. it would be mired there forever. (I tell this story in full in my book Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, out in December.)
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 regime's 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 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.
But President Bush accepted Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert's decision to bomb the reactor because he believed the words he had often spoken: Israel had a right to defend itself. Gates's desire to put the whole bilateral relationship on the line got zero traction in the Oval Office.
We all know the end of this story: In September 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 views 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 likely consequences—nor of the entire American-Israeli relationship.