When It Comes To Foreign Policy, Herman Cain Is Dangerously Clueless

Herman Cain's foreign policy consists of little more than deliberate ignorance.

Chris Cillizza points out the extent to which Herman Cain has engaged in a purposeful display of ignorance about foreign policy:

Asked this past Sunday whether Iran’s involvement in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. amounted to an act of war, Cain told “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory: “After I looked at all of the information provided by the intelligence community, the military, then I could make that decision.”

Pressed on the issue, Cain added: “If, if it’s an act of war, and the evidence suggests that, then I am going to consult with my advisers and say, ‘What are our options?'”

The leading 2012 GOP presidential contender also seemed not to know what a “neoconservative” was and offered a halting — though ultimately decent — answer on American policy toward Afghanistan.

Cain’s lack of detailed answers on foreign policy matters have not hurt him in the GOP presidential primary thus far for three reasons: 1) the Republican electorate is almost exclusively focused on the economy; 2) his candor is part and parcel of his “not a politician” appeal; 3) in a crowded Republican field, he’s been able to mask what he doesn’t know easily and effectively.

Cain is shielded from the effects of his ignorance mostly by the fact that we’re living in a world where foreign policy threats are far less existential than they were a quarter century ago. During the Cold War, the idea of a President who wasn’t well-versed in the basics of foreign policy would have seemed unthinkable. Even during times when the economy was the predominant issue in a Presidential election, as it nearly always is, foreign policy issues ranging from relations with the Soviet Union and China to the Vietnam War were always somewhere near the surface, and a candidate who didn’t seem to even be engaged or interested in those issues likely wouldn’t have gotten very far. With the Soviet Union gone and the War On Terror thousands of miles away, foreign policy just isn’t as big a deal as it used to be. Could you have imagined, for example, President Carter saying in 1976 that he won’t comment on nuclear weapons issues until he becomes President and has been briefed by his military advisers? Or Ronald Reagan not having a working knowledge of the issues related to Jews in the Soviet Union? Or George H.W. Bush saying that he didn’t know, or particularly care, who the leader of South Korea was? And yet Herman Cain has said some version of each of those things. He refuses to share any thoughts about Afghanistan, he was unfamiliar with the Palestinian “Right Of Return,” and he made a joke about who might be the leader of Uzbekistan, a nation that just so happens to share a border with Afghanistan. In a sane world, this should be completely unacceptable.

As Cillizza goes on to point out, what a Presidential candidate knows or thinks about these issues matters:

While people may not vote on “foreign policy” per se, a working knowledge of the world stage — and America’s role in it, is, without question, regarded as essential by the public.

That is, people may not care all that much about the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, but they damn well expect that the person they are electing knows enough about it to keep them safe from harm.

(Remember that one of President Obama’s signature lines is that his first job as commander-in-chief is to keep the American public safe.)

“Being commander in chief is the most important role for any president and Herman Cain just isn’t credible in that role,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former foreign policy adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s (R) 2008 presidential campaign. “National security knowledge isn’t enough to win the presidency as McCain showed, but it’s lack can be fatal.”

Daniel Drezner, who recently did a pretty thorough job of eviscerating the few foreign policy statements Cain has made, argues that it is essential for a Presidential candidate to be at least somewhat well-versed in world politics:

Second, Cain’s philosophy of “I won’t say anything until I know all the facts” is bogus because, in foreign policy, the facts are never all in. Very often intelligence is partial, biased, or simply flat-out wrong. It’s those moments, when a president has to be a foreign policy decider for a 51-49 decision, that a combination of background knowledge and genuine interest in the topic might be useful.

Third, without some knowledge about foreign policy, the best intelligence briefings and foreign policy advisors in the world won’t be able to help Herman Cain. An awful lot of international relations knowledge is cumulative; without a decent base there’s no point in trying to be briefed on the arcane stuff. That would be like trying to learn calculus without knowing any algebra. I really don’t expect Herman Cain to know the names of foreign policy leaders — but I do expect him to know which countries matter and why. In his answer to “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” Cain made it pretty clear that he doesn’t understand why Uzbekistan matters for supplying Afghanistan. That’s a problem.

Fourth, there are decisions when the particular president does matter. A President Gore doesn’t invade Iraq. Apparently a President McCain would not have sent special forces into Africa.  In this post-9/11 world, the president has greater authority to assassinate people than I’d like, but there it is  – so which people will be on Cain’s target list?  So I’d like to see the “Cain Doctrine” fleshed out just a wee bit.

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, America’s reputation for competent leadership has taken a colossal beating over the past decade. With Iraq in 2003, Katrina in 2005, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco, America doesn’t look so hot in the eyes of the world. We have a smaller margin to screw up royally than we are used to. I suspect that even Herman Cain would learn about foreign policy after a few years on the job. It’s those few years that scare the crap out of me.

The danger of a President who isn’t at least somewhat well-versed in these topics, of course, is that he or she ends up becoming captive to their advisers, who have their own agendas and, in many cases, their own records for making some pretty bad mistakes over the years. The President is the one who is hired to make the decision, not the advisers, and it would be nice to think that the person sitting behind the Resolute Desk has given enough deep thought to the many issues that they would have to handle as Commander in Chief so that they would be able to recognize when they were being given bad advice and say “No, that’s not what I want, we need other options.” As we learned in 2003, someone who’s willing to do some second- guessing of the so-called experts is a good thing to have in the Oval Office. Herman Cain displays none of that when it comes to foreign policy.

Apparently, the Cain campaign is working on a foreign policy memo of some kind that will be released in the next month or so. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’m not entirely optimistic as to its contents. More importantly, a memo tells us nothing about what kind of thought process a President might use in the midst of a crisis. On some level, you just have to go by what the candidate’s own actions and words indicate about what kind of thinker they are. All the evidence we’ve seen from Herman Cain makes it pretty clear he’s simply not up to the task of being Commander in Chief.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    When it comes to ________ Herman Cain Is Dangerously Clueless.

  2. @Ron Beasley:

    You have a point

  3. Eric Florack says:

    CAIN 43% OBAMA 41%

    … and the nervousness of the establishment RINO crowd is palpable.

  4. Lit3Bolt says:

    I support a Cain nomination if only to watch the exploding heads in the South.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    Foreign policy?! Cain is clueless when it comes to pizza. Have you ever tasted Godfather’s? In the name of Allah, there’s no difference in the pizza and the box it’s delivered in.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ben Wolf: Before Cain Godfathers made a pretty good pizza. Extrapolate at will!

  7. Now that Sarah Palin isn’t running and Michele Bachman has been marginalized all that nervous energy and firing inside the tent just has to go somehere I suppose.

  8. Eric Florack says:

    Nonsense, Doug.
    And I find it interesting that the left would be chiming in on this one… after having jumped with both feet into Clinton-Land not so long ago, despite his often noted lack of gravitas in foreign policy.

  9. Except Cain is taking fire from the right as well, deservedly so since he really doesn’t belong anywhere near the White House

  10. Eric Florack says:

    Oops. Forgot the link for the polling article.
    http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2011/10/12/poll-herman-cain-rick-perry-mitt-romney-all-beat-obama

    Call Rasmussen unreliable if you like, Doug. But the numbers are firming up and showing in a number of polls.

  11. @Eric Florack:

    Someone might beat Obama. That someone will not be named Herman Cain.

  12. MBunge says:

    I wouldn’t defend Cain’s willful indifference to foreign policy, but…

    1. That he doesn’t know what a neoconservative is may be to his credit. Given the neocon track record of the last 15 years, would you rather have a President who was completely ignorant of them or one who more or less pledged alligance to the neocon agenda?

    2. Cain’s response on the Iran “act of war” question was actually the appropriate way to handle such an issue, whether Cain did it by accident or not. On most of the foreign policy “gotcha” questions the right answer is to say “I’ll consult with my advisors about the best course of action” because there’s usually dozens of factors to be considered that are not included in the question. What, was Cain supposed to declare war on Iran right there on Meet The Press?

