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Is Gates' greatest achievement no war with Iran?

After a long goodbye tour that has taken him around the world and back, Secretary Gates is preparing to stand relieved this week at the Pentagon. Many commentators have said he's had an extraordinary tenure, ranked among the top secretaries of defense, and one columnist wrote this week that Gates' greatest achievement was something that didn't even happen: A U.S. war on Iran.

University of Florida professor Ido Oren sets the scene: It's 2007. President Bush and hawkish elements in Washington are agitating for an American attack on Iran. Oren picks up the story:

As Washington commentator Steven Clemons put it in 2007, "An irrepressible and perhaps irresponsible certainty that America will attack Iran now dominates commentary across the political spectrum."

This scenario failed to materialize because the political forces pushing for active consideration of the military option — Vice President Dick Cheney's camp in the George W. Bush White House, hawkish pundits, key congressional leaders and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — have been outmaneuvered by an informal antiwar coalition that included the Pentagon, the military's top brass, the intelligence community and the Department of State.

This coalition was ably led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is stepping down from his post at the end of the month. If one person were to receive the top credit for preventing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, it would be Gates.

Beginning in his Senate confirmation hearing in December 2006, Gates has repeatedly spoken out against attacking Iran. After President Obama decided to retain him as defense secretary, Gates declared that "a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time."

Oren goes on to praise Gates' bureaucratic mastery, his closeness to his various presidents, and his ability to build alliances across Washington. Using all these with the goal of stopping an American war against Iran, Gates led a rearguard action that stopped what could've been yet another destructive war without end in the Middle East.

It's an interesting thesis, in part because America probably has attacked Iran, or at least the most important aspect of it: its nuclear program. According to reports, the U.S. has sabotaged components bound for Iran's uranium processing facilities; it may have had a hand in developing the Stuxnet virus that helped paralyze Iran's industrial equipment; and who knows what else. This doesn't mean that Oren's point is wrong -- in fact, if you agree that Gates was instrumental in stopping war on Iran, you could argue it's all the more significant that Gates agreed to a covert campaign even though he had the world's mightiest war-making arsenal at his fingertips.

Did Gates' earlier job as the director of CIA inform his willingness to pursue subtler ways of solving problems, even when those solutions didn't include his own soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines? If so, that could be something to look for in his successor, Leon Panetta, who also is coming to the Pentagon by way of Langley, and takes the reins on Friday.

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