Foreign policy is not supposed to decide presidential elections and Mitt Romney makes a fatal mistake if he is serious about testing that theory.
But that seems to be exactly his intent, to make it clear that he will not coddle Iran or pacify extremists across the Middle East even if that stance leads inevitably to war. Foreign policy is the one area where President Obama's poll numbers look unassailably high, but Romney sees the immense unrest and tension in the Middle East as opportune ground. He misreads things rather badly by giving voters a choice between war and peace — that is, if large numbers begin to comprehend the choice.
Although he backtracked a little by suggesting that his "red line" on Iran's nuclear weaponry was the same as President Obama's, Romney made it clear that his policy would be whatever the prime minister of Israel says American policy should be. He condemned the president for not assuring Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran that anytime, starting now, that the prime minister wants to bomb Iran the United States, no questions asked, will be squarely with him, supplying intelligence if not weaponry and men.
President Obama has not ruled out supporting an Israeli strike at Iranian nuclear facilities or ordering such a strike himself, but he won't issue an ultimatum. Polls show that a big majority of Americans do not support U.S. bombing or an Israeli attack if it leads to U.S. involvement, but that is Obama's policy, which counts on diplomacy and international pressure to divert us from that path.
Bombing Iran to prevent its development of a nuclear weapon may be a good idea or a bad one, but there ought to be no question about whether it is a good or bad idea to place our policy and destiny in the hands of a foreign leader, even an ally like Israel. It's a bad idea, and most Americans think so.
Romney, of course, is playing for the Jewish vote and everyone, including Netanyahu, understands that. That may be why Netanyahu is going to such lengths to force Obama to take a rigid stand and perhaps to even attack before the election. After the election, his leverage slackens, even if he succeeds in electing Romney.
Foreign policy has indeed decided only a few elections. Ronald Reagan's defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George W. Bush's re-election in 2004 are the lessons that Romney must have digested.
The Iranian revolution, the hostage crisis and a dismal military rescue effort, along with the oil embargo and the huge price shock, sent inflation to 14 percent in 1980 and left Carter looking helpless. Iran kept the hostages until Reagan was elected and then was rewarded by the new president. When the Iranians captured a few more Americans, Reagan collaborated secretly with Israel to ship arms to Iran for its war with Iraq in violation of the embargo enacted by Congress and then destroyed documents about the illegal arms sale to thwart congressional investigators. Can you make Obama look similarly weak? (Like Carter, not Reagan.)
Bush provides a better lesson, though probably not Romney's version of it. Voters in 2004 were just beginning to realize that Bush and Cheney had lied to take them to war with Iraq, but the patriotic fervor of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq was still just enough to re-elect Bush over a Vietnam War hero they were told was a secret coward and faked his combat wounds.
The recurring anti-American outbursts across the region are the harvests of those policies — and of Obama's mistaken campaign promise of 2008 to ratchet up the Afghanistan war until there was a better outcome. Every night Obama must lament setting the timetable for leaving so far off — the end of 2014.
Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly want us to leave Afghanistan, where attacks on U.S. soldiers continue and rage against the United States grows with every bombed civilian, and that a full 70 percent strongly oppose a U.S. attack on Iran. Sixty percent oppose going to Israel's side if it attacks Iran unilaterally.
But what do they know? Tea partiers and Bibi Netanyahu have a better handle.
Romney has signaled that the neocons who carried the day with Bush are back in charge. Romney dispelled the idea that he might engage in diplomacy in the Middle East or anywhere else. In "the American century," he said the other day, the United States under President Romney will always lead, never follow.
Remember that the Project for the New American Century was the manifesto of the neocon architects of the Iraqi war before the 2000 election — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton and others. In the new century, the United States should project its power across the Middle East and Southeast Asia by conquering a bad but centralized Muslim country, preferably Iraq, and installing a democratic government allied with America, and project its influence from there.
We learned in the last month that early in 2001 the White House ignored not one but repeated intelligence reports of an impending terrorist attack on the United States. Someone, presumably Cheney and Rumsfeld, insisted that they were intended to distract the president from the real enemy, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. So we had 9/11 before Cheney persuaded Bush to forget it and get on to the real job of projecting the New American Century.
Most people know how that turned out for the U.S., but Romney seems not to.