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Interview: Robert Gates

The U.S. defense secretary tells Foreign Policy when he's leaving the Pentagon -- and what he hopes to leave behind.

In an exclusive interview, Robert Gates, the first U.S. defense secretary to serve both a Republican and a Democratic president, tells military writer Fred Kaplan that he hopes to leave office next year, possibly as early as January, but certainly by the end of 2011.

"It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he says. "This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."

Gates, according to Kaplan's profile of the secretary for Foreign Policy, has "changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara" in less than four years at the Pentagon's helm -- and he has "extraordinary influence" on President Barack Obama, despite their vastly different personal histories.

Gates also shares, for the first time, the details of his summer 2009 turnabout on Afghanistan, the war that he knows will define his legacy. An article by military historian Frederick Kagan, arguing that the U.S. military invasion was nothing like that of the Soviets and that comparisons between the two interventions are fatally flawed, changed the defense secretary's mind about the war.

But, Gates adds, if there are no concrete signs of progress with the recent U.S. troop surge, then he will recommend a change of course for Obama's year-end Afghan strategy review. "We're just not going to plunge ahead with exactly the same strategy if it's clear it's not working," Gates tells Kaplan.

The interview was conducted July 12 in Gates's office at the Pentagon, several weeks before he announced a sweeping series of cuts to key programs, including the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Excerpts:

Fred Kaplan: You may remember the last time I was here, which was late in 2007. You had one of these countdown meters. And I asked you at the time -- I said, you know, there are some people on the Hill who would like you to stay for whatever the next term is. And this line of yours has been quoted a fair amount. You said, "Well, I never say never, but the circumstances under which that would happen are inconceivable to me." "Inconceivable" is a pretty absolute word. So what happened? Why are you ... here? Why did you stay?

Robert Gates: Once there started being speculation around that time that I might be asked to stay no matter who was elected, I confess that I started what ended up being eight- or nine-months-long covert action. And it was to try and build a wall of clarity that I did not want to stay high enough that nobody would ever ask me.

FK: (Laughs.) Well, "inconceivable" goes quite a ways up there.

RG: And I, you know, I was very consistent for a long period there in saying that, because I really didn't want to be asked, knowing that if I were asked, I would say, "Yes." For the same reason I never hesitated -- you know, I wrestled with the [director of national intelligence] job a couple of weeks back in January of 2005. The instant [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley called me about taking this job, I said, "Yes." I just -- in the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, "No."

And I felt the same way going into 2008 -- that if somebody asked, I worried a lot about the baton getting dropped in the changeover between administrations. And so I knew if the president, whoever was elected president, asked me to stay that I would say, "Yes." Now, you know, the timing was always sort of vague in my mind: six months, a year, just to provide a smooth transition and so on -- [it] ended up being longer than that.

FK: But here you are. The war -- the Afghanistan war is now yours to a much greater degree than the Iraq war ever was. You've got these budget initiatives going, which I guess are in the very early stage. One can see them going on for another couple of years. I mean, it looks like you might be here for a fairly long time. If the president said, "Could you please stay till the end of the term?" -- I mean, is that, is it different; is the question, "Would you please come join my administration?" different from "Would you please stay a little bit longer?"

RG: Well, first of all, I'm a big believer in the old line that the cemeteries are full of indispensable men. And, you know, the truth is this budget initiative really gained a full head of steam over a year ago when I went out in early April and announced something like 33 program changes or cuts or caps. And we got 31 of the 33 through the Hill, and I'm back for the other two.

And so what I'm undertaking now builds on that. The programs really got a full head of steam in April of 2009. So that's had time to mature. This next piece is really a reflection of the economic condition of the country and an effort to avoid having the military gutted as it has been kind of after every conflict. And so the idea here is to preserve the top line that's been agreed -- that I've agreed with the president.

