Senator Evan Bayh on Meet the Press
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images file
Sen. Evan Bayh, D- Indiana, urges a tough policy on Iran
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/3/2006 8:57:41 AM ET 2006-02-03T13:57:41

WASHINGTON — Bring it on, Karl Rove!

And you, too, Hillary Clinton, bring it on!

No, Sen. Evan Bayh, D- Ind., didn’t say that, at least not exactly, Thursday in Washington.

But Bayh, a likely rival to Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, did fire back at Rove, President Bush’s political guru, who said two weeks ago that many Democrats don’t understand the gravity of the threat from Islamic fascism.

“Many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview,” Rove said in a speech to the Republican National Committee.

Rove wants to make the 2006 elections a referendum not on Jack Abramoff and corrupt lobbying, as many Democrats want, but rather on which party is more resolute in defending America.

“Some in my party are afraid of this fight,” Bayh noted in a foreign policy address Thursday. But he said the voters would never trust Democrats to take care of education and other issues “if they don’t first trust us with their lives. Who can best protect America in these perilous times is of paramount importance.”

Picking up Rove's gauntlet
Rove, he said, had thrown down the gauntlet. “We intend to pick it up…. I welcome this debate because it is one that we can win.”

He explained that Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman had strong records in defending America. “It has only been since the Vietnam War that Democrats have been viewed by the American people as congenitally weak, too soft to be entrusted with our national security,” he said. “But that can change, and if we aspire to national leadership, it must.”

Bayh delivered an indictment — similar to ones handed down by most other Democrats — of what he said were blunders by President Bush and his advisors in handling Iraq.

Bayh’s most hawkish talk came on Iran. He warned that the Iranian regime “may be only months away from having the capacity to build a nuclear bomb.”

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Saying “a nuclear Iran is not negotiable,” he called for imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Tehran to persuade the mullahs to drop their nuclear weapons ambitions. [On Wednesday, U.S. and European diplomats were seeking a consensus for reporting Iran to the U.N. Security Council over their concerns the country was seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran threatened to suspend all contact with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency if the matter was referred to the Security Council.]

If they don’t, Bayh said, the United States must impose “consequences” including the use of military force.

It was remarkable that Bayh made his statement just an hour after a potential 2008 Republican presidential contender, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, gave a speech in which he said, “I don’t see the viable military options when you’re looking at Iran.” He called for encouraging democracy and a peaceful overthrow of the mullahs, “rather than looking at the military options.”

What happens if U.S. uses force in Iran
Bayh said the consequences of an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities weren’t pleasant to contemplate: the use of the terrorist group Hezbollah to attack targets across the world, Iran trying to disrupt oil exports from the Persian Gulf, and Iran halting its oil exports to its major customers in Europe and Asia. 

But it may be necessary to run these risks. "Look, there can be no more profound threat than a nuclear weapon in the hands of people who aid and abet terrorists,” he said.

After his speech, Bayh was asked whether, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he thought air strikes would be able to get rid of the Iranian nuclear threat.

“Pinpoint strikes would only delay the program for a matter of years, not permanently eliminate it – some of this is classified so I can’t get into the details, but that’s the best assessment at this time,” he replied. 

He added, “We need to try to keep them from attaining nuclear weapons in a way that does not undercut the reformers and inflame public opinion in Iran against political change. But at the same time we can’t tolerate them having nuclear weapons – it is a difficult dilemma.”

On Iraq, Bayh left unanswered questions about whether and at what point he might call for the withdrawal of American troops.

“We must let all of the Iraqi factions know that they must make the difficult compromises necessary, or they will cease to have our support,” he said.

But he did not specify whether “cease to have our support” meant withdrawal of U.S. troops and if so, how he’d deal with the danger of Iraq becoming even more of “a failed state” and a more fertile breeding ground for terrorism.

Partition of Iraq?
He also raised questions by suggesting he’d accept the partition of Iran in to three countries. The Sunni, Shia and Kurds “must decide whether they want to live in one country together or not…. If they do not, then our mission is done.”

He mentioned “benchmarks for success” in Iraq, but didn’t define what he meant by “success.”

He called for increasing the Army by 100,000 troops – last July Sen. Clinton called for boosting the Army by 80,000 soldiers over four years – but didn’t address the question of how to find new recruits at a time when the armed forces have had some difficulty meeting their recruiting targets.

Always in the back of listeners’ minds at such pre-presidential campaign events is the question: Could this man excite Democratic activists in Claremont, N.H. or Cedar Rapids, Iowa on a frosty night in December of 2007?

Bayh is not the fiery orator Howard Dean was. He lacks the folksy charm of Bill Clinton, but he does have a laid-back wit and also something that most of his 2008 do not: a solid record as a governor.

With his votes against confirming Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Bayh may bridge some of the divide between himself and the left wing of his party.

Tensions with the Left
Some of his statements in the past have created tensions between the left and Bayh.

When Dean's candidacy was soaring in July of 2003, Bayh warned that “the Democratic Party is at risk of being taken over by the far left.”

In May 2004, after abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became public, Bayh worried that the furor would sap support for the war, a war which left-leaning Democrats fiercely oppose.

“Our cause is morally superior to our adversaries,” Bayh said in May 2004, but he feared that moral superiority had been damaged by the Abu Ghraib images.

Bayh said it was necessary that the United States “ultimately prevail in what is a very noble and idealistic decision.”

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