Herman Cain may not want to talk about the world, but the world sure is talking about him.
At the end of the GOP primary debate in Las Vegas last night, Herman Cain tweeted that his foreign policy philosophy — which he somewhat grandiosely calls the “Cain doctrine” — is simple: “Peace through strength and clarity.” But the candidate, who’s been surging in the polls of late, did little to clarify his fuzzy foreign-policy views in Nevada, grabbing headlines instead for dithering on a question posed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper as to whether he would swap Guantánamo Bay prisoners for a U.S. soldier held by a terrorist group like al Qaeda.
Cain might not be talking much about world affairs, but the world’s certainly talking about him. News outlets across the globe are reacting differently to Cain’s surprise success in the polls, but there are some common threads across regions: skepticism about Cain’s credentials and staying power, a fixation on his skin color and improbable life story, and a conviction that Cain largely owes his recent popularity — however fleeting it may be — to his outsider status. Oh, and some outlets appear to be asking a simple question: What the heck are Americans thinking?
Many news outlets in Europe are telling the story of how Cain went from a poor childhood in Atlanta to running Godfather’s Pizza — and homing in on Cain’s race. “Could it be that 12 months from now, as the 2012 election campaign moves to a climax, no white man will have a chance of winning the presidency of the United States?” the London-based Independent marvels. Austria’s Die Press runs with the headline, “Obama’s Black Challenger,” while Germany’s Rheinische Post describes Cain as a “kind of Donald Trump with darker skin.” Meanwhile, France’s Atlantico bizarrely notes that Cain is a “real African-American” (unlike Obama), and Spain’s ABC questions whether the Republican base could actually elect a black candidate.
The general consensus in the European press is that Cain is a flavor of the month. The Guardian notes that while Cain’s outsider status (he’s never held political office), his rise from humble beginnings, and his “blunt talk and excellent comic timing” are appealing, he may very well crash and burn like other “rightwing darlings” Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry before him (apparently the paper has already written off Bachmann and Perry as contenders). Cain’s success, Spain’s El País argues, is proof that Republican voters aren’t happy with any of their candidates. As for the view from Moscow, the state-run Voice of Russia bluntly states that the “days of Herman Cain as an election leader are numbered and soon he will have to step out of the spotlight to give way to a more skilled candidate.” One wonders if they’re thinking of Putin as an option?
Some coverage is even harsher. In an article entitled, “Der Pizza-Präsident,” Germany’s Der Spiegel pokes fun at Cain’s new book — This Is Herman Cain! — calling the entire work one big “exclamation point.” In France, Libération‘s Great America blog ridicules Cain’s endorsement of an electrified fence and an alligator-filled moat to keep immigrants out of the United States. With each successive “blunder,” the blog argues, Cain is proving that he’s not a “serious candidate for the presidency.” Russia’s RT takes Cain to task for managing to “single-handedly create a new nation on planet Earth” in Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, noting that “the pizzaman is perhaps more equipped to talk pepperoni than policy” (the tightly controlled Uzbek media, interestingly enough, is silent on Cain). It appears the Italian press has yet to comment on the quality of Godfather’s pizza, but it has latched onto the pizza theme. La Repubblica frames the Republican race right now as the “pizza man vs. the Mormon” (Romney, not Huntsman) while Il Journal points out that Cain is following in the footsteps of several other pizza magnates who have supported the GOP.
The most cutting piece comes from the German-language website Nachrichten in St. Gallen, Switzerland. In a column titled, “Nein-Nein-Nein,” Patrik Etschmayer argues that Cain’s success speaks to the increasing absurdity of the U.S. presidential election. Cain, he claims, has simply substituted Godfather’s Pizza’s “A Pizza You Can’t Refuse” slogan with his “9-9-9” tax plan. The Republican candidate “knows how to peddle a product that is neither particularly good nor unique,” Etschmayer declares.
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The Mexican press has zeroed in on Cain’s comments on border security. Major outlets like El Universal, La Jornada, and Milenio have all covered his position on constructing an electrified fence with circling crocodiles, and an op-ed in La Crónica de Hoy — titled “Herman Cain: The Man Who Wants to Kill Undocumented Workers” — is particularly scathing:
Whatever the purpose of his words, Herman Cain has demonstrated total ignorance about the immigration problem and great insensitivity. Above all else, analysts say, he has raised the question of whether this amateur politician is actually a sane person.
El Universal observes today that last night’s debate “turned into a contest to see who could present themselves as the toughest on illegal immigration,” noting that Cain recommended empowering states to enforce immigration laws. Uniradio Informa, which is located at the border between Tijuana and San Diego, adds that immigration and the economy are the two most important issues to Latino voters in the United States at a time when the Republicans have “generally ignored the immigration reform debate and focused instead on border control.”
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Cain has expressed strong support for Israel throughout his campaign, but during the debate last night he raised eyebrows by backing away from an earlier remark that he would consider transferring prisoners for a U.S. hostage like Israel did with Gilad Shalit. The Israeli press is just picking up on the story now and has yet to take offense to Cain’s comments. Haaretz simply observes that the “Shalit deal made a surprise entrance into the affairs,” pointing out that Cain later emphasized that he would not cut foreign aid to Israel. Globes adds that while Cain and some of his fellow candidates voiced opposition in principle to negotiating with terrorists, they didn’t go so far as to criticize the Israeli government for the Shalit deal.
While Cain has raised the possibility of taking military action against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Iranian press has barely mentioned the candidate. When it has, news outlets have tended to focus on Cain’s opposition to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests — a cause the state-run media has covered extensively (meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has proclaimed that the protests will eventually “bring down the capitalist system and the West”). Press TV writes that Cain “verbally attacked and ridiculed” the OWS demonstrators by calling the movement “anti-America.”
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Asharq Al-Awsat, which is based in London but widely distributed in the Arab world, highlights Cain’s controversial statement that he wouldn’t appoint Muslims to his cabinet (a comment that Cain later amended) and has concerns about Sharia law. The paper also points out that Cain has given vague answers on the war in Afghanistan and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Asharq Al-Awsat implies that while Cain may know a lot about managing a pizza chain, he knows far less about conducting foreign policy in a region where pitas, not pizzas, predominate.
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Cain has called for the United States to “outgrow” China and said that “appeasement is not a strategy” when it comes to dealing with the Chinese. But China, like Iran, isn’t really taking the bait just yet. There’s been little talk about Cain beyond straightforward news reports, though outlets are focusing on his status as a “dark horse” candidate. The People’s Daily speculates that Cain may be a Republican version of Obama (why this would be so, besides his skin color, we have no idea) while an article on the Sina web portal notes that Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, along with his “humor and optimism,” have catapulted the candidate to fame. The article adds, however, that it will be difficult for Cain to maintain his current momentum. Xinhua notes today that Cain’s frontrunner status already subjected to him to greater scrutiny during last night’s debate.
Perhaps China’s staying mum because it largely views the U.S. presidential elections as America’s moment to forget about fundamental economic problems and beat up on China. During election years, Xinhua noted defensively earlier this month, U.S. politicians “resort to China bashing for political gains and try to find a political scapegoat so as to shed their responsibilities for failure in dealing properly with domestic problems, and divert people’s attention from the sagging economies.”
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Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF
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