I’ve taken Herman Cain to task in the past for his appalling ignorance of foreign policy issues. He promised to brush up on these matters, but it appears that one of his greatest strengths — his unflappability and imperviousness to criticism — can also be a great weakness. As his appearance on “Meet the Press” this morning showed, rather than study up to fix an embarrassing shortcoming, the Godfather Pizza executive hasn’t done much to correct his lack of knowledge about war and peace issues which are, after all, a president’s first responsibility.
When pressed for answers today on Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, the best Cain could do was to repeat his mantra that he would consult experts and then figure it out. Which is to say, he knows he hasn’t a clue but hopes no one will care. Durng the program, Cain admitted he had no familiarity with the neoconservative movement. While being a subscriber to COMMENTARY isn’t a requirement for the presidency, that someone running for that office has not even heard the term suggests Cain is not only bereft of foreign policy experience, he apparently has never even read much about it.
As COMMENTARY readers know, neoconservatism has a long and honorable history as the movement that helped mobilize the country to oppose détente and the Soviet Union as well as having played a key role in critiquing the failures of the welfare state. During the Bush administration, leftists used the word as an epithet seeking to demonize those who believed not only in the need to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in the whole idea of promoting democracy abroad. After all that, it truly says something about a public figure who would admit to never having heard the word or knowing what it means.
Of course, neoconservatism isn’t the only term Cain hasn’t heard of. He was similarly stumped when asked about the Palestinian right of return. He also has said Iran’s imminent drive for nuclear weapons could be stopped by American energy independence that could take decades to achieve.
The point about Cain’s ignorance is not just that it’s noteworthy, not to mention faintly ridiculous, to have a person running for president for whom the debates and the ideas behind the great struggles of our time are a mystery. It is that it is impossible to trust such a person to do the right thing if elected. Cain’s mind is clearly a blank slate when it comes to having the knowledge to make the life and death decisions one faces as president. We would have to trust providence that the experts he listened to would correct his ignorance.
As we have seen on the campaign trail, Cain’s self-confidence is impregnable. That’s a good quality if it reinforces one’s adherence to principle. But when it allows a person to treat a major hole in one’s knowledge base as an unimportant detail, it is a terrible, disqualifying fault.