Romney, Gingrich and Santorum on war with Iran

David Horsey/Los Angeles Times

Who’s ready to go to war with Iran?

Oh, I forgot. Since we now have an army of professionals, none of the rest of us is actually required to go to war. And, since we now allow commanders-in-chief to unilaterally send that army into battle whenever they please, members of Congress don’t have to bother voting for a declaration of war.

War has become a matter of presidential choice. That’s why we should take seriously what the candidates for president have to say about attacking Iran. They can promise to cut the deficit or bring down gas prices or scuttle Obamacare, but, if they promise war, it’s the one promise we know they can keep.

If you happen to be antiwar, your only option is Ron Paul. He has made it clear he does not really care if Iran builds nuclear weapons. Paul wants to stay out of other people’s business and cut the military. In stark contrast, the other Republican candidates are trying to outdo one another in their bellicosity.

I suspect, as on most issues in this primary season, Mitt Romney does not actually mean what he is saying and is not quite as eager to rush to battle as his rivals, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. If Romney were president, in fact, his policy would probably be similar to that of the man he criticizes as too soft on Iran, President Obama.

Obama has pushed tough sanctions on Iran. His hard-edged diplomacy has gotten Europeans to line up with him to demand that Iran refrain from building nukes. The president, showing his grimmest face, insists he is not bluffing when he says that military action is a real and ready option if Iran does not comply with the demands of the international community (at least the international community that does not include Russia and China, which, for obvious self-interested reasons, do not approve of military intervention in countries where the governments are corrupt and authoritarian).

Obama’s rhetoric may be more nuanced than the campaign speeches of Santorum and Gingrich – that is why the Republicans attack him for "apologizing" to America’s adversaries -- but the president’s foreign policy is very much in line with the philosophy that has guided U.S. actions in the world since 1945: engagement everywhere on the globe where there is a perceived national interest, backed by military power that is second-to-none and quick to be employed.

To the rest of the world, it may seem absurd for Republicans to throw charges of weakness at a president who has doubled down on the war in Afghanistan, carried out relentless drone attacks against terrorist targets in Pakistan and sent Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden and fight Somali pirates. But this merely illustrates how Americans measure a president by the way he wields the big stick of military power. And, no matter what Teddy Roosevelt counseled, political reality dictates that it is better to speak loudly when you carry a big stick. Speaking softly is for wimps.

The truth is, Americans are not a peace-loving people. We pretend otherwise because it seems wrong to admit that the United States is a nation that has mostly benefited from war. We were not like the contented Canadians, who patiently waited for the Mother Country to bestow self-government. We went to war and tossed the British out. Through one war with Mexico and relentless wars with Indian tribes, we became a country that spanned a continent. The Spanish-American War and the First World War marked our arrival on the world stage. And the Second World War left us as one of the two preeminent powers on the planet.

Wars in Korea and Vietnam were not popular, but, by the time of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans had become used to fighting wars with ambiguous results. War is now simply what we do. It is part of our national identity; facing any foe, bearing any burden in the twilight struggle to defend freedom.

Put in less idealistic terms, our country is a national security state built on the vast military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about. Our government and our economy are permanently geared up for war, and very few Americans can remember a time when this was not so. It’s hard to imagine any president resisting the temptation to use this awesome force and even harder to imagine that a majority of Americans would ever elect a man who would.

Watch out, Iran, here we come.