But within that budget, because it takes 2 to 3 percent real growth to sustain the force structure and future investments to find efficiencies in the overhead, unnecessary overhead where we can plus up the combat support capabilities 2 to 3 percent of the growth. So that's kind of what this series of initiatives that began with the speech at the Eisenhower Library is about.

And frankly, you know, these things are -- I'm going to strike early. I'm going to announce a bunch of things. You know, I've been around bureaucracy long enough to know what the strategy is in terms of waiting me out. To tell you the truth, that strategy would be in place if I were here four or eight more years. So I intend to start fast and with some fairly significant decisions to make it clear I won't be outwaited, that this is going to happen.

The point of all of that is I think that by next year I'll be in a position where, you know, we're going to know whether the strategy is working in Afghanistan. We'll have completed the surge. We'll have done the assessment in December. And it seems like somewhere there in 2011 is a logical opportunity to hand off.

I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012. First of all, I think we might have trouble getting the kind of person they want if there's a possibility that they might only be in the job for a year. You know, who knows what the election situation will look like. But also I just think this is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of a presidential election. So I think sometime in 2011 sounds pretty good.

FK: OK, I'll be back here in the winter to remind you of that statement. Another thing: Early on in the Obama administration even, you were very suspicious about more troops in Afghanistan. You know, you -- I think you were looking at it through the prism of your own experience in Afghanistan, which was watching the Soviet empire fall apart there. [You gave] congressional testimony saying, you know, it's not good to have a really big footprint. This can be seen as an occupation, et cetera. What changed your mind, and when did that happen?

RG: Well, first, I would say that there were four issues that I raised with President Bush in my interview with him for this job that were on my mind. The first was Iraq; the second was Afghanistan; the third was that the Army and the Marine Corps weren't big enough to do the jobs that they've been given. And the fourth was the National Guard. But Afghanistan was one of those, and I felt that Afghanistan was being neglected. I went out there in December right after I was confirmed, or right after I was sworn in, and in the spring of 2007 extended one brigade and added another brigade to Afghanistan.

Before the end of the Bush administration, we upped ... I think when I came to the job there were about 17,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And President Bush had authorized up to about 40,000, in that ballpark. So, as we could find the troops, we were adding them, but obviously because of the stress of Iraq, we didn't have as many. So we have been adding troops pretty steadily ... as many as we could. It wasn't enough.

I still felt the way that you described. And I would say that there were two things that really caused me to change my view. The first was that during the course of the Afghan-Pakistan review, people sent me a lot of different articles and things, in addition to all of the tons of briefing papers that were prepared. I was reading a lot of articles. And one that I read -- and I can't even remember who wrote it [he later remembered it was by military historian Frederick Kagan] -- really had an impact on me because it reminded me of the Soviet experience in a way that I hadn't -- that I had forgotten about, that this was an outside invasion, they killed a million Afghans. They forced 5 million to become refugees. They basically destroyed the country and tried to impose an alien ideology. And clearly that's not -- any of that -- none of that is what we are about in Afghanistan. And so the way we were conducting the war made a big difference.

Then complementary to that was [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal's own analysis and assessment. In talking to me about -- and this tied into his desire to dramatically reduce civilian casualties, because I had felt all along, and it was kind of the basis of my previous view, that once the Afghans come to see you as an occupier, then you're toast. And McChrystal's whole approach was avoiding that. How do you -- how do you demonstrate to the Afghans you're there as [their] partner and their liberator rather than the oppressor? And his strategy for doing that seemed to me to be really compelling. So those two things in particular, some other things that I read -- I think really made a difference for me.

FK: This is maybe a stupid question, but how do you think it's going?

RG: I think that we have the right strategy. I have been surprised at the fact that the European -- you know, nobody beat the Europeans up more than I did in 2007 and 2008 over Afghanistan. But the truth is, the foreign partners had about 17,000 troops in Afghanistan when I came to this job, maybe somewhat fewer, and now they have nearly 50,000. They seem to feel, when I had a defense ministers meeting in Brussels and they get briefed by -- they were briefed last time by McChrystal -- you had 40-some defense ministers walking out feeling like this is probably going to work.

