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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Herman Cain thinks Uzbekistan doesn’t matter. He’s wrong.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, center, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, during a meeting at the Kremlin in 2010. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is being pilloried for an interview he gave to the Christian Broadcasting Network, where he mangled a response to a question about Uzbekistan. “When they ask me, ‘Who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,’” he explained to David Brody, “I’m going to say you know, ‘I don’t know. Do you know?’”

Cain continued, “Knowing who is the head of some of these small insignificant states around the world, I don’t think that is something that is critical to focusing on national security and getting this economy going. When I get ready to go visit that country, I’ll know who it is, but until then, I want to focus on the big issues that we need to solve.”

Journalists love trying to stump candidates with seemingly trivial questions that they think a president should know. A local TV reporter in Boston famously asked then-candidate George W. Bush who the president of Chechnya was. When Bush responded, “No, can you?” The reporter then rapid-fired several more heads of state (Bush only knew the President of Taiwan, and couldn’t name the rulers of Pakistan or India). None of those questions had anything to do with how President Bush would actually run his foreign policy, but they created an impression of ignorance that haunts him to this day.

Herman Cain seems like he wants to avoid that trouble by being upfront about his ignorance. Moreover, he is trying to sell that ignorance as a positive trait. Knowing the minutiae of other countries’ politics, even their leaders, really doesn’t say much about the governing philosophy a candidate will apply in office. Sure, it seems ignorant, but if the country in question really doesn’t matter to the big picture of American foreign policy, who really cares?

The problem with Cain’s interview is not that he proudly declared his ignorance of global politics, but that he doesn’t know which politics are important. I give people a lot of leeway for knowing nothing about Central Asia beyond Borat and maybe something about oil they saw in “Syriana” a few years ago. Cain mangled the name, to say nothing of the leader, of Uzbekistan. This is an enormous mistake.

Presidents Bush and Obama have both agreed, on their own, that a stable relationship with Uzbekistan is vital to the war in Afghanistan. President Bush wanted to use the large airbase at Karshi-Khanabad, just south of the capital, Tashkent, to resupply the troops in Afghanistan. President Obama wants to use Uzbekistan as an alternate transit corridor to reduce our dependency on Pakistan. To claim Uzbekistan is immaterial to American policies in the region, as Cain does, badly undersells the real strategic importance of the country.

Uzbekistan must be at the heart of any successful security policy for Central and South Asia, arguably one of the epicenters of U.S. foreign policy for the next decade. If any budget-cutting Republican wants to drawdown in Afghanistan and keep Pakistan at bay, he must come up with an alternative to Pakistan’s supply routes, which Islamabad uses as a trump card when it dislikes an American policy. Building up the transit corridor through Uzbekistan gives the U.S. leverage to cut off and isolate Pakistan as punishment for its constant funding of international terrorism.

And it’s not just security where Uzbekistan matters. General Motors operates a high-volume car factory in the Uzbek town of Asaka. All apologies to Mr. Cain, but I’m pretty sure at least a few American jobs have been created or saved through the development of this plant. Engaging with Uzbekistan’s leaders and encouraging political openness there will also help advance the U.S. goal of linking Afghanistan to lucrative trade routes between Asia and the West. This “new Silk Road,” as the Obama administration has called it, could fundamentally alter the global economic landscape.

There are, of course, downsides to working with Uzbekistan. It has one of the world’s worst human rights records, and its ruling family, the Karimovs, is famous for running the country like their own personal piggy bank. President Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara, is especially famous for her thuggish behavior in Uzbekistan’s fledgling business community, even as she shows up at fashion shows and gallery openings around the world. Uzbekistan’s leaders are not pleasant people.

Still, Herman Cain wasn’t arguing that engaging with Uzbekistan was a bad idea. That’s a perfectly defensible position to take, even if I disagree with it. Cain was arguing that no one should bother with Uzbekistan because it doesn’t matter to Americans, so he’s proud to be ignorant of the place. That’s just wrong. Uzbekistan is crucial to American interests, if for no other reason than it can help us craft an exit strategy in Afghanistan.

Cain is correct to be dismissive of the petty “gotcha” questions reporters will ask him. I wouldn’t blame him for not knowing the current President of Chechnya like Candidate Bush 11 years ago. But if Cain is to argue that some countries aren’t important to America – a sensible thing – he should at least figure out which countries are important. Uzbekistan is surely one of them.