Herman Cain's Foreign Policy Problem


As he has improbably risen in the Republican polls, Herman Cain has been the subject of extensive media scrutiny. The main tenet of his economic policy, the “9-9-9 plan,” is fairly controversial, and now there are questions about a possible history of sexual harassment in his time in the private sector.

However, foreign policy is the issue that should disqualify Cain’s candidacy for president. It’s one thing not to have a complete grasp of the issues, as you would expect for someone who has never run for a federal office before; it’s quite another thing not to care about them. In numerous media interviews, Cain has shown a complete lack of regard for the foreign policy issues that would define his presidency.

The president is the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest and most powerful armed forces, one responsible for 42.8% of the world’s military expenditures, more than the next eight biggest spenders combined.

And if history is any guide, the next president will take this country to war while he is in office. It is time Cain takes those responsibilities seriously.

Under the last two presidents, the power of the executive branch in foreign policy affairs has rapidly expanded. George W. Bush’s legal team invoked the “unitary executive theory” to justify his use of extensive wire-tapping, long-term indefinite detention without trial, as well as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Obama, meanwhile, has taken this policy even further by ordering the killing of American citizen Anwar al-Alwaki on classified evidence that he has since refused to share with the public or judicial authority.

Yet, when Cain was asked about whether he was prepared for foreign policy questions, his flippant response was almost beyond belief: “I’m ready for the gotcha questions, and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know? And then I’m going to say how’s that going to create one job?”

Every speech or interview the president gives is analyzed for meaning around the world. Look at the furor unleashed when Obama discussed his preference for Israel to return to “pre-1967 borders,” and he wasn’t even signaling a change in American policy, just a slight deviation in how it was phrased.

Yet recently, when asked about the Palestinian right of return in an interview, Cain later admitted that he had no real understanding of the issue, but not before stumbling through a nationally televised answer that completely contradicted most Republican thinking on the issue.

While the economy will undoubtedly drive the 2012 election, the president’s power to control economic policy pales in comparison to his nearly unlimited power to set foreign policy. In contrast to his inability to get his nominees confirmed to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors in an up-and-down vote, Obama has had a free reign to decide the course of the war in Afghanistan.

One of the key variables in his decision to withdraw American troops from the region by 2014 was the fate of the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, which supplies most of the American forces in Central Asia.

The newly elected president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev has vowed to close it by 2014. Atambayev came to power amidst a series of sectarian conflicts between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks, or as Cain might call them, "the Ubeks.”

There’s certainly an argument to make that the power struggles between rival ethnic groups in Central Asia shouldn’t be of any concern to the president, but that’s quite different from dismissing the relevance of the situation entirely, as Cain did in his interview.

The Manas Air Base is located near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. That takes only a few minutes of Googling to figure out. If Cain wants to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, it’s the least he could do.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore