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Daniel W. Drezner

Does the American President need to know anything about world politics?

So I see I’m not the only one perturbed by Herman Cain’s decision not to take foreign policy seriously. Politico‘s Ben Smith concurs, but closes out his blog post on Herman Cain’s foreign policy gaps with a provocative point: There’s… something almost quaint, ’50s-ish about his invocation of "experts," as though there were a professional ...

So I see I’m not the only one perturbed by Herman Cain’s decision not to take foreign policy seriously.

Politico‘s Ben Smith concurs, but closes out his blog post on Herman Cain’s foreign policy gaps with a provocative point:

There’s… something almost quaint, ’50s-ish about his invocation of "experts," as though there were a professional expert class that wasn’t deeply divided by party and ideology. Even in foreign policy, last redoubt of the wise men, that isn’t really true any more.

Except, perhaps Cain isn’t really wrong. For all the Washington bomb-throwing, President Obama’s foreign policy has been characterized by continuity with President Bush’s, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Africa, not with any sharp break. The foreign policy elites don’t get along, but with the occasional dramatic exception — the Iraq invasion was that — they generally wind up giving similar advice. President Cain will probably be O.K.

This is fascinating question — does it really matter if Cain continues to dodge any and all foreign policy questions? I’ve noted that specific foreign policy pledges don’t matter all that much — what about generic foreign policy knowledge?

I think it does matter, for a few reasons. First, the continuity between Bush and Obama overlooks the fact that Bush’s foreign policy circa 2008 looked very different from his 2002 foreign policy. It was Bush’s post-2001 first-term deviation that truly stands out. Eventually, these deviations from the norm return because they are unsustainable. During the interim, however, an awful lot of blood and treasure can be wasted. I’d like a chance to know Cain’s general thinking on foreign policy topics if he seriously wants the commander-in-chief job. If he also deviates from the general contours of American foreign policy, it’s the rest of America that will suffer.

Second, Cain’s philosophy of "I won’t say anything until I know all the facts" is bogus because, in foreign policy, the facts are never all in. Very often intelligence is partial, biased, or simply flat-out wrong. It’s those moments, when a president has to be a foreign policy decider for a 51-49 decision, that a combination of background knowledge and genuine interest in the topic might be useful.

Side note: if Cain really believes that he can’t talk about foreign policy without getting all the information, then why does he feel at liberty to declare the Obama administration’s foreign policy to be "dumb"? Either he keeps his mouth shut about the topic or he starts articulating some positions — he can’t criticize Obama without saying what he’d do instead.

Third, without some knowledge about foreign policy, the best intelligence briefings and foreign policy advisors in the world won’t be able to help Herman Cain. An awful lot of international relations knowledge is cumulative; without a decent base there’s no point in trying to be briefed on the arcane stuff. That would be like trying to learn calculus without knowing any algebra. I really don’t expect Herman Cain to know the names of foreign policy leaders — but I do expect him to know which countries matter and why. In his answer to "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan," Cain made it pretty clear that he doesn’t understand why Uzbekistan matters for supplying Afghanistan. That’s a problem.

Fourth, there are decisions when the particular president does matter. A President Gore doesn’t invade Iraq. Apparently a President McCain would not have sent special forces into Africa.  In this post-9/11 world, the president has greater authority to assassinate people than I’d like, but there it is  — so which people will be on Cain’s target list?  So I’d like to see the "Cain Doctrine" fleshed out just a wee bit.

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, America’s reputation for competent leadership has taken a colossal beating over the past decade. With Iraq in 2003, Katrina in 2005, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco, America doesn’t look so hot in the eyes of the world. We have a smaller margin to screw up royally than we are used to. I suspect that even Herman Cain would learn about foreign policy after a few years on the job. It’s those few years that scare the crap out of me.

The Cain campaign has said that they plan to "roll out a detailed foreign policy plan sometime within the next month," so they obviously recognize that there’s a problem with their current lack of positions. I look forward to perusing their plans.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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