Mr. Gates dispatched a secret memo to the White House in January pointing out that the Obama administration does not have a well-prepared strategy in place for the likely eventuality that Iran will continue to pursue a nuclear weapon and will not be diverted by negotiations or sanctions. Mr. Gates quickly denied that his memo was intended as a "wake-up call," as one unnamed official quoted by the Times called it. And that's probably true: It is evident to any observer that the administration lacks a clear backup plan.
President Obama's official position is that "all options are on the table," including the use of force. But senior officials regularly talk down the military option in public -- thereby undermining its utility even as an instrument of intimidation. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered more reassurance to Iran on Sunday, saying in a forum at Columbia University that "I worry . . . about striking Iran. I've been very public about that because of the unintended consequences."
Adm. Mullen appeared to equate those consequences with those of Iran obtaining a weapon. "I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome," he was quoted as saying. Yet Israel and other countries in the region would hardly regard those "outcomes" as similar.
We are not advocating strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. But the public signs of the administration's squishiness about military options are worrisome because of the lack of progress on its two-track strategy of offering negotiations and threatening sanctions. A year-long attempt at engagement failed; now the push for sanctions is proceeding at a snail's pace. Though administration officials say they have made progress in overcoming resistance from Russia and China, it appears a new U.N. sanctions resolution might require months more of dickering. Even then it might only be a shell intended to pave the way for ad hoc actions by the United States and European Union, which would require further diplomacy.
And what would sanctions accomplish? Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Financial Times last week that "maybe . . . that would lead to the kind of good-faith negotiations that President Obama called for 15 months ago." Yet the notion that the hard-line Iranian clique now in power would ever negotiate in good faith is far-fetched. More likely -- and desirable -- would be a victory by the opposition Green movement in Iran's ongoing domestic power struggle. But the administration has so far shrunk from supporting sanctions, such as a gasoline embargo. that might heighten popular anger against the regime.
All this probably explains why Mr. Gates, in his own words, "presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process."
"There should be no confusion by our allies and adversaries," he added, "that the United States is . . . prepared to act across a broad range of contingencies in support of our interests." If allies and adversaries are presently confused, that would be understandable.