It's the consensus among the pundits: foreign policy doesn't matter in this presidential election. They point to the ways Republican candidate Mitt Romney has more or less parroted President Barack Obama on just about everything other than military spending and tough talk about another "American century."
The consensus is wrong. There is an issue that matters: Iran.
Don't be fooled. It's not just campaign season braggadocio when Romney claims that he would be far tougher on Iran than the president by threatening "a credible military option." He certainly is trying to appear tougher and stronger than Obama -- he of the drone wars, the "kill list," and Bin Laden's offing -- but it's no hollow threat.
The Republican nominee has surrounded himself with advisors who are committed to military action and regime change against Iran, the same people who brought us the Global War on Terror and the Iraq War. Along with their colleagues in hawkish think tanks, they have spent years priming the public to believe that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program, making ludicrous claims about "crazy" mullahs nuking Israel and the United States, pooh-poohing diplomacy -- and getting ever shriller each time credible officials and analysts disagree.
Unlike with Iraq in 2002 and 2003, they have it easier today. Then, they and their mentors had to go on a sales roadshow, painting pictures of phantom WMDs to build up support for an invasion. Today, a large majority of Americans already believe that Iran is building nuclear weapons.
President Obama has helped push that snowball up the hill with sanctions to undermine the regime, covert and cyber warfare, and a huge naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Iran has ratcheted up tensions via posturing military maneuvers, while we have held joint U.S.-Israeli exercises and "the largest-ever multinational minesweeping exercise" there. Our navies are facing off in a dangerous dance.
Obama has essentially loaded the gun and cocked it. But he has kept his finger off the trigger, pursuing diplomacy with the so-called P5+1 talks and rumored future direct talks with the Iranians. The problem is: Romney's guys want to shoot.
Unlike Iraq, Iran Would Be an Easy Sell
Remember those innocent days of 2002 and 2003, when the war in Afghanistan was still new and the Bush administration was trying to sell an invasion of Iraq? I do. I was a Republican then, but I never quite bought the pitch. I never felt the urgency, saw the al-Qaeda connection, or worried about phantom WMDs. It just didn't feel right. But Iran today? If I were still a Republican hawk, it would be "game on," and I'd know I was not alone for three reasons.
First, even armchair strategists know that Iran has a lot of oil that is largely closed off to us. It reputedly has the fourth largest reserves on the planet. It also has a long coastline on the Persian Gulf, and it has the ability to shut the Strait of Hormuz, which would pinch off one of the world's major energy arteries.
Then there is the fact that Iran has a special place in American consciousness. The Islamic Republic of Iran and the mullahs who run it have been a cultural enemy ever since revolutionary students toppled our puppet regime there and stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The country is a theocracy run by angry-looking men with long beards and funny outfits. It has funded Hezbollah and Hamas. Its crowds call us the "Great Satan." Its president denies the Holocaust and says stuff about wiping Israel off the map. Talk about a ready-made enemy.
Finally, well, nukes.
The public appears to be primed. A large majority of Americans believe that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program, 71% in 2010 and 84% this March. Some surveys even indicate that a majority of Americans would support military action to stop Iran from developing nukes.