The most important exchanges from the Gates confirmation hearings today came when Senator Robert Byrd questioned the Secretary-designate on Iran and Syria. Not only did Mr. Gates answer Senator Byrd’s hypotheticals in ways that had to encourage the mullahs of Iran and the thugs of Syria, he did so in addition to questioning the president’s authority under the AUMF to pursue any terrorists operating out of Iranian or Syria:
Senator Byrd: Do you support, I hear all these rumors about the potential for an attack on Iran due to its nuclear weapons program, or on Syria due to its support of terrorism. Do you support an attack on Iran?
Mr. Gates: Senator Byrd I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort, that any problems that we have with Iran, our first options should be diplomacy and working with our allies to try and deal with the problems that iran is posing to us. I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed it becomes unpredictable, and I think that the consequences of a conflict, a military conflict with Iran, could be quite dramatic and therefore I would counsel against military action except as a last resort and if we felt that our vital interests were threatened.
Senator Byrd: Do you support an attack on Syria?
Mr. Gates: No sir I do not.
Senator Byrd: Do you believe that the president has the authority under either the 9/11 war resolution or the Iraq war resolution to attack Iran or to attack Syria?
Mr. Gates: To the best of my knowledge, both of those authorizations, I don’t believe so.
Senator Byrd: Would you briefly describe your view of the likely consequences of a US attack on Iran?
Mr. Gates: It is always awkward to talk about hypotheticals in this case, but I think that while Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror both in , ah, in the Middle East and in Europe, and even here in this country is very real. They are certainly not being helpful in Iraq, and are doing us, doing damage to our interests there, but I think that they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq. I think that they could provide certain kinds of weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons to terrorist groups. Their ability to get Hezbolah to further destabilize Lebanon is very real. So I think while their ability to retaliate in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of things and perhaps more that I just described.
Senator Byrd: What about an attack on Syria? Would you briefly describe your view of the likely consequences of a US attack on Syria?
Mr. Gates: I think the Syrian capacity to do harm to us is far more limited than that of Iran, but I believe that a military attack by US on Syria would have dramatic consequences for us throughout the middle east in terms of our relationships with a wide range of countries in that area. I think that it would give rise to significantly greater anti-Americanism than we have seen to date. I think that it would immensely complicate our relationships with virtually every country in the region.
Senator Byrd: Would you say that an attack on either Iran or Syria would worsen the violence in iraq and lead to greater American casualties?
Mr. Gates: Yes sir. I think that is very likely.
Senator Byrd: Your answer is yes on both questions?
Mr. Gates: Yes sir, very likely.
I cannot imagine any set of questions and answers between a United States senator and a nominee to head DoD that would cause more relief in Tehran and Damascus than these, or conversely, more concern in Israel or among democratic forces in Lebanon.
I also think that Mr. Gates crediting Iran’s terror operations with the ability to deter our action only encourages similar regimes to seek similar capacities.
UPDATE: Perhaps he was watching CNN:
Speaking shortly before senior diplomats from six world powers were scheduled to meet in Paris on Tuesday to discuss sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned the European Union that any punitive measure would be considered an act of hostility by Tehran. “I am telling you in plain language that from now on, if you try, whether in your propaganda or at international organisations, to take steps against the rights of the Iranian nation, the Iranian nation will consider it an act of hostility,” Ahmadinejad said.
ML: We have to recognize the war for what it is, which is a regional war. It was never going to be possible to win in Iraq alone, because we’re at war with not only terrorists inside Iraq, but by the countries that are arming a lot of them, and preparing them, and funding them, and training them, and that’s Iran and Syria, and to a certain extent, Saudi Arabia.
HH: Do you believe that Mr. Gates believes that?
ML: I don’t know what he believes, because I haven’t talked to him for many years. But he’s certainly smart enough to understand that.
HH: All right. Today, there comes word that in Iran, there is convening sixty researchers from thirty countries to discuss whether or not the Holocause existed without any preconceived ideas. Are we supposed to engage them on that issue, Michael Ledeen?
ML: No. Iran declared war against us 27 years ago, and they have been waging war against us for all that period, and we have yet to respond.
HH: Now the Iraqi prime minister today called for a regional conference on stabilizing his country. Do you think that makes any sense, given that Iran is pumping weapons, and possibly Revolutionary Guards into his country?
ML: No, I don’t. But that’s the U.S. government plan. That’s not him alone. He didn’t come up with that all by himself.
HH: Do you expect the Iraq Study Group, led by Secretary Baker and Congressman Hamilton to have anything novel to say about this?
ML: I’m not a prophet, Hugh. I have no idea what they’re going to say. I’ll wait and see.
HH: Okay. Do you see signs, Michael Ledeen, that the President is buckling on the necessity of winning this war?
ML: The President has always been a mystery on this, because there’s always been a radical disconnect between what the President says in his speeches, and what the American government then does, or doesn’t do. I mean, he’s been talking for years about the importance of supporting the Iranian people in their legitimate desire to be free, but we haven’t done anything. We haven’t supported them at all.