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The Daily Need

In review: Herman Cain’s seven biggest foreign policy blunders

Herman Cain speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on October 31, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

After soaring to the top of the Republican presidential field several weeks ago, Herman Cain has hit a few speed bumps. First, it turned out that his signature “9-9-9” economic plan might actually impose a major tax hike on working Americans. Then, of course, his campaign was rocked by allegations that he sexually harassed employees at the National Restaurant Association when he was CEO in the 1990s. And this week, as he was trying to dig himself out from under the heap of bad news, Cain badly fumbled a question on China.

The China miscue points up a persistent problem for Cain: He doesn’t seem to know much about foreign policy. His stumbles on the economy and his personal life are bad, for sure, and the sexual harassment claims could very well end his campaign. But arguably Cain’s most notable gaffes on the stump have come not in the realm of social or economic policy, but in foreign affairs. If he wants to weather the current storm and remain the Republican front-runner, Cain must convince skeptical primary voters and party leaders that he can govern competently as president. His many foreign policy slip-ups aren’t helping.

At least for now, Cain remains at the top of the Republican field, according to polls. In fact, his lead in crucial South Carolina has even grown in recent days. So, to get a sense of his foreign policy credentials (or lack thereof), we’ve rounded up a few of his biggest and most baffling foreign policy blunders:

1. Cain worries that China is developing nuclear weapons – 40 years after China’s first nuclear test

Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour asked Cain in an interview this week if he considered China a military threat. “They’ve indicated that they’re trying to develop nuclear capability, and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have,” Cain said. “So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.” Cain was apparently unaware that China is actually one of the world’s oldest nuclear powers, having tested their first nuclear weapon nearly half a century ago. According to the State Department’s background note on China, “After its first nuclear test in October 1964, Beijing deployed a modest but potent ballistic missile force, including land- and sea-based intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Cain later tried to clarify, telling the Daily Caller, “What I meant was China does not have the size of nuclear capability that we have.” If anything, though, that would seem to undercut Cain’s claim that China is a military threat to the U.S.

2. Cain says he would negotiate with terrorists (then immediately takes it back)

After the Israeli government reached a deal with Hamas to trade thousands of Palestinian prisoners for a captive Israeli soldier, Cain was asked if he would support a similar arrangement swapping prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for an American soldier kidnapped by Al Qaeda. “I could see myself authorizing that kind of a transfer,” Cain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Then, just a few hours later, in a Republican presidential debate, Cain was asked the same question, to which he replied, “I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists.” When asked to explain his comment to Blitzer, Cain was baffled. “I don’t recall him saying it was Al Qaeda-related,” Cain said. Well, he did. Asked after the debate how he would reconcile the two statements, Cain said simply, “I misspoke,” and retracted his earlier comments.

3. Cain says a missile defense system would have stopped Iranian assassination plot

After the FBI revealed a plot by Iranian agents to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Cain was asked how he would have handled the situation. “I would have done something earlier such that it probably would have encouraged them not to do something like this and that is one of great capabilities we have is our ballistic missile defense systems that could be upgraded, and we could place these Aegis ballistic missile defense systems in international water in that part of the world,” Cain told Fox News. But the Aegis is a defensive weapon designed to intercept incoming missiles aimed at the U.S., not stop potential terrorist attacks on the ground. The Iranian plot didn’t involve ballistic missiles — in fact, Iran doesn’t even have a ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. When pressed by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox News this week, Cain admitted, “It wasn’t intended to mean that it’s going to deter a terrorist campaign, not in the least.”

4. Cain questions the existence of the Palestinian people

In an odd strategic move, Cain gave an interview to one of Israel’s largest daily newspapers, Israel Hayom, which is owned by an American backer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Cain was asked about the Palestinians’ bid for statehood at the United Nations, to which he responded, “I think that the so-called Palestinian people have this urge for unilateral recognition because they see this president as weak.” The use of the phrase “so-called” is odd since nearly everyone — including Cain himself — at least recognizes the existence of the Palestinian people, even if they disagree on the eventual borders of the Palestinian state. Even Cain has acknowledged that a two-state solution is necessary to resolve the conflict, telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in August, “It’s possible if they want to have a peaceful co-existence.”

5. Cain doesn’t know what the Palestinian “right of return” is

Cain went on Fox News in May to criticize President Obama’s Middle East policy. But when the host, Chris Wallace, asked Cain how he felt about the controversial “right of return” issue — the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their former territory in Israel — a look of confusion flashed over his face. “Right of return? Right of return?” Cain asked, and said simply, “That’s something that should be negotiated.” After Wallace spelled it out for him, Cain actually ended up taking a position much more favorable to the Palestinians than the U.S. has traditionally supported. “They should have a right to come back if that is a decision that Israel wants to make,” Cain said. “I don’t think they have a big problem with people returning.” Except, they do. Discussing the right of return in a visit to the White House earlier this year, Netanyahu said bluntly, “It’s not going to happen.”

6. Cain doesn’t know that the government targeted a U.S. citizen for assassination (then flip flops on whether it’s okay)

The Obama administration has come under intense criticism from civil liberties advocates for targeting the radical Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American citizen born in New Mexico, for killing. When The Atlantic asked Cain how he felt about the policy, Cain seemed baffled.  “This is the first that I have heard — you’re saying it’s okay to take out American citizens if he suspects they are terrorist related. Is that what you said?!” Cain asked. “I’ve got to be honest with you. I have not heard that.” Cain ended up taking a position at odds with most of his Republican rivals. “I don’t believe that the president of the United States should order the assassination of citizens of the United States,” Cain said. “That’s why we have our court system, and that’s why we have our laws.” Cain later reversed himself after Awlaki was killed in a U.S. missile strike, telling the crowd at a tea party convention that he “fully supported” the decision to target Awlaki, according to the conservative website Hot Air.

7. Cain doesn’t care who the president of Uzbekistan is

Cain seemed to relish his foreign policy inexperience in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in October, saying of the media: “When they ask me who’s the president of Ubeki-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?'” It turns out, however, that Uzbekistan is no incidental third-world country. As Need to Know’s Joshua Foust explained, Uzbekistan will play a crucial role in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan going forward, especially as the U.S. seeks to withdraw its troops from the country. The Obama administration, for one, hopes to use Uzbekistan as an alternate transit corridor in order to decrease U.S. dependence on Pakistan, which uses its supply route as leverage whenever it wants to protest an American policy.

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