In the 2008 presidential race, the dominant foreign policy topic has been Iraq. But in recent weeks, Iran has been the focus of increasingly strong rhetoric and warnings from the Bush administration.
President Bush last week warned of "World War III" if Iran acquires knowledge to build a nuclear weapon. Vice President Cheney followed with a tough speech of his own this past weekend, and the debate over how to deal with Iran is increasingly prominent on the campaign trail.
When Democrats talk about Iran, however, they are also talking about Iraq. That context is critical. Democratic presidential hopefuls warn that the country is being led down a familiar path by the White House.
Echoes of the Run-Up to Iraq?
Speaking in Clinton, Iowa, last month, Sen. Barack Obama said Iran poses a great challenge: "It builds a nuclear program, supports terrorism and calls for Israels destruction." But the Illinois Democrat quickly added, "We hear eerie echoes of the run up to the war in Iraq in the way the president and the vice president talk about Iran."
This week, Obama has been using the issue to put Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton on the defensive. Clinton is the only senator running for president to vote for the so-called Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, a "get tough with Iran" measure that declares a branch of Iran's military to be a terrorist organization.
In a mailing to Iowa voters, Obama accused Clinton of giving President Bush an excuse for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq longer — or even for starting a war with Iran. He likens it to Clinton's 2002 vote to give the president the authority to use military force against Iraq.
In her own letter to Iowans, Clinton responded that she is opposed to letting President Bush take any military action against Iran without full congressional approval. For a month she has defended her support of the amendment.
"What we voted for today," Clinton said at a September debate in New Hampshire, "we will have an opportunity to designate it as a terrorist organization, which gives us the options to be able to impose sanctions on the primary leaders, to try to begin to put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran."
Clinton also points out that while Obama opposes the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, he was on the campaign trail when the vote was cast — not in Washington. The other two senators in the Democratic presidential field, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, both cast no votes.
Tough Talk from the GOP
Still, most of the talk on the Democratic side is about the need for diplomacy and about avoiding a repeat of Iraq. On the Republican side, it's a very different debate. The tone much tougher.
The first big attention Iran got on the GOP side came early this year, when John McCain was asked at a South Carolina town hall meeting when the U.S. would send "an air-mail message to Tehran."
McCain's responded, "Remember that old...that old Beach Boys song, bomb Iran?" The candidate then started singing, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."
The audience laughed, and the campaign brushed off criticism that he was being too flip when discussing such a critical issue.
Since that day, McCain's response has been much more measured. He treats the issue seriously. At a debate in Dearborn, Mich., he said the president should consult with leaders in Congress before launching a military strike against Iran. He then felt compelled to underscore just how real this issue is to him.
"I believe that this is a possibility that is, maybe, closer to reality than we are discussing tonight," McCain said.
Such talk of urgency, of the need for action — even though it's still not known for certain if Iran is developing nuclear weapons — is what puts the Republican presidential candidates in much the same place as the Bush administration.
But in that same debate, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was asked if he'd need congressional approval, as president, to strike Iran, Romney answered that he'd consult with lawyers. It was an unexpected response.
Romney has since tried to clarify by stressing that he's ready to act militarily if the situation requires. In a new TV ad, he talks about the need to confront "Islamic Jihadism," and he ends the ad by looking into the camera and saying, "We can and will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
Today, Romney reacted to the White House sanctions by saying he would be willing to use a military blockade or "bombardment of some kind" to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
The Hardest Line of All
Then there's Rudy Giuliani, the candidate who has consistently taken the hardest line of all among the front-runners regarding potential military action. He had a blunt reply about whether he'd take military action, without first going to Congress: "The answer is yes."
Giuliani then ratcheted up the stakes even further, saying, "Iran is a greater danger than Iraq. Iraq cannot be seen in a vacuum, and we have to be wiling to use a military option to stop Iran from becoming nuclear."
All of this debate takes place before an American public that is overwhelming opposed to and weary of the Iraq war. But candidates on each side are also playing to primary voters. The challenges posed by Iran are immensely complicated — less so, the level of debate. That's typical of campaigns, though, where candidates seem to be trying to give the public a gut-level sense of where they stand, even if the specifics of the situation get lost.