Washington – The demise of Moammar Gaddafi is big news around the world. Note to the Republican presidential candidates: This will come as a shock, but there are lots of other countries out there, and what happens in some of them is really important. Anyone who wants to serve as commander in chief should be paying attention.
This advice is aimed most urgently at Herman Cain, who wears his ignorance of international affairs as a badge of honor. “When they ask me who is the president of Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, you know, I don't know,” he boasted recently. “And then I'm going to say, 'How's that going to create one job?'” For the record, Uzbekistan is a strategically important Central Asian nation whose president is named Islam Karimov.
In the umpteen debates held thus far, foreign policy hasn't even been elevated to the status of an afterthought. The only nations that reliably come up are China, which we somehow have to “beat,” and Mexico, which all the candidates except Rick Perry and Ron Paul want to quarantine with an impregnable fence.
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Cain said repeatedly that his proposed fence would be electrified. Then he said those remarks were in jest. Then he said the fence might be electrified after all. Sorry for the digression, but I'm just trying to keep up.
What's no joking matter is that to the extent that the Republican candidates deal with international affairs at all, it tends to be in a way that's shockingly vapid and unsophisticated. It is likely that domestic issues, especially the parlous state of the economy, will dominate the election. But it's also likely that one or more foreign crises will arise between now and Election Day — and that the contrast can only work in President Obama's favor.
Look at Libya. The GOP contenders have grasped for reasons to grumble about Obama's decision to enable and join a NATO-led intervention to topple Gaddafi. Some seemed to think that Obama should have been more aggressive; others, such as Michele Bachmann, seemed to think the president shouldn't have committed U.S. forces at all. Newt Gingrich has boldly taken both positions.
With the rebels' capture of Sirte, the last pro-Gaddafi stronghold, it appears that Obama's course of action was prudent, patient and, for Americans, virtually painless. A brutal dictator who was directly responsible for terrorism that killed U.S. citizens has been eliminated without the loss of a single American life. Compare that with the thousands of U.S. deaths it cost to depose another brutal dictator — Saddam Hussein — who had not ordered anti-American terrorist attacks.
What about Yemen, where a popular uprising has failed to oust a comparably ruthless despot — but one who happens to be an ally in the U.S. war against al-Qaeda? Do any of you Republican candidates know where Yemen is?
Speaking of Yemen, what about Obama's use of unmanned drones to assassinate an al-Qaeda leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, who happened to be a U.S. citizen? What about the subsequent killing of Awlaki's son in the same manner? Aside from Ron Paul, do any of the Republican candidates for president care to examine the many moral and legal questions about using robotic aircraft to execute individuals on foreign soil? Don't all speak at once.
In Syria, a peaceful pro-democracy movement is being crushed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Thoughts? Anybody? Hello?
The candidates relentlessly maintain their focus on the economy because they believe it is what will decide the election. But just as the Wall Street financial crisis caused markets to tumble around the globe, so is the U.S. economy dependent on what happens in the rest of the world. The biggest threat right now comes from the potential for multiple defaults in Europe. What, if anything, should U.S. policymakers be doing?
One of next month's debates is supposed to focus on foreign policy. My guess is that we'll hear variations on the theme “Obama's doing it all wrong” — with few specifics on how “doing it right” might differ.
Sooner or later, though, events will conspire to present some military or diplomatic question the GOP candidates can't ignore. Voters will care about the answer, Mr. Cain, even if you don't.