    Mike

  13. anjin-san says:

    Clinton had a lot of success in areas where he lacked experience because he is extraordinarily bright and talented. I see no evidence that Cain is either.

  14. @MBunge:

    Fair points, but………..

    1. To not know anything about the (unfortunately) most influential school of foreign policy in the GOP is somewhat astounding to me,

    2. Yes, you’re right about that one. I have plenty of doubts about this whole Iran story to begin with, anyone who said “Bomb now” would sound insane to me

  15. MBunge says:

    @Eric Florack: “Call Rasmussen unreliable if you like, Doug. But the numbers are firming up and showing in a number of polls.”

    Any poll that has Obama getting 33 to 36% is not giving you any useful information because there’s no way, absent some sort of Democratic Party dividing third party, that he’ll get anything close to that low a total.

    Mike

  16. @MBunge:

    The more important point is that, at this point, head-to-head matchups are more a reflection of the incumbent President’s current approval rating than they are a predictor of what will happen 13 months from now

  17. Tsar Nicholas says:

    There are a number of ironies inherent in this post.

    – For Cain to be castigated by the Internet left on the topic of foreign policy is quite rich, given that Obama’s closest connection to foreign policy prior to being elected would have been quaffing some high-end Shiraz at a cocktail party on Chicago’s North Shore.

    – That said there’s little doubt Cain dangerously is clueless about foreign policies. At least half of the voting electorate, however, can’t even spell foreign policy, much less grasp its significance with respect to the office of the president. That’s not entirely hyperbole.

    – Next year’s election so obviously is about the domestic economy even liberal zombies in the mass media have clued in.

    – Cain won’t be the GOP nominee, regardless how much attention he receives from the chattering classes. Fred Thompson, anyone?

    – That said if by some cosmic anomaly Cain were to receive the nomination then Obama would win reelection in a crushing landslide, regardless whether Cain is able to articulate a coherent foreign policy. Therein lies the disconnect between various talk radio outlets, blogs, editorial pages, etc., and political reality. Postulate the Lynn Swann vs. Ed Rendell contest but with the added twist of the Rendell character being black and the Swann character not having raised any money. Juxtapose that to the nation at large, but especially to key states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. How in the name of Michael Steele could Cain realistically hope to exceed John McCain’s electoral vote total from ’08, much less actually to win the contest? For the GOP it would be a debacle, not a battle.

  18. Ben Wolf says:

    @Eric Florack:

    And I find it interesting that the left would be chiming in on this one… after having jumped with both feet into Clinton-Land not so long ago

    You might start by explaining what a self-described Eisenhower Republican and “the left” have to do with each other.

  19. Tlaloc says:

    around here godfather’s pizza was pretty good actually, not that I credit Cain with that. It was way way better than say the domino’s death disk.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    You might start by explaining what a self-described Eisenhower Republican and “the left” have to do with each other.

    Don’t you know, Ben? Anyone who is an Eisenhower Republican is part of “the left” in Eric’s little mind…

  21. Davebo says:

    The fact that we’re discussing the quality of a pizza chain and presidential politics is a bit sad.

    That said, Godfather’s has always sucked. It’s like Chuck E Cheese only without the party.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    Great. Now I want a pizza. And I was trying to do a salad.

  23. Pan says:

    My first encounter with Godfather’s Pizza was in Air Force OTS in San Antonio. I grew up in NYC and the first impression with Godfather’s was shockingly bad. But then again, most pizzas fail in the comparison.

  24. superdestroyer says:

    If Cain has any change of ever being president, he thoughts on foreign policy would be relevant. Howe er, since there is no chance of Cain or any Republican winning this year, the only foreign policy thoughts that matter are the Democrats.

    Instead of wasting time posting about irrelevant Republicans, why not analyze how President Obama is doing and what could be done better.

