Foreign policy, as Barack Obama has been showing for almost three years and some Republican presidential candidates are showing every day, is not something one picks up without real effort.
During last night’s GOP primary debate, Herman Cain responded to a question about how the United States should deal with Syria by saying, “I would work with our allies in the region to put pressure to be able to try and get our allies and other nations to stop buying oil from Syria.”
In fact, Syria is only a minor exporter of oil. There are some very important decisions to make about Syria, but pressuring allies to stop buying Syrian oil isn’t one of them. And what does he mean “allies in the region”? The United States doesn’t have too many and none of them are buying oil from Syria!
Whatever virtues Mr. Cain has, knowing about foreign policy isn’t one of them.
But why not? He’s been running for president for many months. He has a staff that should be bringing in serious people — not just Bush administration veterans who didn’t do a brilliant job for the previous president — to brief him. He should be going through an intensive course on both the methods and issues involved in contemporary foreign and strategic policy, especially since he must know that foreign policy is his biggest vulnerability.
His failure to prepare, then, is reckless. It probably says more about his candidacy than the allegations that he sexually harassed women. If he is too lazy to pursue important knowledge that he needs to know to run an effective campaign and to avoid looking foolish, what does that say about his ability to be president? Is it really so difficult for him to get up to speed on the Middle East, a topic that everyone knows is going to come up repeatedly? Cain should be able to pick up the key points about the Middle East in a few hours of good briefing and serious conversation.
Cain’s weak debate performance comes just a week after he was unable to answer a simple question about where he stood on Obama’s Libya’s policy. It was obvious from his answer that he had no understanding whatsoever about this issue.
It’s no wonder that Cain is such a mess on foreign policy. If you read this article on his “foreign policy” team, you won’t be able to find a single person who really knows anything about most foreign policy issues. There’s not a single expert of note despite some of them having job titles from the Bush years.
I suspect that Republicans, like many Democrats, think that simply being on the “right side” is enough. It isn’t. And when you don’t have a protective media minimizing or outright covering up your mistakes, such ignorance can be politically fatal, especially when you are running against a man who enjoys that advantage.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal at Gloria-Center.org. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January.