FK: Prime ministers might not feel that way. That is the problem.

RG: Well, prime ministers -- you know, there are a lot of coalition governments and so the situation is fragile. But what's amazing is given the fragility of a number of those governments, how strong they have stuck to it. And I would say, you know, it's a hard fight, but I believe that by December, [Gen. David] Petraeus will be able to demonstrate that it is the right strategy and that we are making progress. And as everybody has said, you know, no rosy lenses for this.

This is a very hard fight. We're going to lose a lot of kids. But the Afghans are losing a lot of kids, too. They are in this fight. It's not just us fighting it for them. And, I, you know, I, not surprisingly, take issue with some of the descriptions that we don't have a clear strategy and so on. I think the strategy is quite clear, and it is to stabilize Afghanistan and build up their internal capacity so that they can prevent the Taliban and al Qaeda from coming back. We don't need to turn it into a modern nation-state or anything else.

And everybody -- all of our partner nations and I think everybody in this government -- would agree that two things are central to success. One is building up the Afghan National Security Forces, which is going pretty well, and governance, which is going, but not as well. It's still moving in the right direction, but a lot slower than we would like.

FK: [Counterinsurgency expert] David Kilcullen, I think, quotes Bernard Fall on Vietnam, [who says] that we're not being outfought -- we're being out-governed by the insurgents. You know, they have quite a system; they have all this other stuff --

RG: The difference is that, well, without drawing a comparison to Vietnam ... the Afghan people hate the Taliban. They've been there, done that, and did not like it. So all the polls that we have show about 10 percent of the people supporting the Taliban. So this is about intimidation and control of the population. Not a popularity contest.

 

FK: Back to your other endeavors. So you said you're going to be making some more announcements soon, more speeches and so forth. Because the Eisenhower [Library] speech -- I looked at that and it's all good ideas, but it didn't really ... this is about getting rid of a lot of generals and these ridiculous commands that are in nice capitals of Europe and so forth that don't really do anything anymore. It didn't seem to add up to a whole lot, and it's also the kind of thing that just pisses off a lot of officers and gets their -- you know, it's the old line about how waste is the hardest thing to cut because it's there for a reason because people have little empires around them.

RG: I'm looking at commands; I'm looking at defense agencies. I mean, I'm just not going to be down in the weeds on this stuff because I want people to know that I'm serious from the get-go.

In the Navy League speech [in May 2010] I probably -- in trying to be provocative, I probably contributed to a misunderstanding of what I was trying to say which was -- you know, I'm not going to cut any aircraft carriers. But the reality is, if Chinese highly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, can keep our aircraft carriers behind the second island chain in the Pacific, you've got to think differently about how you're going to use aircraft carriers. And what I was trying to provoke was people's thinking about how do you fight 21st-century wars? You can't fight them the way you were thinking you were going to fight them in the '80s or the '90s.

FK: Well, why aren't you going to cut any aircraft carriers?

RG: Well, as I said when it came to military retirement, I may be bold, but I'm not crazy. But also, you know, there is a powerful argument for the carriers as a manifestation of American presence. And the support they have provided in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been tremendous. Think of air support coming off of those carriers.

The most salient point I think from in terms of what I was talking about [at] the Navy League is when they started out with the DDG-1000 destroyer. And they went from an original program of 32 DDG-1000s.... Then it went to seven. Now it's three. And you know, you don't find Stalin being quoted very often in this building. But he had a line that at a certain point, quantity takes on a quality all of its own.... The point is that we need more platforms. We can't afford $2 billion bombers where we can only buy 20 of them. That's the message I've been trying to get across to people: that we load more and more technology on fewer and fewer platforms so that if you lose one, let's say the B-2, with one airplane you've lost 5 percent of your force. What's wrong with that picture?

FK: During the F-22 fight I was telling people that, you know, there were Air Force generals who if you told them, OK, you can have the F-22 or everything else in the budget, they were people who would take the F-22.

