During the Republican presidential primary debate from Des Moines on December 15, Ron Paul caused uproar when he said that a strike against Iran “would risk a repeat of the useless Iraqi war.” In response to a question from Bret Baier, Paul made this statement: “To me the greatest danger is that we will have a president that will overreact and we will soon bomb Iran.” Further: “We ought to really sit back and think, not jump the gun and believe that we are going to be attacked. That’s how we got into that useless war in Iraq and lost so much.” Paul finally suggested that the Obama-administration may be doing the right thing “by backing off on sanctions,” which may be seen as an “act of war.”

Ever since, Paul’s rivals have been denouncing him for peddling radical foreign-policy views. Although far from the only one to have done so, Congresswoman Bachmann may be the politician who has spoken most emphatically for the GOP establishment on Paul’s apparent madness. According to Bachmann: “We know without a shadow of doubt that Iran will take a nuclear weapon, they will use it to wipe out our ally Israel, off the face of the map. And they’ve stated they will use it against the United States of America. We would be fools and knaves to ignore their purposes and their plan.” There were equally publicized attacks by Weekly Standard and by National Review’s editor Rich Lowry on Paul as a bigot and hate-America leftist, but these off-the-wall hit jobs may have more to do with the fear of the neoconservative camp that Paul is not going away than with factual reality.

Having heard both sides, allow me to come down somewhere in the middle. From the tone of its remarks, it would seem that the Iranian government is hoping to do us harm and we are right to keep this government under close surveillance. What Paul calls a “little bit of diplomacy” may not be enough to contain the possible threat; and even if the Republicans are manic on the subject, the U.S. does face real enemies in the world. Not every political confrontation has been our fault, and contrary to Paul’s suggestion, allowing the present Iranian rulers to develop atomic weapons, which they’ve announced their intention to use, is not the same as quietly watching other countries acquire them. The Iranian case may be different.

Moreover, Ron Paul may have lost ground by allowing his irritation to show when Bret Baier began to bait him. Paul should have been able to present a foreign-policy alternative to the American “exceptionalist” bombast served up by his rivals. He should have offered in a measured manner a realistic approach to international relations, in place of the ideologically fueled one that the Bush administration called for. Obama has been less of a sabre-rattler than his predecessors, but one gets the impression that he’s just muddling through, without a coherent foreign policy.

To whatever extent Obama speaks about foreign relations, he is furnishing a less violent version of what the GOP proclaims. Traditionally international relations have been about restraining violence. But Paul’s rivals want armed ideological crusades, a tradition that goes back to Woodrow Wilson and his crusade to make “the world safe for democracy” in World War I. Obama speaks the same language even if he doesn’t always walk the same walk.

There is one distraction that Paul would do well to ignore. It won’t help him that the Los Angeles Times and various liberal commentators are praising him for his moderateness in foreign policy. There’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that any of these apparent admirers would back him in a presidential contest. Every time I hear a liberal academic talk up Ron Paul, I mutter under my breath “what a liar.”

But it’s the other GOP candidates who upset me. They are not addressing foreign policy like grown-ups, let alone conservatives. All they do is rant on and on about invading or scaring undemocratic countries or the “enemies of Israel.” This is not what the public cares or should care about. The background noise may thrill Christian Zionists and Fox News addicts but probably no one else. Whereas Paul should stop ascribing reasonable motives to our self-proclaimed adversaries, his opponents should start looking for new foreign-policy advisors. Gingrich’s statements about naming John Bolton secretary of state indicates the havoc he’d unleash if he ever got into the White House. And Romney’s call for ringing the Earth with democracy-inspectors and his attempts to sound even tougher than Bachmann in international affairs inspire even less confidence.