WASHINGTON - Foreign policy, mostly an afterthought in the presidential contest so far, is emerging as a focal point between President Obama and his Republican challengers - and no issue has more potential to be a game-changer than Iran’s development of a nuclear program, according to several specialists.
Tensions over Iran’s alleged efforts to develop a nuclear bomb are escalating, with the United States and Europe tightening sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and financial institutions and Iran, in turn, threatening to shut down the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz. Intensifying fears are reports that Israel is considering launching a preemptive strike against Iran.
“Iran is one of the biggest wild cards in this election,’’ said Bill Schneider, a senior fellow and longtime political analyst at Third Way, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
Obama has emphasized sanctions and negotiations to deter the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon. His main GOP opponents assert that such an approach is bound to fail and the United States must be prepared to take military action - or at least support a unilateral strike by Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Mitt Romney, stepping up his attacks on Obama’s handling of the issue, has described Iran as Obama’s greatest foreign policy failure. “He did not do what was necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly,’’ Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor criticized the president first for seeking to engage Tehran’s leaders in negotiations and then for not more actively supporting protesters who took to the streets of Iran in 2009. Sanctions to isolate the nation’s leaders have been too slow and too ineffective, Romney said.
“Finally,’’ Romney said recently, “the president should have built a credible threat of military action and made it very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.’’
Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have gone so far as to advocate a US preemptive strike against Iran to halt its nuclear program, saying the current approach is little more than appeasement and imperils Americans.
“Remember what it felt like on 9/11 when 3,100 Americans were killed?’’ Gingrich said at a recent stop in Ohio. “Now imagine an attack where you add two zeros. And it’s 300,000 dead. Maybe a half million wounded. This is a real danger.’’
On the GOP primary campaign trail, attention to Iran and other foreign issues has been eclipsed by the economy. But recent bullish news on the job market could change that.
“If the news on the economic front looks good, the Republican candidate almost by definition has to bang the drum louder because the main issue has been taken away from him,’’ said James M. Lindsey, the director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet despite the harsh attacks on Obama’s handling of global affairs, several specialists said unique factors could neutralize some of the Republican arguments.
Traditionally, the GOP has positioned itself as the more hawkish of the two parties on national security and as better equipped to handle a complicated world than the Democrats.
But that argument could be offset by some of Obama’s own accomplishments, such as ordering the daring raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year and using American air power to help topple Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.
Obama is preparing to make a case that he has been a good steward of American interests overseas and has helped to make the country safer.
In an interview with Time magazine last month, the president previewed his message on foreign policy, saying: “It’s going to be pretty hard to argue that we have not executed a strategy over the last three years that has put America in a stronger position that it was when I came into office.’’
He cited - in addition to the Iraq war’s end and bin Laden’s death - the rebuilding of international alliances that had frayed over some controversial US policies, such as the brutal treatment of detainees, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The Republican line of attack has been turned on its ear,’’ Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, said in an interview. “President Obama has been more aggressive that George W. Bush ever was in pursuing terrorists. It is one of the reasons the Republicans are casting about.’’
Even on Iran, some observers expressed doubt the eventual Republican nominee will be able to convince many voters that Obama’s approach has been weak.
“I don’t think they are going to get much mileage,’’ said Daniel Brumberg, a senior adviser at the nonpartisan US Institute for Peace in Washington. “Once bombing starts you don’t know how this ends. Is the American public interested in pursuing another war? I doubt it.’’
Another factor is the apparent resurgence of an isolationist wing of the GOP. “A rising percentage of Americans believe America should mind its own business,’’ said Lindsey, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The isolationist strain is most prominently reflected by candidate Ron Paul, who has tapped into a deep wariness among Republicans and independent voters about the United States taking on more costly foreign entanglements.
Some of Romney’s harshest comments have decried the Obama administration’s plans to halt combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of 2013 and withdraw all US troops by the end of 2014.
“His naivete is putting in jeopardy the mission of the United States of America and our commitments to freedom,’’ Romney said last week in Nevada.
Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich have also denounced the administration’s plans to rein in military spending - what they have all described as “hollowing out’’ the armed forces.
The cuts, totally $487 billion over the next 10 years, were mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 - legislation approved by both parties in Congress to reduce the national debt.
When it comes to the challenge for voters, what is clear, according to James Carafano, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, is that the candidates in the general election will offer a clear contrast.
“There will be two very stark visions of national security and foreign policy,’’ he said. “It will seem like Venus and Mars.’’
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org