Fighting Words

Mitt Romney and the GOP hopefuls sure like to talk tough about Iran’s nuclear threat. But if one of them wins in November, it’ll mean he'll have to walk the walk.

Majid/Getty Images
Majid/Getty Images

Every presidential election season, it seems, is marked by flights of rhetorical fancy on foreign policy. There was John F. Kennedy’s mythical "missile gap"; Jeane Kirkpatrick’s "Blame America Firsters" charge against Democrats; Bill Clinton’s evocative (and quickly backtracked from) "butchers of Beijing" line; and then my personal favorite — George H.W. Bush saying his dog Millie "knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos" (the two bozos in question being Bill Clinton and Al Gore).

This year, however, with the notable exception of anti-interventionist Ron Paul, Republicans are pulling out all the stops on the one foreign policy/national security issue that seems to unite them like no other: Iran and its nuclear program. Consider for a moment the spate of off-the-wall statements each of the GOP aspirants has made about Iran this campaign season.

According to Mitt Romney, "The greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran." There is, he claims, "no price that is worth an Iranian nuclear weapon," and he has pledged that if he is president, Iran will "not have a nuclear weapon."

Fighting words indeed. But they seem downright sober when compared to Rick Santorum — who has not only advocated air strikes to eliminate Tehran’s nuclear aspirations, but has also said Iran is "ruled by the equivalent of al Qaeda on top of this country"; "the principle virtue of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not freedom, opportunity — it’s martyrdom"; and that oldie-but-goodie: "they hate us because of who we are and what we believe in."

Yet, when it comes to sky-is-falling rhetoric, Santorum takes a back seat to Newt Gingrich, who in a GOP debate this fall hinted the United States might not "survive" an Iranian nuke and in 2006 actually compared the Iranian leadership to Nazis. "This is 1935 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as close to Adolf Hitler as we’ve seen," Gingrich told Human Events magazine. He said at the time that the top priority of the United States should be "overthrowing the government of Iran" with force, if necessary. It’s an argument he has doubled down on this year with calls for killing Iranian scientists and "breaking up their systems" — actions that would be veritable acts of war. He has said bombing Iran is a "fantasy" and the only real way to prevent an Iranian nuke is to depose the regime via conventional war, if necessary.

The latter view was even endorsed by Jon Huntsman, who, when asked if he would consider boots on the ground to stop Iran from getting a bomb, said he wouldn’t be able to "live with the implications of not doing it." According to Huntsman, all "options [are] on the table."

It should be noted that such proclamations are, well, a bit divorced from reality. Iran is at best a second-rate power, with an outdated and not terribly advanced conventional military force that is barely able to project power outside its borders. This week, Iranian fisherman even needed the U.S. Navy to rescue them from the clutches of Somali pirates. As Fareed Zakaria noted earlier this month, sanctions have pushed Iran’s economy "into a nose-dive." Its currency has plunged in value, housing prices are up by 20 percent, the cost of food staples has jumped 40 percent, and the country’s "political system is fractured and fragmenting." And if 2009’s Green Movement is any indication, there is widespread — if underground — political dissent in the country.

Regionally, Iran has rarely if ever been more isolated. Its one ally, Syria, has its hands full dealing with a domestic uprising, the Gulf states have joined together under a U.S. security umbrella, the Saudis are buying billions in new weaponry from Washington, and the European Union is inching ever closer to a ban on Iranian oil imports — a move that could have a devastating impact on the already battered Iranian economy. Compounding all that is the fact that Iranian scientists are continuing to get killed in the streets of Tehran, and the country’s missile-development program may have just blown itself up.

So why, then, are Republican candidates treating Iran like it’s the modern embodiment of Nazi Germany, al Qaeda, and the Soviet Union, all wrapped up in a mischievous and explosive ball?

The long answer is Americans don’t like Iran, they are afraid of nuclear weapons and images of mushroom clouds, and Muslims with weapons of mass destruction are scary. Frankly, GOP primary voters care about threats to Israel — and sanctions and diplomacy are less impressive than the promise that American airplanes will soon be dropping bombs on reinforced bunkers.

But the short answer is this is pretty much all the GOP has. Want to claim that Obama has been soft on terror? That whole killing Osama bin Laden thing makes that a bit tough. Same goes for all the al Qaeda lieutenants who have been killed in drone strikes. What about pulling out of Iraq? Good luck finding many Americans who disagree with that decision. How about Afghanistan and Obama’s call to begin pulling out troops in 2014? First, it’s hard to argue that Obama didn’t give war a chance in the Hindu Kush; second, Afghanistan is a less and less popular war every day. How about the claim that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus vis-à-vis the Palestinians? That’s not going to make all that much of a difference. It turns out the two groups of voters most concerned about Israel (American Jews and evangelical Christians) likely already have a pretty clear sense whom they’ll be voting for in November.

On the matter of reducing the defense budget — a dicey proposition in an election year — by getting Republicans to agree to military spending cuts as part of the debt limit deal, Obama largely neutralized GOP attacks on the issue. And it’s not as if many Americans desperately want to see military spending significantly increased in an age of political austerity.

In the end, since there is no good near-term solution for stopping Iran from getting a bomb — and since Iran continues to engage in provocative behavior like threatening for the umpteenth time to close the Straits of Hormuz — it is the one issue that Republicans can try to pin on the Democratic president, claiming he is weak on national security.

In the end, however, such accusations are unlikely to have much staying power. As Scott Clement points out, even Republicans prefer diplomacy over the use of military force. In fact, compare the Obama approach to Iran (diplomacy, a regional security architecture, likely covert action, and crippling economic sanctions) with the Republican approach (diplomacy, a regional security architecture, likely covert action, and crippling economic sanctions). There really isn’t much of a difference, except for the threatened use of force and all the doomsday talk. But it’s there that the GOP rhetoric could have severe consequences.

As Republicans rattle their sabers this winter, they risk locking themselves into a dangerous position on Iran, should one actually win in November. Just ask Obama how pledging to devote more resources to the fight in Afghanistan in 2008 played out for his presidency.

With Romney et al. declaring that Iran will not get a nuke while they are president and with pledges of support for unilateral action on the part of Israel — including the use of military force — to stop Tehran from getting a bomb, Republicans may find themselves stuck with a dangerous policy on Iran that smacks of brinksmanship. Moreover, all the tough talk on Iran will also limit Obama’s ability to open negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program if the opportunity presents itself. Considering the increasingly desperate economic and political situation there, this might not necessarily be so far-fetched.

In the midst of a feisty presidential campaign, the Republicans’ muscular rhetoric might seem a surefire way to create a political opening. But the ramifications of these existential threats have the potential to live on far past Election Day.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.