RG: I noticed.

FK: (Chuckles.) But what's been the most surprising thing you've come across, or what's been the most resistant -- what have you found the most frustrating?

RG: I'd flip that. I'd say the thing that has been the most surprising has been the buy-in of the senior military and civilian leadership of the department in what we're trying to do -- and their willingness to look very hard at a lot of sacred cows and to think differently about the way we do business.

FK: What accounts for that do you think? Is it a generational thing?

RG: Well, no. I think in part it is -- I mean these are smart people and they understand the pressures that are going to come to bear on the department because of the national economic situation and the deficits. But I think they also -- they now see themselves that they can't afford $2 billion airplanes, $3 billion destroyers, and so on. That they have to make some hard choices, and they can't have this whole panoply of programs that are over budget and overdue. And, you know, as money becomes tighter, money spent on over-budget items is a real cost. I mean, it's not something they're going to make up in the next budget, next year's budget. And so I think that it's a significant measure of both fiscal and strategic reality.

FK: So what's the remaining sources of resistance then? I mean, are they not falling over on this one?

RG: Well, obviously, an important piece is Congress. But even there, I believe attitudes are beginning to change. You know, members of Congress are still going to protect -- try to protect jobs and industries in their own states, contracts in their own states. But I think the willingness of other members to go along with that is diminishing, given the economic challenges that the country faces. And then, you know, I mean there's just the inertia of the bureaucracy. I'm sure there are some people down there trying to thwart what I'm trying to do, but I think that's a minimal problem.

FK: Really?

RG: I think that it's more because their leadership is supportive.

FK: Is some of this because there's just a different -- I mean, you know, like [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton] Schwartz, you know, for the first 12 years of the Air Force, or I may be adding the numbers wrong, but every chief of staff was a [Strategic Air Command] bomber pilot. After that, everyone was a [Tactical Air Command] fighter pilot. Here's a guy you know, air mobility and special ops, you know, this is now the chief of staff. You've got more pilots being trained to do joysticks in Arizona than actually flying real airplanes. You've got the Army -- you know, the tank guys are not in control anymore. I mean, is part of it -- I mean, wars do [cause] a shift in culture, and these two have [caused] an enormous shift, probably --

RG: I think that's absolutely correct.

FK: So that changes -- so it actually has reverberated back to the culture of the Pentagon, too.

RG: And I think it has created some open space, if you will, in which I can operate on these things because they understand the world has changed. And further that even the most sophisticated threats in the future are not going to be blunt force, head to head, plane on plane, ship on ship kinds of conflicts.

FK: That's more understood? I mean the China thing used to be the rationale for justifying, you know, a huge Navy, a huge Air Force. Does that -- do you find that diminishing or --

RG: Well, you know, I mean, my question with the F-22 was so if you do get into a combat in China, where are you going to put it?

FK: So what would you hope would be your legacy of all this? I mean, are people looking back at the Gates era or whatever --

RG: Well, as a historian, I'm generally inclined to let the historians think about that. Or writers.

FK: Wait, you just contradicted yourself. If you are a historian, I mean, that makes you perfectly capable of commenting.

RG: (Laughs.) Yeah, but at some distance. You remember the old line [Chinese leader Zhou Enlai gave] when asked about the French Revolution?

FK: Too soon.

RG: Well, first of all, I never forget that the primary task that I was given when I took this job was to put Iraq in a better place. And the nation has been engaged in two wars every single day I have been secretary. So the outcome of those two wars I think will be huge elements people look at. And by the way, if I stay just until January --

FK: January of what?

RG: 2011.

FK: Mm, hmm.

RG: Nice try. (Laughs.) If I stay until January of 2011, I will have been in this job -- I'm the 22nd secretary of defense, and I'll have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors. And those four are Robert McNamara, Don Rumsfeld, Cap Weinberger, and Charles E. Wilson. (Laughter.)

