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Who would bomb Iran? Santorum, Romney, Gingrich & Paul on the nuclear threat: Character Sketch

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Trailing by a double-digit margin in the polls in the waning weeks of his 2006 Senate reelection campaign in Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum went nuclear. He did so not by launching vicious new attacks on his soon-to-be-victorious Democratic opponent, Bob Casey, but by indulging his own obsession with mushroom-cloud politics. He began speaking incessantly about the potential threat from a nuclear-armed Iran.

This was not a clever consultant's ploy to give the two-term Pennsylvania senator an aura of foreign-policy gravitas. Rather it was Santorum's laudable decision--knowing he was politically doomed--to go down fighting with an issue that aroused his passions. Santorum, who can be guilty himself of Newt Gingrich-style grandiosity, modeled himself after Winston Churchill and his thunderous warnings about Nazi Germany from the parliamentary backbenches in the 1930s. Santorum labeled his oft-delivered speech on the Iranian menace as "The Gathering Storm," taking its title from the first volume of Churchill's postwar memoirs.

Santorum did not stint with his 1930s jack-booted metaphors as he linked the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the usual suspects. "Ahmadinejad, like Hitler and Mussolini, intends to conquer the world," Santorum said in an apocalyptic tone that suggested that Iran (population: 70 million) was size of China. "This is not a hidden agenda. His goal is to establish a caliphate. Like Khrushchev, he wants a nuclear arsenal, and he is building the same sort of frightening global alliances that enabled the Soviet Union to put missiles near us."

These days, Santorum is under fire for his comments in 2008 that Satan stalks America. But Santorum's 2006 speech about Iran (cue the 1979 clip of the Ayatollah Khomeini excoriating America as "the Great Satan") is far more relevant to the Oval Office. The challenge for any president is how to interpret ambiguous national-security information, whether it is about Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction or the status of the Iranian nuclear program. Santorum's fire-bell warnings about Iran strongly suggest that he is a disciple of the Dick Cheney better-wrong-too-early-than-right-too-late school of aggressive intervention.

This is not to say that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich raise doves as a hobby. In Romney's major foreign policy address last October, he unequivocally if vaguely declared, "Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable." Campaigning in Ohio earlier this month, Gingrich warned, "You think about an Iranian nuclear weapon. You think about the dangers to Cleveland, or to Columbus, or to Cincinnati, or to New York." The former House speaker did not explain how or why Iran, which has not yet developed an operational nuclear weapon, intends to target Cincinnati.

Ron Paul is the uncompromising Republican naysayer about a potential war over Iran's nuclear ambitions. "The greatest danger is overreacting," Paul said during a December debate. "That's how we got into that useless war in Iraq." There is a constituency in American politics for this kind of skepticism about preventive war. Unfortunately for Paul, it isn't in the Republican Party. Three-quarters (74 percent) of all GOP voters are willing to support as a last resort American military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, according to a Pew Research Center poll, conducted earlier this month. And three-fifths (62 percent) of these Republicans would cheer an Israel assault on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Predicting a president's foreign policy based on his campaign rhetoric can be as risky as buying diamonds off the Internet cash in advance. During the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama came under repeated attack from Hillary Clinton for his proudly expressed willingness to negotiate with countries like Iran without preconditions. Nearly four years later that Obama position has been filed away in a drawer marked, "Wiser Reflections After Taking Office." George W. Bush needed a similar file. In a 2000 debate with Al Gore, Bush sniffed, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building." As president, Bush, of course, had to deal with the aftermath of what's called "mission accomplished."

Romney is clearly on the hawkish side of the foreign-policy divide. In a 2007 presidential campaign speech to a Jewish audience, Romney played up the Hitler-at-Munich analogy: "In the face of what is an existential threat from jihadists, many in the Democratic Party are in the most serious delusional and politically driven denial since Neville Chamberlain." (A personal plea to politicians in both parties: Nearly 75 years later, can we drop this rhetorical fixation on British pre-war appeasement? The presidential passion to emulate Churchill rather than Chamberlain has contributed to the march of folly from Vietnam to Iraq).

Yet listening carefully to Romney offers hints of a candidate reluctant to be hamstrung by foreign-policy commitments before he is inaugurated. When asked about a possible American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in a December interview with the Washington Examiner, Romney stressed the military ambiguities: "The endgame begins with thoroughly understanding the options that we have. That's not something that I've been briefed upon. I have not sat down with U.S. military and said, 'All right, let's look at the widest array of military options that we have.'" Every prudent presidential candidate avoids offering too many specifics in response to hypothetical national-security questions. But Romney's full answer on Iran in his Examiner interview prompted James Lindsay, a senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, to conclude, "So even if the political rhetoric about Iran gets red hot on the campaign trail, don't assume that a Romney administration would be hell-bent on taking military action against Tehran."

Gingrich is even more difficult to categorize on Iran. The former House speaker and fading presidential contender can glibly describe America as already waging World War III (as he did in 2006) and direly depict a nuclear-armed Iran as "the biggest national security threat of the next 10 years." But Gingrich--in sharp contrast to Santorum--is also a skeptic about the "bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran" chorus and its confidence that military strikes can eliminate Tehran's nuclear capacity. During a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate with Jon Huntsman (remember him?) in New Hampshire in December, Gingrich called the bombs-away option "a fantasy" because Iran has located so much of its nuclear program in hardened underground sites. The Gingrich cheap-hawk approach would pivot around covert action to further disrupt Iranian nuclear development and emphasize permanent regime change--rather than short-term military action--as the overriding goal of American policy.

Five years after he sounded the tocsin about Iran's nuclear threat, Santorum remains confident about the national-security remedy. Appearing on Meet the Press in January, Santorum said, "We will degrade those facilities through air strikes, and make it very public that we're doing that." That is the Santorum difference: no ambiguity and no hypocrisy. It explains why the thought of the sweater-vested former senator in the Oval Office is either--depending on your political point of view--alluring or alarming.

Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.

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