Remember that Santorum isn’t someone who proudly proclaims his ignorance of foreign policy, like Herman Cain, who at least promised that he’d get advisers more knowledgeable than he was. Santorum really thinks he knows his stuff. And yet his actual plan for addressing rising Islamism in Sunni countries is to attack Iran in a way that he thinks will “send a message” to everyone else. Does he imagine that after these bombing strikes on Iran the Islamists in Egypt will say to themselves, “Oh, America is tougher than we imagined, and we’re actually going to elect a pro-Western, secular government now that we’ve seen the consequences for Iran?”
This error isn’t unique to Santorum, and it is really more a function of ideology than simple ignorance. Santorum shares a basic neoconservative assumption that U.S. interests and values advance together, and both are effectively advanced through demonstrations of strength. This is frequently wrong in practice, but this is how Santorum and those who share his views seem to approach these questions. According to this view, striking at the Iranian theocracy is a blow against what Santorum nonsensically calls “Islamic fascism,” and because “Islamic fascism” is a single movement an attack on one part (especially a leading part such as Iran) is an attack on the whole. Because Santorum doesn’t really appreciate the significant differences between the Egyptian Islamists currently modeling themselves on Turkey’s AKP and the Iranian regime, he thinks that harming one will affect the others as well.
This is also how he can say in all seriousness that he is on the side of the Iranian people at the same time he argues for sanctioning and attacking Iran. If you believe something that wrongheaded, it is a small step from there to believing that Islamists throughout the Near East will be undermined by yet another American war against a predominantly Muslim nation. On the contrary, attacking Iran would be another unforced error on our part, and it would not only greatly help hard-liners in Iran and Lebanon, but would also outrage a new generation of Muslims throughout the world and deepen the resentments and hostility that help jihadism to flourish. One of the many problems with policies designed to “send a message” is that the U.S. is not in control of how the message will be received or interpreted. Conor is right that this shows Santorum’s obliviousness to the effects of the Iraq war and the “freedom agenda” more generally, and this is tied to the denial of Iraq war supporters that it was the war, not this year’s withdrawal, that created the vacuum that was filled by Iran and Islamist parties in Iraq.