By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rick Perry's comment that Turkey is ruled by "Islamic terrorists" is the latest gaffe by a Republican White House hopeful on foreign policy, which has been a minefield for the candidates vying to oppose President Barack Obama's re-election this year.
Whether it was former contender Herman Cain's making fun of "Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan, Newt Gingrich saying Palestinians are an "invented people," or apocalyptic rhetoric on Iran, the candidates have made a series of inflammatory statements that have drawn fire from allies and major trading partners.
"The general reaction among foreign policy analysts is that this election is about domestic issues, and it shows," said Daniel Serwer, a former senior U.S. diplomat now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Foreign policy has been in the background of the campaign so far, as candidates debate how to reduce U.S. unemployment and cut the budget deficit.
Lagging badly in opinion polls, Perry has bungled several times during forays into global affairs. Late last year, he described the Iraq war as the Iran war and offended Turkey on Monday night at a debate in South Carolina.
The Texas governor suggested that Turkey, which has often been held up by Western nations as a model Muslim democracy, was as good as a terrorist state whose NATO membership should be reviewed.
"Obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists, when you start seeing that sort of activity against their own citizens, then yes - not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong in NATO, but it's time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it," Perry said.
Perry's comments lit up the media in Turkey and upset the government but are unlikely to hurt diplomatic ties.
"We're certainly not at the point where either the Turkish government or the U.S. government would be well advised to think about abandoning the relationship," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
There have been tensions in the U.S. relationship with Turkey. But Ankara is an important military ally and a rising power in the Middle East that plays an important role in negotiations throughout the region, from unrest in Syria to tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
A Perry spokesman said the candidate's comment was specifically on issues such as violence against civilian women in the country.
"Turkey can be a valuable ally, but the actions of the current government undermine that country's role in an organization like NATO," Ray Sullivan, the Perry campaign's communications director, said in an emailed statement.
Experts said foreign leaders, particularly allies, differentiated between official government policy and campaign rhetoric, especially from contenders appealing to hard-core supporters as they seek the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in November's election.
But provocative comments can raise concerns about the future political climate.
"Some of this display of ignorance is plainly so ridiculous that it causes ripples but no permanent damage," Serwer said.
Despite its anger, Turkey noted Perry's low standing in opinion polls among Republicans.
"This reflects the commonsense of the U.S. electorate. The U.S. has no time to lose with such candidates who do not even know America's allies," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said in a statement.
FOCUS ON CHINA TRADE
Sharp rhetoric among Republicans on China's trade and currency policies has raised concerns about exacerbating delicate relations between the United States and its largest debtholder.
In a departure from the party's typical devotion to free trade, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney in particular has made tough talk on Beijing a centerpiece of his economic agenda. If he defeats Obama in November, Romney has promised to slap duties on Chinese imports as soon as he takes office.
"Responsible U.S. political figures should recognize that cooperation between China and the U.S. serves U.S. interests and they need to have the vision, the will and the capability to safeguard and promote equality-based and mutually beneficial China-US relations," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week.
Election rhetoric or not, tough talk on Iran could have real-life consequences, Serwer said.
Contenders have threatened military action to stop Tehran's nuclear program and criticized Obama for doing too little.
Critics have said the tough rhetoric could limit the effect of diplomatic solutions, such as sanctions, and risk oil shocks at a time when international economies are weak.
"The belligerence toward Iran, however, risks boxing the United States into war before it has exhausted diplomatic means, including ratcheting up the sanctions," Serwer said.
(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen in Ankara, Paul Eckert in Washington and Karen Brooks in Texas; Editing by Peter Cooney)