Herman Cain has shot into the lead of the Republican primary race despite articulating no notable foreign policy vision. As a pizza chain executive and motivational speaker, Cain has no experience on foreign policy, although he did tell Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he has “been studying [foreign policy] for months.”
When Cain has said anything noteworthy on foreign policy, it has been to expose his unapologetic ignorance by dismissing the need to know the name of the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” or worrying that China—which has had nuclear weapons since 1964—is “trying to develop nuclear capability.” When Cain ventures an opinion, he is prone to making a gaffe and swiftly issuing a retraction, such as when he said he would consider trading all the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay for a captured American.
How can we figure out what a Cain presidency might entail in the foreign policy and national security arena? The Cain campaign’s communications director, J.D. Gordon, served as Western Hemisphere spokesman for the Defense Department from 2005 to 2009. He doubles as Cain’s sole foreign policy adviser. Since 2009 he has been a part time commentator on conservative op-ed pages and Fox News, and he told The New Republic, “I’ve had about fifty columns published over the last year and a half, and so those are a lot of the things that I tell Mr. Cain.”
On that basis it would appear that Cain is getting the same national security advice he would from Dick Cheney. Gordon’s views are reflexively right-wing.
Despite the Obama administration’s notable successes in taking out leading terrorists, Gordon maintained in a Fox News piece that “in contrast to the Bush administration’s record on protecting the public, we are less safe under the Obama administration.” He offers five reasons, two of which are perhaps legitimate concerns but not actually shifts in policy under Obama (the increasing threat of homegrown terrorists and anti-American sentiment that still exists outside the United States). The remaining three are classic Republican bugaboos of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations: “Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament,” “Inability to meaningfully confront Iran,” and “A Change In Policy On Terror Suspects Switching to Prosecution as a Law Enforcement Issue vs. a Military Issue.”
As you might expect, Gordon leaves out the frightening implications of his complaints. Why does he think we need more or better nuclear weapons than everyone else? So that we can win a devastating mutual nuclear exchange? How exactly can one prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons without invading it? Or is it an invasion that he wants? Legally, how would we treat, say, a US citizen caught attempting a terrorist attack on US soil as a military rather than law enforcement issue, and how would that pass constitutional review? Gordon doesn’t say.
One of Gordon’s primary policy commitments is to defending the legal netherworld of Guantánamo and the inhumane practices there. In the Washington Times, Gordon attacked critics of the illegal detention facility and cheerfully predicted, “Perhaps the administration may be coming to the realization that as long as al Qaeda continues its war against the United States, Guantanamo just might be here to stay.”
As for what goes in Guantánamo, Gordon is an unreconstructed advocate of torture. After Osama bin Laden was killed, Gordon acknowledged on Fox News that the information Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave that helped lead to bin Laden’s detection was four years after he had been waterboarded, but nonetheless Gordon claimed the event proves the efficacy of waterboarding. “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded in 2003, and the information came four years later,” said Gordon. “Waterboarding wasn’t about getting information at that time, it was about breaking his resistance. So that’s what a lot of people miss in the whole waterboarding debate. It was trying to make a detainee think he should cooperate rather than continue with this treatment. So even though waterboarding didn’t directly result in the information from KSM, it did help to break his spirit back in 2003 and that was probably a critical piece to this.” Given the four year lapse between his spirit supposedly being broken and the critical breakthorough, any rational person would infer precisely the opposite: that waterboarding probably had nothing to do with it. But some people just love to torture. Gordon goes on to cite and praise Marc Thiessen, another Bush administration veteran who has become the country’s leading apologist for torture.
Gordon’s other proclamations include the same generic Republican hack series of assertions: the “Ground Zero Mosque” is bad and President Obama is wrong for “focusing his energies on supporting the mosque,” “Libya and Syria show Obama to be “in over his head,” and so on. The ironies and falsehoods abound. Obama spoke on the mosque only in response to questions and only to point out the religious freedom they had to build on the site. To say that Obama focused his energies on supporting it is ridiculous. If, as Gordon says, “Mr. Obama arguably still doesn’t have the experience of a seasoned chief executive to deal with thorny issues like the Arab Spring,” then how does Herman “Ubeki-beki” Cain?
If these open questions or contradictions can be answered in an intellectually consistent manner, that doesn’t matter to Gordon. His views are not realist or idealist or subject to any such overarching approach or ideology. Asking what world view will guide a Cain White House’s foreign policy is like asking what economic theories guide John Boehner as House Speaker. The answer isn’t intellectual, it’s partisan. Gordon’s views could broadly be called conservative and hawkish but they are more accurately described as Republican. If Obama does something, even kill a terrorist, it is ipso facto the wrong choice. (Gordon thinks instead that we should capture and interrogate them in the hopes that four years after they are tortured their spirit will be broken and they’ll give up useful information.) There are some things one can safely assume Gordon is telling Cain—for example, that torture of terrorist suspects is justified and effective. But since the entirety of Gordon’s policy assessment technique seems to be defending anything Bush did and attacking anything Obama does, it is impossible to guess how he or Cain would respond to future threats as they emerge. Looking at some of the belligerent extremists who have run for president as Republicans in recent times, such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, that uncertainty might seem comforting by comparison. But the idiom “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” exists for a reason.