How important is it to have presidential candidates who, when talking about Libya, know where Libya is?
Rep. Michele Bachmann accidentally raised that question during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas with her response on a foreign policy issue.
She was opposing President Obama's recent decision to send a small number of American special operations soldiers to Uganda to help defuse that East African country's ongoing civil war.
"The president, he put us in Libya," Bachmann complained. "He is now putting us in Africa." Bachmann went on to say something about how our forces "already were stretched too thin," but she lost me when she put Libya outside of Africa.
Bachmann's flub would not be a big deal if it didn't appear amid a Republican field infected with a nose-thumbing strain of willful ignorance about the rest of the world.
This was evidenced recently, for example, by Herman Cain, former pizza chain CEO and the latest in a string of Grand Old Party front-runners. "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, 'you know, I don't know,' " Cain remarked in an interview. "And then I'm going to say, 'How's that going to create one job?' "
For the record, if he meant the Republic of Uzbekistan, that former part of the Soviet Union has been an important ally in America's actions in neighboring Afghanistan. Its president is Islam Karimov. But as Cain might say, Afghanistan? What's that got to do with job creation?
Knowledgeable politicians have a choice when it comes to complex issues like foreign relations: They can try to educate the public or they can try to demagogue the issue, milking voters' fears, anger, resentments and suspicions. Guess which side ruled at the GOP debate when this question came up: "Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?"
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said all foreign aid, even to Israel, "should be the easiest thing to cut" because "it's not authorized in the Constitution that we can take money from you and give it to particular countries around the world." To their credit, none of the other candidates on stage agreed with that.
Foreign aid, after all, is more than just charity. It gives us leverage with allies and against enemies in ways that far outweigh the actual dollars we pay.
Yet, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called skeptically for "a very serious discussion" about foreign aid, including "defunding the United Nations."
And the usually sensible former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney supported defense-related foreign aid but curiously suggested China could afford to take over much of the rest. "We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people," Romney said.
Maybe that was a desperate reach for applause by talking tough, but I don't think the United States is ready to trust China to decide what's best for countries that need help.
It is unfortunate that the GOP candidate with the most foreign policy experience, former China Ambassador Jon Huntsman, skipped this debate to hold a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. He's trailing badly in the polls anyway, partly because he, like Romney, has not excited the party's conservative base. I guess that's what real expertise in foreign affairs gets you these days.
A recurring theme of this pre-election year has been the search for "the grown-up in the room." As Moammar Gadhafi's death vindicates Obama's Libya policy, his persistent critics are looking more like munchkins. I mean no disrespect to munchkins, by the way, wherever they may be on the map.