Sunday Snapshot: Gates Memo, FinReg, and More

There are no good options in Iran, according to the Defense Secretary's formerly secret memo to the President. George Will predicts that, in a post-Goldman-lawsuit environment, financial regulatory reform will pass with 70 votes. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner agrees.  Still, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to "go back to the drawing board." And Michelle Bachmann agrees that calling the federal government a "gangster government" isn't an appropriate choice of words for the Tea Partiers.

The Gates memo broke too late in the news cycle to re-book guests for Sunday, so no one from the administration has been asked to respond on the record. (Coincidence? Probably.) A conventional reading of the Gates memo suggests that the Defense Department, in January, urged the National Security Staff to come up with more (read: military) options for preventing Iran for obtaining a viable nuclear weapon. But that's not precisely what the memo said, or at least not what the portions quoted by the New York Times says.

But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon -- fuel, designs and detonators -- but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.

In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a "virtual" nuclear weapons state.

According to several officials, the memorandum also calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran's power if it decided to produce a weapon, and how to deal with the possibility that fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the terrorist groups Iran has supported, which officials said they considered to be a less-likely possibility.

Since the memo was written in January, the administration has begun to tie Iran's non-compliance to a strengthened Non Prolfieration Treaty. Right now, the NPT's penalties for such a "virtual" weapons state  are fairly weak. That's one reason why Gates expressed skepticism that the NPT regime could contain the threat. So the administration wants to significantly increase the penalties for non-compliance, which would provide the president and the world community with more options.  It's hard to imagine that Gates is implying that the U.S. military has not planned for a military strike, or to secretly assist another country in a military surprise, or that the U.S. intelligence community isn't attempting to secretly undermine and sabotage Iran's efforts. Why? Because the Pentagon HAS such plans, IS working with other countries and the IC is doing what the IC does. Gates's memo ought to be read in the context of complaining or urging the administration to create the political will to legitimately exercise those options.

Who leaked it? Start with the lead byline (David Sanger, who has sources throughout the non-proliferation community) and work backwards, thinking about the timing of the memo, the actions taken since the memo, the spins and when the memo was leaked.) Occam's razor almost always doesn't apply.

Quote of the morning, from Sen. John McCain on Fox News Sunday:
 "Look, when I was fighting against my own president, whether we needed more troops in Iraq, or ... spending was completely out of control, then I was a maverick. Now that I'm fighting against this spending administration and this out-of-control and reckless health care plan, then I'm a partisan."

From This Week with Jake Tapper: Bill Clinton's advice to President Obama on his Supreme Court nomination:


My advice to him would be to first of all see what the court is missing. Does it matter if he puts a Catholic or a Jewish person or someone of another faith on a court, there might--there would be no Protestants on the Supreme Court.  Does that matter?  Does there need to be another woman on the court?  Should there be some other group represented?  Because Justice Stevens was part of the four-person progressive block, he will of course nominate someone who will be part of that.  We've seen the hard way in the Citizens United case and campaign finance and in Bush v. Gore, during the most bizarre rulings in the history of the Supreme Court and I think one of the five worst, what the consequences of that are.

But I would also not -- I don't expect him to intentionally pick a fight with the Senate, but he can't avoid it.  If he finds somebody that he thinks is just the best person, but the most important thing is he needs to be really proud of the people he puts on the court.  The two people I put on the court have made me proud.  I haven't agreed with every decision they've made.  That's not the important thing.  The important thing is that you think they're smart and they're competent and they understand the lives of ordinary people.  Now one thing I think he should think about is have we gotten -- have we gone too far in this process that assuming only judges can be elected?  That somehow you're not qualified if you weren't a judge.

Some of the best justices in the Supreme Court in history have been non-judges, people that - as Hugo Black once famously said, had been sheriffs and county judges, people that have seen how the lofty decisions of the Supreme Court affect the ordinary lives of Americans.  You know, I tried to persuade both Senator Mitchell and Governor Cuomo to accept appointments to the court and for different reasons, neither one wanted to do it.  I think they would have been fabulous justices.  And -- George Mitchell had been a judge, but he was also a senator.  I think that -- I hope he'll take a look at somebody who hasn't been a judge.


Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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