Ben Carson's Disqualifying Foreign Policy Incoherence
Debate answer exposes a revealing problem not just for the inexperienced candidate, but for the bellicose GOP
In the six national GOP presidential polls conducted over the past two weeks, Ben Carson has received the highest average support, nudging out Donald Trump 24.7 percent to 24.3 percent. He's averaged 20 percent for two months solid, and has been in at least second place in all but one poll since mid-August.
So this is how the Republican Party's current co-frontrunner in the race for the White House answered a debate question Tuesday night about the U.S. leaving 50 special-ops forces and 10,000 troops in Afghanistan:
If you think that sounded incoherent, read the word-salad as transcribed:
Q: […] Dr. Carson, you were against putting troops on the ground in Iraq and against a large military force in Afghanistan. Do you support the president's decision to now put 50 special ops forces in Syria and leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan?
CARSON: Well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them there, because they that's why they're called special ops, they're actually able to guide some of the other things that we're doing there. And what we have to recognize is that Putin is trying to really spread his influence throughout the Middle East. This is going to be his base. And we have to oppose him there in an effective way. We also must recognize that it's a very complex place. You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there. What we've been doing so far is very ineffective, but we can't give up ground right there. But we have to look at this on a much more global scale. We're talking about global jihadists. And their desire is to destroy us and to destroy our way of life. So we have to be saying, how do we make them look like losers? Because that's the way that they're able to gather a lot of influence. And I think in order to make them look like losers, we have to destroy their caliphate. And you look for the easiest place to do that? It would be in Iraq. And if outside of Anbar in Iraq there's a big energy field, take that from them. Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I've learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there. But you have to continue to face them, because our goal is not to contain them, but to destroy them before they destroy us.
The weirdest thing about this answer is that it starts off as a giant dodge by someone who's clearly not comfortable getting into the weeds of Syria policy and somehow ends up with a casual de facto call for a second invasion of Iraq.
Put bluntly, this paragraph should be disqualifying for any potential commander in chief.
Carson was asked a question about leaving troops in Afghanistan—a not-insignificant issue, given the 2,200-plus American servicemen and women who have died in a war that solid majorities of Americans have long since concluded was not worth fighting—and instead burbled for a moment about special ops before changing the subject abruptly to Russian President Vladimir Putin's activities in the Middle East, a geographic area that traditionally does not include Afghanistan. Even if you grant Carson a "Greater Middle East" rhetorical waiver, orienting U.S. foreign policy and troop deployment in that region as a kind of balance-of-power Great Game designed to blunt the influence of Russia and China—the latter of whose current activity inside of the Middle East can best be described as embryonic—is shadow-chasing madness. As the Washington Post's Ishaan Tharoor put it, "Russian military resources in the region are dwarfed by that of the United States, let alone NATO, an alliance whose second-biggest military — Turkey — sits on the Syrian border."
"We can't give up ground right there," Carson says. Well, let's think about what that means, much in the same way that Rand Paul during the debate successfully forced the audience (if not quite his bellicose competitors) to think practically about what the phrase "no-fly zone" means in the context of Syria. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has systematically retaken ground that the U.S.-backed forces took from it back in 2001, most alarmingly in Kunduz. That name may ring a bell, as it's the place where U.S. special ops, worried about giving up ground, guided air strikes to a hospital last month, killing more than 30 noncombatants. Just to stop giving up more ground in Afghanistan would likely require a redoubling or re-tripling of the human and financial effort coming from the United States.
And keep in mind that this is the same Ben Carson who—as referenced in the very question he was being asked Tuesday!—has been skeptical of the Afghan war, writing in a 2012 book that "Whether America's ensuing steps into war in Afghanistan and Iraq will be seen as positive remains to be seen, but I can't help thinking there may have been a better way to react that would not have cost us so many lives and financial capital." The phrase We can't give up ground right there is an empty schoolyard taunt, devoid of any think-through about what it would require, and designed to flatter the foreign-policy belligerence of Republican primary voters.
"We're talking about global jihadists," Carson says 30 words after talking instead about the Russians and Chinese. "So we have to be saying, how do we make them look like losers?" This juvenile phrasing suggests a certain reliance on optics, or symbolism: If we can just make ISIS et al look foolish, then they will be less attractive to new adherents and allies. OK, I'm listening, albeit skeptically. "And I think in order to make them look like losers, we have to destroy their caliphate." Wait, what?
It's a smallish point, but it makes anti-sense to dwell on making an enemy "look like" something when in fact what you intend to do is "destroy" them. We didn't make the Axis "look like losers," we destroyed them. We didn't destroy the Soviets, we made them look like losers, after which their empire receded. There's kind of an important difference here, and it affects the way you approach policy.
The "easiest place" to engage in this caliphate-destruction, Carson claims, is "in Iraq." Yes, the same Iraq that he has lamented cost too much in American lives and money already. There is a history of American armchair generals talking about easy military solutions in Iraq, and it's not a happy one. Then, as noted by Allahpundit, we get on to the invasion/occupation/colonialism stuff: "And if outside of Anbar in Iraq there's a big energy field, take that from them. Take all of that land from them."
The United States has spent scores of billions of dollars taking land away from bad guys in the Greater Middle East over the past 15 years, only to continuously re-discover that people who live in said land—which, importantly, is not arranged in tidy nation-states—have different ideas and longer time-horizons than American taxpayers do. Forget Carson's West Point "scholarship," or his tracing of Islamic radicalism to the Book of Genesis, or even not doing basic research on U.S.-Cuba policy before going to see the Miami Herald—it's his lack of intellectual engagement with the most crucial of recent international developments that should terrify prospective voters.
The truly embarrassing thing here is not Ben Carson's incoherent rhetoric, but that that rhetoric is enduringly popular in the modern Republican Party, even after seven years of constant complaint about a president being too inexperienced to handle the international stage. It's as if you can just mumble "Mamoo-dockface in the banana patch" over and over again, as long as you can say "destroy them before they destroy us" often enough. And that's true for far more 2016 candidates than just Ben Carson. You don't have to be a libertarian, or a realist (or even a libertarian realist!) to find that troubling.