It's important in politics and public policy to think a couple of steps ahead. In the Middle East two worrisome developments are getting immediate attention. First, Iran is close enough to a nuclear bomb that the Israelis are getting close to an attack. President Obama is making clear that he does not support such an attack, although that position is couched in prevarications about timing. "Now" will never be the right time so far as this Administration is concerned.
The killings in Libya and the attacks on our diplomats there and in Cairo also inflame worries of further violence.
The response of the Republicans is going to be defense of Israel and demands that the President not apologize for free speech in America, even if it fuels militant Islamist passions.
Here's the problem with going much farther than that: Romney and Ryan need to leave their post-election options open.
We are in the midst of a presidential campaign of great intensity and unparalleled long duration. The emotions of our own citizenry in coming weeks can become volatile, if fickle. The emotion that events in the Middle East are most likely to excite is fear. Americans will want to stand with Israel and against attacks on our diplomats and ordinary citizens. But they may very well rally to a statement from the White House that the President is resisting conservative efforts to "start another war."
Americans don't want another war. They never do, actually. So if that is the question that comes to dominate the election the "peace" party will
win--overwhelmingly. Think 1916 when Woodrow Wilson's slogan was "He Kept Us Out of War," 1940 with FDR and 1964 when LBJ derided Barry Goldwater as a dangerous warmonger. That both Wilson and LBJ (one could add FDR in 1940) subsequently led a massive war effort is beside the point: the voting public doesn't see these developments in prospect. They see the positions of the candidates right now.
Consider this time in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was very careful about what he said in relation to the Iran hostage crisis. That was wise.
Republicans are more likely to stand by Israel and more likely to stand up to Islamist extremists. Their long term stance has been peace-through-security. But, like it or not, the security-through-peace position is going to look like the safer one between now and the November election. It will
take fastidious restraint to avoid looking like the war party. If the Republicans really do want their foreign policy to prevail long term, they first have to assure the electorate of their prudence. A conservative foreign policy has to be carefully, and non-politically, shaped.