Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. - Photo by AP

WASHINGTON: Instability in Pakistan and the threat of a nuclear Iran were more pressing issues than the war in Afghanistan, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told a Sunday morning presidential debate.

Another leading candidate, Rick Santorum, however, defended Pakistan, noting that “they are not a theocracy” like Iran.

As the US entered the election year, foreign policy issues are becoming more relevant than previously predicted. Even the Republicans, who initially planned to pin down President Barack Obama on domestic issues, are now turning to external affairs.

This is partly because the US economy is showing signs of improvement, frustrating the Republican plan to win the election by underlining the administration’s economic failures.

The US Labour Department reported on Friday that the jobless rate dropped to a near three-year low of 8.5 per cent, the strongest evidence yet the economic recovery was gaining steam.

As it got some relief on the domestic front, the Obama administration also started to talk about its foreign policy achievements.

On Sunday, President Obama’s top campaign strategist David Axelrod depicted the May 2 killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a US military raid in Abbottabad as the administration’s most significant achievement.

He also said that he doubted top Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would have had the courage to order the raid. “I’m not sure Mitt Romney would have made that decision,” he said on ABC’s “This Week”.

“It was a very courageous decision.

“I know Gov. Romney said, ‘Oh, well, anyone would’ve given the order on Osama bin Laden.’ [Then-Defence Secretary] Bob Gates said it was the most courageous decision he’s seen a president make in his 30 years in Washington,” Mr Axelrod said.

While attacking the administration’s plan to use the Abbottabad raid to win over votes, Mr Romney projected his own foreign policy agenda, which focused on Pakistan.

He vowed to find ways to ‘influence’ Pakistan to advance US interests.

“I don’t want to suggest that a country is like a child, but in the way that when you deal with another person we think of all these dimensions on which we try to influence them, we have to influence Pakistan,” he said.

The former Massachusetts governor said he would “find, how we can get those (Pakistani) institutions that are with us and will work towards modernity and peace and prosperity” to counter those that will not.

“In a place like Pakistan, you have the elected government, but then you also have the military — and the military in some respects has more power than the elected government,” said Mr Romney.

Speaking in a question-and-answer session in New Hampshire, which holds its nominating primary on Tuesday, Mr Romney said the ISI, as well as “radicals and extremists” and local chiefs, were “all pulling (the country) in different directions”.He opposed the suggestion to sever ties with Pakistan. “It would be nice if in dealing with another nation it was as simple as turning on and off a faucet — a very simple, rudimentary experience,” he said.

“But instead it’s more like dealing with an adolescent — I don’t mean to compare any nation to an adolescent, but just the fact that there’s no easy answer for how you bring a child to adolescence.”

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