Let's Put Foreign Policy on the Front Burner in the Presidential Race

What did the Iowa victors have in common? Pakistan! As in, neither Mike Huckabee nor Barack Obama know much of anything about it.

So what did Iowa voters, left and right, have in common? They didn't care.

And hopefully that's a mistake New Hampshire voters and those in the states that come after don't make.

I don't expect much from the Democrats' camp: Barack Obama wants to invade Pakistan, jack up everything, screw up the world, but it's OK because he's a change, according to Iowa folks. In Saturday's debate, other Dems suddenly hopped on the same bandwagon, with Hillary Clinton at least cautioning that you should warn Pakistan first so they don't think it's India starting a war and nuke the bejeezus out of each other. But it's disturbing to see the GOP ticket turning into a foreign policy wasteland, with comments such as Huckabee's.

"President Bush didn't read it for four years; I don't know why I should read it in four hours," the quipmaster said about his ignorance of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.

In response to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which quickly became every candidate's political football du jour, Huckabee said, "In light of what happened in Pakistan yesterday, it's interesting that there are more Pakistanis who have illegally crossed the border than of any other nationality except for those immediately south of our border."

Yet from CNN: "But the Border Patrol (said) it apprehended only 'a handful' of illegal immigrants from Pakistan in 2007. The number of illegal immigrants from Pakistan deported or apprehended is not mentioned in the latest report from the Department of Homeland Security/Office of Immigration Statistics. In 2005, the nation did not make the list of the

top 10 sources of illegal immigrants. The previous year, Pakistan was the last country listed, but no specific numbers were given."

Hucakbee's goofs didn't stop there: Martial law had been lifted before Bhutto's death, Pakistan shares its western border with Afghanistan, you know the rest.

As Iowa voters were preparing to go to the caucuses last Thursday, I was sitting in the Pakistani consulate in Los Angeles, chatting with Consul General Syed Ibne Abbas. I asked him about Obama's invasion strategy ("it was not taken very well") and Huckabee's assertion of mass Pakistani illegal immigration.

Abbas took a breath. "I don't want to comment, but I would say that he needs to get his geography correct!"

The Huckman is hardly alone. Mitt Romney's immediate response to the Bhutto slaying was a bizarre preemptive passing of the buck: "If the answer for leading the country is someone that has a lot of foreign policy experience, we can just go down to the State Department and pick up any one of the tens of thousands of people who spent all their life in foreign policy."

Romney likened the presidential office to a CEO post where one can simply put together "a great team of people to be able to guide and direct them to understand what decision has to be made."

The president of the United States can't just lean on a stable of "yes"-men to make key foreign policy decisions. Nor can voters take for granted that just any candidate will be suitable in this area in these troubled times.

Going into Iowa, a Dec. 19 Washington Post-ABC News poll asked likely Republican caucus-goers to name the single most important issue in their vote; foreign policy came in at less than 0.5 percent.

The poll also asked which candidate "best understands the problems of people like you." But the next president needs to have a firm understanding of the problems of people who aren't like you to both keep the nation safe and to ensure the United States is a productive, proactive leader in the global community instead of an isolated sitting duck.

Foreign policy is not just the territory of snooty wonks with personal agendas to grind. Tucked away in America's heartland, it may be easy to forget that assassinations far away, Hugo Chavez's political shell games, extremism in the U.K., or the machinations of Iran affect the future of our country and its friends as well. It affects whether, in the future, sons and daughters in uniform will be able to fight effectively (like if enough troops had been sent into Iraq from the beginning), as well as when they might have to fight again.

Foreign policy can buoy the conscience of this nation -- or, if we turn our backs on the Rwandas of the future and the like in the form of an immorally non-interventionist policy, it can decimate the conscience of our nation.

Let's just hope that, from here on out, GOP voters put foreign policy on the front burner. Otherwise, how do you say "doh!" in Urdu?

Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.