The leading Republican presidential candidates are channeling George W. Bush—one of the most embattled wartime U.S. presidents—by vowing to strike Iran before it fields a nuclear weapon.
During Wednesday's debate in Mesa, Ariz., the candidates sparred over a range of national security issues, and all but one, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, spoke with passion about taking out Tehran's nuclear program. What they might not have realized with their sabre rattling is that they thrust back into the national spotlight Bush's much-maligned preemptive war doctrine.
When the war in Iraq turned south in 2004, national security experts were criticizing Bush's doctrine of striking a potentially threatening foe before that foe strikes the U.S. or its allies.
But as Iran plows ahead with plans to develop nuclear weapons despite U.S.-led sanctions and diplomatic pressure, the three leading GOP presidential candidates say they would dust off the preemptive war playbook and launch a military strike to take out Tehran's nuclear sites.
"It's very interesting that you're seeing, on the Republican platform, a very strong commitment to say we're going to say no to Iran," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said during the debate. "It's unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
"The preemptive war idea is being discussed, absolutely," says Dr. Jeremi Suri, chair of the global affairs program at the University of Texas at Austin. "I've been hearing it more and more from people in the Republican party who are advising the candidates on foreign policy.
"This is from serious people," Suri said. "This is not just hawkish rumblings. This is also a fundamentally different strategic outlook."
"I do believe there are moments when you preempt," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia said. "If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons."
The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded late last year that Iran is closer than ever to fielding a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration and Pentagon officials say a military strike remains an option, but they so far have stuck to a strategy of increasingly tough sanctions aimed at squeezing leaders in Tehran so hard they give up their nuclear weapons aims.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that Pentagon officials believe those sanctions are working. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey caused eyebrows to peak around the world last weekend when he said a strike now would be premature. Dempsey also called the Tehran regime a "rational" player, which drew the ire of the GOP candidates running to become his boss.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum charged during the debate that President Obama "has obviously a very big problem in standing up to the Iranians in any form." Santorum called the regime in Tehran "the most prolific proliferator of terror in the world" that would "have a nuclear weapon to protect … them [from] whatever they do."
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a president who isn't going to stop them," Santorum said. "He isn't going to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. We need a new president or we are going to have a cataclysmic situation."
Romney echoed his rhetorically hawkish GOP foes.
"With crippling sanctions and a very clear statement that military action is an action that will be taken if they pursue nuclear weaponry," Romney said. "That could change the course of world history."
Only Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a fierce Libertarian, stood on the debate stage and spoke against a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear weapons program. Paul said there are moral and constitutional impediments that should prevent a U.S. attack on Iran—not to mention to potential costs.