The One After 9-9-9: Herman Cain and Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan

November 25th, 2011

A friend once confessed an anecdote to me while we were discussing the subject of job interviews. A potential employer asked him a moderately tricky question that, according to him, he answered so dreadfully that he got up, shook the interviewer’s hand and said ‘sorry, I know I won’t get the job now’ and walked out of the room. Arrogance and ignorance were swiftly followed by humility.

Whatever my friend said, however, cannot possibly have been as utterly atrocious and mortifying (in the strictest sense of the word) as Herman Cain’s effort to respond to a basic, yet moderately tricky, question about President Obama’s handling of the Libya situation this year. Cain should have just said ‘sorry for wasting your time’ and walked away from pursuing the job as most powerful person in the world.

Jon Stewart described the skin-crawlingly bad answer as “it’s like he’s trying to download the answer but it’s just the little ball is spinning and he’s just buffering.” The Cain camp blamed his slow reply on his busy schedule and lack of sleep, and assured us that the potentially most powerful man in the world is well up to date on international affairs.

Let us grant Cain and his team that and give him the benefit of doubt. His unease under pressure? His lack of basic knowledge on the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi? The way his only aim throughout the humming and hawing is to position himself on the opposite side of the President? Take all that, and put it down to having a bad day and a poor night’s rest, for Cain had already proven that it is not a lack of knowledge that makes him unworthy of Presidential status, but rather an open celebration of said lack of knowledge.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network a few weeks prior to the Libya question, CBN host David Brody asked:

“Are you ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions that are coming from the media and others on foreign policy? Like, who’s the president of Ubekistan (sic)?

Cain replied:

“I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?

Cain followed this by saying his priority – his only priority – is to create jobs. What he effectively seems to be saying is ‘I don’t want to talk about foreign policy; I want to talk about jobs.’ Well, perhaps it ought to be pointed out to Cain that he doesn’t really get to decide when someone asks him questions on foreign policy.

The addition of multiple extra syllables into the country’s name seems to show that Cain is annoyed by its very existence and reveals a flippant attitude towards the world. This might play well among a minority within the American electorate who give the impression that they admire lethargy in international relations, but is in reality incredibly condescending towards a very large number of Americans who do want a well-rounded, knowledgeable and creative president, willing to learn more about the world both at home and abroad.

What is important in this interview is that Cain is quite proud of his lack of knowledge. The interviewer didn’t even ask him who the president of Uzbekistan was, yet Cain was happy to tell us that he didn’t know. It wasn’t even close to being a ‘gotcha’ question, yet Cain was very much got.

As I said in an article recently published in Trinity News, American exceptionalism or ‘manifest destiny’ is alive more than ever within the GOP. Christopher Hitchens recently penned a good article on this subject, only weeks after I had made the same argument (are you watching me, Hitch?). The two most recent debates – on foreign policy and national security respectively – have shown this to be the case.

The basic rule among the candidates (with one or two exceptions) seems to be: if you are struggling to answer a question, just praise the United States and label it exceptional and all will be well. The audience claps, you smile, and we move on.

Some of the words uttered by these ostensibly serious candidates are outright bizarre. Michelle Bachmann, perhaps the most vocal exponent of American exceptionalism, labelled Pakistan “too nuclear to fail”. Rick Santorum called Africa a country before praising US aid efforts to fight AIDS because it helps curb Islamism — would fighting AIDS not be a worthy end in itself? Rick Perry appears to be in the Cain camp of not really giving a damn about foreign affairs; rather, he tows the ‘exceptional’ line and maintains the policies held by almost every other establishment Republican. Ron Paul is different; his foreign policy seems to be not to have one at all. Jon Huntsman, erstwhile Ambassador to China and speaker of Mandarin, is consistently ignored. Perhaps he doesn’t shout loud enough. Mitt Romney said US aid could “bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th century for that matter.” The new tactic to win over wavering allies is to patronise them, or so it would seem.

Newt Gingrich was almost lynched for suggesting that “church-going” illegal immigrants with families who have been in the country for a quarter of a century ought to have a path to citizenship available. Church-going? It would seem Newt wants to perform a merry dance on the corpse of the First Amendment. The superficially domestic issue of illegal immigration spills across the Venn diagram into foreign affairs because what is being mooted by the majority of candidates is mass repatriation of people and families to other states. The favoured policy du jour is ‘root ‘em out and send ‘em home’. That’s right; a forced migration of perhaps 12 million people. It’s like the Trail of Tears never happened. Or rather, that it never mattered.

Very few of these candidates are prepared to have any nuance, creativity or imagination on international matters; everything is black and white. If this stakes were not so high, this might even be funny. But the stakes are that high.