Don’t look now, but foreign policy is back on this year’s election agenda.
While Election 2012 is still very much about the economy, foreign policy issues are increasingly making a comeback. And as the conversation focuses more on Iran, foreign policy is emerging not because of a lack of news about the economy, but rather because of the increasing connection between the two topics.
The tensions between the U.S. and Iran illustrate the linkage. In response to the European oil boycott, Iran recently announced that it was cutting off exports to Britain and France, which, in part, drove oil benchmarks to a nine-month high of nearly $123 a barrel. This, in turn, “could prove worrisome for U.S. drivers since many U.S. refineries use imported oil to produce gas”. Gas prices are already rising across the country – currently the national average is above $3.50 a gallon – and many worry that gas prices could rise beyond $4 a gallon by the summer. There are even concerns that gas could spike to $5 a gallon if tensions surge.
Most of the Republican candidates for president have honed in on Iran, with Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich taking aim at President Obama’s reliance on sanctions to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Romney has been particularly strident in his criticism, contending at the February 22nd debate in Arizona that “nothing in my view is as serious a failure as his [the President’s] failure to deal with Iran appropriately.” Yet, when explicitly asked during that debate about Iran and rising gas prices, Romney dismissed the question and went back to his promise that if America elects him as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon – a promise accompanied by few details other than that Romney would greater emphasize the threat of military action.
But campaign rhetoric, in its uncomplicated bluntness, can overlook how complicated the Iranian issue is. Reports indicate the oil boycott and the sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank are starting to take a significant toll on the Iranian economy. However, the situation remains a tinderbox and an escalation of tensions could spur an Israeli air strike, Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz, or lead to the eruption of an accidental war. In addition to the national security implications, such events could push oil prices to over $150 a barrel, and the fallout from that could severely curtail the economic recovery here at home.
Foreign policy – most notably, the issue of Iran – will remain an integral campaign issue through the fall. The Republicans will keep hammering away; the President’s reelection campaign plans a robust defense of his national security credentials. But because of its connection to the economic challenges we face, how the candidates talk about these issues will be important, too. This time around, it is not enough for a candidate to simply assert that he will stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Instead, it will be necessary to consider how he will do so without stopping the American economy as well.