  25. Jay Tea says:

    Doug, you’re getting too predictable. Pick a top-ranking Republican and declare that they are “not serious” or “dangerous” or some other such. I’m going to make one of those foolish predictions and say you’re a Romney guy — he’s the most establishment, mainstream, country-club Republicans. Plus, he has the “advantages” of being suitably flexible on most issues that liberals can live with him, and the Democrats are pretty comfortable that Obama can beat him. Good lord, he’s a white millionaire Wall Street guy, and that even doesn’t touch on the Scary Freaky Mormon.

    I personally find a very simple test helpful: is the candidate’s position better or worse than Obama’s?

    Obama’s policy seems to be “piss off our allies” (England, Mexico, Israel) and “suck up to our enemies” (Iran, North Korea, etc.). In that context, I find Cain at least slightly better.

    J.

  26. @Jay Tea:

    Actually, Jay, my candidate preference starts with Gary Johnson and doesn’t get very far beyond that. I like Jon Huntsman mostly because he seems more serious about foreign policy than most of the other candidates, and because he has a better tax plan than anyone else I’ve seen so far, but I’m not sure I’d vote for him. So, you’re wrong there.

    As for the rest of your “critique” of Obama’s foreign policy. The extent to which it doesn’t resemble reality is remarkable. If anything, Obama has followed Bush in nearly every respect. The deviations I disagree with — the foolish expansion in Afghanistan and unnecessary involvement in Libya — don’t fit into the paradigm you guys on the neocon right have created.

  27. Tlaloc says:

    If anything, Obama has followed Bush in nearly every respect.

    yep.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    Obama’s policy seems to be “piss off our allies” (England, Mexico, Israel) and “suck up to our enemies” (Iran, North Korea, etc.).

    What utter horse$hit…but hardly surprising, considering the source…

  29. anjin-san says:

    … and the nervousness of the establishment RINO crowd is palpable.

    This is coming from the guy who predicted “A Democrat civil war… worse that ’68” before the ’08 Democratic convention.

    How did that work out for you skippy?

  30. Jay Tea says:

    @An Interested Party: I cited examples of nations, jerk. Should I go further and cite examples of policies that demonstrate it?

    J.

  31. David M says:

    @Jay Tea:

    Obama’s policy seems to be “piss off our allies” (England, Mexico, Israel) and “suck up to our enemies” (Iran, North Korea, etc.).

    Really? Not only are we supposed to buy this load of crap, but actually believing Cain would be better on foreign policy? Domestic policy maybe there’s an argument for him over Obama if you like 999 and the other GOP policy ideas disasters, but no way on foreign policy.

  32. Jay Tea says:

    @David M: Let me invert your question, David: are you saying that Cain’s policies would actually make things worse? Do I need to spell out to you just how Obama has alienated England, Israel, and Mexico? Hell, just last week he held a state dinner for the president of South Korea and served a Japanese entree. And no, I don’t think he ordered it as a snub, but he’s ultimately responsible — I’m sure that at least several of his appointees reviewed the menu and not one of them thought “you know, Japan and South Korea are allies, but they have a very touchy history — maybe we shouldn’t do this.”

    Here’s the scary part about Obama’s policy, which I describe as “piss off our friends and suck up to our enemies:” I can actually give it a smidgen of praise because at least it’s consistent — something that has been sorely lacking in other administrations. It’s consistently bad, but it’s at least somewhat predictable.

    J.

  33. Rob in CT says:

    Here’s the scary part about Obama’s policy, which I describe as “piss off our friends and suck up to our enemies:”

    Take your meds. They might help.

  34. Jay Tea says:

    @Rob in CT: Mine ain’t working. Gimme some of yours — I really, really could use them.

    J.

  35. An Interested Party says:

    I cited examples of nations, jerk.

    Haha…that’s like Rush Limbaugh calling someone else fat or Sarah Palin calling someone else inane…

    Mine ain’t working.

    That is quite obvious…

  36. Eric Florack says:

    Any poll that has Obama getting 33 to 36% is not giving you any useful information because there’s no way, absent some sort of Democratic Party dividing third party, that he’ll get anything close to that low a total.

    Wishful thinking…. bordering on delusional.
    Obama’s numbers have been trending down for two years now. Had you missed it?