Libya and Herman Cain’s Brainfreeze

The conservative Ross Perot goes viral when he stumbles over a question about Obama’s handling of the Libyan uprising. Here’s video of what happens when you get trapped in the rules of the game.

You’ve likely heard about Herman Cain’s trip to the Journal-Sentinal editorial page—he was in town for Green Bay’s shellacking of the Vikings—seeing as the video went viral.

Lots of fun is being made of Cain; it started within moments of the video being posted. Seeing as I think Cain won’t be the nominee for reasons entirely unrelated to this gaffe or accusations of sexual harassment, I can take it for what it is.

1. Watching Cain go from “uh oh” to “I got this” to “wait, no I don’t” is brutal, like watching the Philadelphia Eagles this season.

2. I see less someone who’s dumb than someone who’s trapped by the rules of the game. The main criticism Cain stumbles upon is that he doesn’t know what factions the rebellion was composed of, and doesn’t know what Obama knew about this either. What Kevin Drum reads into this, just for instance, is that Cain is nutty (“clown show”):

So what’s the best interpretation of this? That the intelligence community knew who the Libyan opposition was but withheld some of that information from President Obama, causing him to make a poor decision? Really, Herman?

Not exactly. Here’s what he said:

I would have done a better job of determining who the opposition is — and I’m sure that our intelligence people have some of that information. Based on who made up that opposition might have caused me to make some different decisions about how we participated.

Cain’s not alone in articulating this concern, even if he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in the way he expressed it. Here’s someone who’s considered the issue much more carefully, Michael Berube, writing in Chicago’s own ideas-mag The Point:

It was, and still is, possible to oppose American intervention in Libya in various reasonably sensible ways. One can point out that the rebels aren’t a coherent unit, so that it is not clear whom “we” are supporting or what the endgame might be; one can suggest that any intervention on the part of the Western powers runs the risk of delegitimizing the revolt in the Arab world; one can worry about “mission creep” and the possibility of getting involved in a bloody, intractable struggle.

It’s an obvious concern, given what transpired in Iraq after the fall of Hussein. But it’s not a concern that’s gotten a lot of traction so far. Mostly, people are just glad to be rid of Qaddafi, which has put Republicans in a bind, as Berube continues:

But one thing does seem clear even now: when the Arab Spring began, American liberals and leftists generally cheered it on; American conservatives were torn, holding fast to Kissingerian realism or the desires of the Likudnik bloc or the firm conviction that whatever Obama was or was not or might be doing, it was wrong. (This last principle, infinitely elastic, is what allowed senior Republican statesmen and Deeply Serious People like John McCain and Newt Gingrich to take three or four positions on Libya in the course of a week; when Qaddafi was finally killed, the same statesmen graciously congratulated the French while chastising Obama for delaying the necessary regime change through his dithering.)

But the weightlessness of that argument is obvious: in historical terms, Qaddafi was gone in the blink of an eye, through actions that cost no American lives. It presents a real dilemma, if you’re not allowed to agree with Obama on anything.

So rather than take four positions on Libya, Cain took none. Well, that’s not quite true: he hinted that Obama may have acted rashly in supporting the rebellion, under the plausible principle that the alternative could be worse. But if there is any truth to that, it hasn’t come to pass, so Cain couldn’t fully embrace that notion. (As far as these things go, Juan Cole, a lifelong student of the region, is hopeful.)

I do buy the Cain camp’s contention that the candidate was tired. Most people who run for president, Rick Perry excepted, are better at saying nothing well when the need arises. Cain was trying to cover his bases on an issue that’s still in play. He tried to do several things at once, and he did none of them well; he tried to kick the can down the road in a statesmanlike manner.

Cain is starting to remind me of Ross Perot, or at least a conservative version: a domestic-issues candidate from outside the political realm whose better-formulated ideas are appealing enough in a certain time and place to secure a decent foundation of support, enough to play spoiler but not win. Had Cain chosen to run as an independent, he might make it through to November; as it is, the not-Romney of the month appears to be Gingrich, who is developing his own line of opposition against the Arab Spring. Romney’s floating his own unique approach, which also shows him caught in Cain’s sand trap. Buy low on Bachmann, I guess?

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