I think the toughest thing in public life is knowing when to dance off the stage. And to leave when people say, "I wish you weren't leaving so soon," instead of "How the hell do we get that guy out of there?" And the other aspect of this is, like I said, two separate wars for every day I've been on the job is very wearing. And there's a certain point at which you just run out of energy.

[Then there's] this rebalancing and all these initiatives with respect to the budget, trying to get rid of programs that don't measure up, aren't needed, or at least cap them in terms of the numbers. And I suppose a third would be -- and I certainly didn't intend this when I came here -- a rigorous reinforcement of the principle of accountability. It's a very, very rare thing for a senior person to be fired in this town, and I've done a bunch.

FK: When we were talking about the surge in Iraq last time [for my New York Times Magazine article] -- I think we talked and I followed you around a bit in November, December 2007. So the surge had begun, but it was unclear. I looked back at this piece -- I don't think it mentions Afghanistan at all -- [and] one of the things that we talked about a lot was ... the fear that we might be stuck in Iraq for a very, very long time. And you wanted there to be a sustainable presence, but with lots of troop withdrawals so that people will feel like joining the Army again --

RG: What I was most concerned about was the same thing that concerned [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger about Vietnam, which was that a clear American failure in Iraq would have catastrophic strategic consequences for us in the region and globally -- basically turning tail, precipitously leaving the country. That was my biggest worry.

 

FK: But you thought that there had to be some troop -- you were talking about surge as a prelude to troop reductions so that a sustainable force could be left in place for a long period of time. I mean, do you see the surge in Afghanistan as the same, or is that a different dynamic?

RG: I think that what the surge allows us to do in Afghanistan, or gives us the opportunity to do, is to reverse the momentum of the Taliban and degrade their capabilities. And with any luck, that'll happen over a period of time during which the Afghan forces build capability, in no small part because they're partnering with us.

And so that we can begin in July of 2011 to thin our forces, as the president has said, in a gradual way depending on the conditions on the ground, but that allows that Afghan capability to continue to grow as we and our allies slowly reduce the number of forces that we have there.

That provides a -- I mean, I see the process of transition in Afghanistan being similar to Iraq in which we are in the lead, then we're partnering, then they're in the lead, and then we're in tactical overwatch, and then strategic overwatch, which is essentially how it played out in Iraq. And that'll take some time, but by the same token, the one thing that I've made clear to everybody is that I'm not going to support a strategy that leads to a stalemate. That if we're not making forward progress, even if it's slow --

FK: Even if it's this strategy, the strategy in place.

RG: Yeah.

FK: So the assessment comes back in December saying this is really in stasis, we're just not where we're --

RG: If we're not making any headway, then I think we have to look at making adjustments.

FK: But what does that mean? Leaving?

RG: Well, I don't know. But we're just not going to plunge ahead with exactly the same strategy if it's clear it's not working. And my view is that I think we are going to be able to show that it's working and that we're moving forward, even if it's tougher and slower than we had thought.

FK: Early on, like the first year of the Obama administration, one thing that struck a lot of people was that there seemed to be pretty harmonious relations in all the branches. I mean, there weren't these, you know, knockout, drag-out fights between the State Department and the Pentagon or the State Department and the White House. Everybody seemed to be on the same [page]. There was some thinking that, well, when Afghanistan gets going, there might be -- and there were -- some disagreements. But do you still -- is it serious? I mean, are there pockets that are just still kind of resisting the whole thing and looking for reversals of the strategy when the opportunity allows?

RG: Maybe at lower levels.

FK: But not -- nothing real serious?

RG: Not at the principals level, no. And everybody is supportive of the strategy. You know, I -- I mean, I had a very good relationship with [former Bush administration officials] Steve Hadley and Condi Rice. I've got a very good relationship with Secretary Clinton, [National Security Advisor] Jim Jones. Partly I'm just not a very turfy person. I never have been.

