Paul Pillar

Reality and a Whopper on Iran

Perhaps the most noteworthy exchange on foreign policy in the Republican presidential candidates' debate in Iowa Thursday night started with a question to Ron Paul about Iran. Whatever else you may think about Paul and his candidacy, there is no refuting three truths he stated regarding the hysteria-inducing subject of Iran and its nuclear program. One, as Iranians look at what is surrounding them in their own neighborhood, they have good and understandable reasons to be interested in nuclear weapons. Two, even if they were to acquire a nuke, any capability they then had would pale in comparison with what the United States faced in the form of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or China for that matter. Third, as U.S. dealings with the Soviets demonstrated, an adversary's nuclear capability does not constitute a reason to stop talking and start making a war.

Paul's plain speaking, of course, clashed with the orthodoxy in this country according to which unthinking absolutism is considered the proper response to any mention of Iran and nukes. Among the other candidates, Rick Santorum jumped to the task of exclaiming how incorrigibly awful Iran is in every respect. Probably the most curious item in his indictment was that the Iranian regime “tramples the rights of gays”—curious given that one of Santorum's own claims to fame is his conspicuously unfriendly posture toward homosexuality, which he has compared to bestiality. (Elsewhere in the debate, Santorum supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and a reversal of the Obama administration's abandonment of “don't ask, don't tell” in the military.) But Santorum also used a glaring falsehood: that “ Iran is a country that has killed more American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Iraqis and the Afghans have.”

This was hardly the only factual error uttered during the debate (and Paul didn't get things quite right in characterizing what the U.S. intelligence community has said about the Iranian nuclear program), but it was the biggest whopper of the evening as far as foreign affairs were concerned. It also was the most dangerous falsehood. Inaccuracies such as Tim Pawlenty calling Michael Mullen a general rather than an admiral, or Jon Huntsman mistakenly characterizing the pace of U.S.-Chinese diplomacy, are unlikely to make any difference in public perceptions that could have policy consequences. But Santorum's assertion, against the backdrop of habitual demonization of Iran, is just the sort of falsehood that is likely to stick and to contribute to mistaken public beliefs that in turn could provide support for disastrous policies.

We've seen that sort of thing happen in the recent past. Ron Paul had something perceptive to say about that, too. After Michele Bachmann joined Santorum with an “I will do everything to make sure Iran does not become a nuclear power” comment, Paul observed, “You've heard the war propaganda that is liable to lead us into war...They're building up this case just like they did with Iraq. Build up the war propaganda.”

Image by R. DeYoung