Election 2012

Cain's Libya Stumble Goes Viral Online

Richard A. Oppel Jr.

Herman Cain became badly flustered on Monday when asked to assess President Obama’s policy toward Libya, raising new questions about his command of foreign policy as he lurched over five minutes from awkward pauses to halting efforts to address the issue.

Herman Cain
Getty Images

on Monday before editors and reporters at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel went viral almost immediately after it was posted online, and drew immediate comparisons to Rick Perry’s recent stumble in a debate when he froze in discussing which federal agencies he would eliminate.

At the interview in Milwaukee, after he was asked his thoughts on Mr. Obama’s handling of Libya, Mr. Cain leaned back and appeared to search for an answer: “O.K., Libya,” he said.

“President Obama supported the uprising, correct?” he said. “President Obama called for the removal of Qaddafi — just want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing before I say ‘Yes, I agree,’ or ‘No, I didn’t agree.’  ”

Mr. Cain said he disagreed with the president’s approach “for the following reasons” — then changed course.

“Nope, that’s a different one,” he said. “I’ve got to go back and see.”

He added: “I’ve got all this stuff twirling around in my head.”

Some analysts have grown sharply critical of Mr. Cain’s foreign policy pronouncements in debates and interviews, saying he shows a basic lack of understanding of critical regions of the world. Mr. Cain himself has sometimes fed into this, and in Monday’s interview he said: “Some people want to say, ‘Well, as president, you’re supposed to know everything.’ No you don’t.”

His comments about Libya came after a string of other provocative remarks about foreign policy and related issues.

Those include a statement published Monday in which Mr. Cain suggested that most American Muslims are extremists; a contradictory answer about waterboarding during a Republican presidential primary debate on Saturday focusing on foreign policy; and his statement that if Al Qaeda or another terrorist group demanded, he would consider authorizing the release of every detainee at Guantánamo Bay in return for the release of one American soldier.

J. D. Gordon, Mr. Cain’s spokesman and national security adviser, said the candidate had not been at his sharpest in Milwaukee because of a lack of sleep amid a long day of traveling.

“We were all going on four hours sleep, so he was tired,” Mr. Gordon said in a telephone interview. “When he got the Libya question, it took him a while to get his bearings on it, but he got the answer right.”

Mr. Gordon said Mr. Cain did repeat several times what he said was the correct answer — that the Obama administration should have done a better job assessing the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi and how it would govern.

Even on this point, though, Mr. Cain seemed to contradict himself at the end of the interview, when he said, “I don’t know that they were or were not assessed.”

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, was unforgiving in a post on his blog at foreignpolicy.com.

“There’s a mercy rule in Little League, and I’m applying it here — unless and until Herman Cain surges back in the polls again, or manages to muster something approaching cogency in his foreign policy statements, there’s no point in blogging about him anymore,” Mr. Drezner wrote. “I can only pick on an ignoramus so many times before it feels sadistic.”

Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, said Mr. Cain’s answer was further argument for additional foreign policy debates by the candidates.

“Past presidents have often been tested very early in their terms,” Mr. Fly said. ”We elect a president solely on an economic rationale at our own peril.”

In the Cain comments about Muslims that were released on Monday, he told GQ magazine he believed that most American Muslims held “extremist views,” explaining that a “Muslim voice” he knows — whom he would not name — told him that was the case.

“I have had one very well-known Muslim voice say to me directly that a majority of Muslims share the extremist views,” Mr. Cain said.

Though the transcript indicates Mr. Cain explicitly said he was talking about Muslims in the United States, Mr. Gordon said Mr. Cain had actually been talking about those in another country. “He doesn’t believe most Muslims in America have extreme views,” Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Gordon said some other criticisms of Mr. Cain’s foreign policy comments had been unfair.

He also said that Mr. Cain had been spending anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours a day boning up on national security issues, including conversations with some ambassadors, and that he had spoken to the first President Bush and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.