[When I was at the National Security Council,] I remember one meeting I was chairing where I said at one point, "Geez, I don't know what came over me there for a moment. I thought we actually all worked for the same president." (Laughter.) And so I've always thought that some of these fights were pretty -- they consume a lot of energy and produce a lot of heat, but they don't accomplish very much.

FK: What was different -- or was it so different -- about the eight or nine or however many meetings there were with the Afghan [Strategy] Review? What I heard from other people is that, you know, these were pretty sharp discussions, that there were real questions left on the table, and that's what had to be done at the next meeting and so on.

But you once -- you also told me that when you ran deputies' meetings, your rule was one hour, an action decision at the end of the meeting. And [former National Security Advisor Brent] Scowcroft told me that you and he kind of figured out how it should conclude at the end of the meeting anyway. (Laughs.)

RG: We concluded how the meeting should end before it started.

FK: That's what I mean, yeah. But your goal was to make it seem that everybody else --

RG: And then to check it with the president. (Laughs.)

FK: But this [the Afghanistan review] was a very different procedure. But, I mean, how did you --

RG: First of all, the meetings weren't interminable. The meetings were generally an hour, hour and a half, occasionally two hours. They were very focused -- lots of hard questions being asked. And I think everybody in the room learned as we went along. I mean, as you might suspect, the July 2011 deadline was a hard hurdle for me to get over because I'd fought against deadlines with respect to Iraq consistently. But I became persuaded that something like that was needed to get the attention of the Afghan government, that they had to take ownership of this thing.... And I recognized the risks. And there are risks associated with that. There's risks associated with everything in war.

It went on a long time, but I didn't feel like time was being wasted at those meetings, that there was a genuine exchange going on. And there were hard questions, sharp questions being asked and sharp differences of view. But it was always [about] people looking for the right way.

FK: I don't think there's been a secretary of defense who's gone, not just from one president to the next, but shifting parties. There are some things that needn't even be said about the analytical style of one president versus the other. But the thing that's interested me, too, is that, you know, [in] your last year [under Bush] you did all these speeches about what your successor should do, and then you become the successor and you actually set out to do them. What do you know?

RG: I think the expression was that I punted all these balls to my successor and discovered I was the receiver.

FK: (Laughs.) OK. But how has the atmosphere of the two administrations been different? I mean, do you find your -- is the way you do your job different in some fundamental way?

RG: I don't think so.

FK: No? I mean, I remember you used to go over to the White House a lot, and you hated it. I think it was mainly to make sure that [then Vice President Dick] Cheney wasn't doing shit behind your back.

RG: No, that's not true.

FK: But you didn't like it. I get the feeling that these are less unpleasant transfers of --

RG: No, I don't think that's fair. You know, we had a lot of good meetings in the Bush administration on very tough issues, many of the same issues. In a way, one of the reasons I haven't changed the way I do business is because the issues are the same; I mean, the really tough ones. It's the wars. It's Iran. It's North Korea. It's how you deal with the Russians and the Chinese. The agenda's still essentially the same -- terrorism. And, you know, there are -- you know, this administration, if anything, has been even more aggressive in going after the terrorists.

One of the things that I always warned holdovers about when I was in government before [was that] the last thing that a new administration wants to hear is, "We tried that and it won't work." And so it becomes a matter of style in terms of how you say that.... I say "It's been an option. The last administration tried it this way, and that way didn't work." But there's more than one way, perhaps, to do this. You just have to -- one of the dangers of being a holdover is that you talk too much. And I've tried to avoid that, and I hope I've been successful. (Laughter.)

Haraz N. Ghanbari-Pool/Getty Images

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Obama Sent a Secret Letter to Iraq's Top Shiite Cleric

But can Ayatollah Sistani break Baghdad's political impasse?

President Obama has sent a letter to Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urging him to prevail upon Iraq's squabbling politicians to finally form a new government, an individual briefed by relatives of the reclusive religious leader said Thursday.

The individual, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the information came from members of Sistani's family in the Iranian holy city of Qom, where Sistani maintains a large complex of seminaries, libraries, clinics, and other humanitarian organizations.

Iraqi factions have sought in vain since the March 7 parliamentary elections to agree on a government to replace that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The impasse is of increasing concern to the United States as it draws down its forces to 50,000 and relinquishes a combat role at the end of this month. There have been a number of violent incidents in Iraq in recent weeks including bombings and shootings that have raised questions about the country's future stability. (Fifteen Iraqis died Thursday; 53 were killed on Wednesday, according to media reports.)

In a speech Aug. 2 before disabled veterans, Obama reiterated that the U.S. mission in Iraq is changing "from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats." In this new phase, the Iraqis are to assume overall responsibility for the country's security, with U.S. intervention in limited circumstances to conduct counter-terrorism operations and to protect Americans. U.S. forces will also continue to train Iraqis and monitor Iraqi air space.

Mike Hammer, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, would not confirm or deny that Obama had sent the letter to Sistani.

"We do not comment on Presidential correspondence," Hammer wrote in an email Thursday.

The letter was delivered to Sistani by a Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament, according to the source briefed by Sistani relatives. He did not identify the individual.

Daniel Serwer, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that to his knowledge Sistani has never met with a sitting U.S. official -- or at least not acknowledged doing so.

The Sistani-linked source said the letter was sent shortly after Vice President Joseph Biden visited Baghdad over the July 4 weekend and failed to bring about a resolution of the dispute. Biden said at the time that he was "optimistic" that a new government would be formed and that the problems Iraq faced were "not a lot different" than that facing other countries with parliamentary systems.

However, no apparent progress has occurred.

"It was a request for his [Sistani's] intervention in the political situation to use his influence with the Shiite groups and get them to compromise," the source said of the U.S. letter.

Sistani, 80, follows the "quietist" interpretation of Shiite Islam, which eschews a direct role for clerics in government -- in contrast to the system in Iran, where a supreme religious leader has the final say. However, Sistani has intervened during two previous crises since the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled a secular dictator, Saddam Hussein.

The first time was at the end of 2003, when Sistani demanded direct elections for an assembly to write a new constitution. The second time, in 2004, Sistani brokered an end to fighting between U.S. troops and the Mahdi army militia of populist Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, which had occupied the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Sistani, who was born in Mashhad, Iran, has lived in Najaf since the 1950s but still speaks Arabic with an Iranian accent. Following the death of his mentor, Grand Ayatollah Abu Qassim al-Khoei, in 1992, Sistani became the pre-eminent religious authority for most devout Iraqi Shiites and indeed for most of the world's 200 million Shiites. His followers far exceed those of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.

Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said that efforts so far at forming a new government in Iraq have faltered in part because Maliki has alienated all the other major factions yet refuses to allow anyone to replace him.

"Sistani's intervention would be to get Maliki to step down and compromise on a new candidate," Katzman said. In a combative interview broadcast on Iraqi state television Sunday, Maliki showed no inclination of doing so, and reportedly said that negotiations with his putative coalition partners had reached "a dead end."

Katzman said he doubted that Sistani would back Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose Iraqiya party won the largest number of seats in parliament but who is opposed by Iran.

More likely replacements for Maliki, Katzman said, are Adel Abdul Mahdi, a prominent member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an Iran-backed Shiite faction, or Jafar Baqr al-Sadr, the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Sadr, the founder of the Dawa Party, the first Shiite political party in the Middle East. (The elder Sadr was executed in 1980 for opposition to Saddam's regime. Dawa has since split into factions; Maliki represents one of them.)

Sistani has indicated that he might have to get involved if the stalemate persists.

The cleric's spokesman, Hamed al-Khaffaf, told reporters June 18 that the deadlock might require "the intervention of the authority (Sistani) to solve it."

Serwer, of the U.S, Institute of Peace, called Obama's overture to Sistani "a clever idea."

"Sistani has repeatedly intervened in ways that are supportive of democracy in Iraq. And he is a powerful force."

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