Ben Carson is facing his first big foreign policy test in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks — and his early grades haven’t been so good.
Recent comments from the retired pediatric neurosurgeon, who leads the Republican presidential race in some polls, are raising concerns — even among some of his supporters — about his readiness for the White House.
In recent days, Carson has made bold assertions about having intelligence sources that are better than the White House’s. In a national television interview, he evaded a question on how he would gather a global coalition to defeat ISIS. And in Nevada on Monday, he awkwardly read a statement from his cellphone on the Syrian refugee crises.
Then Tuesday, a sometimes-campaign adviser on intelligence issues trashed Carson in The New York Times, suggesting the candidate simply can’t grasp Middle Eastern politics.
Carson has acknowledged his shortcomings, doing something that few serious presidential candidates ever do: concede that he is on a learning curve.
“In medicine we have something called continuing medical education. You have to get those credits in order to be recertified,” he said in a PBS “NewsHour” interview Tuesday night. “I think that applies to every aspect of our lives, particularly in a rapidly changing world.”
But that learn-on-the-job approach — honest as it might be — is anathema to a Republican Party base that has spent the last seven years lambasting Obama for his short political resume.
“Carson keeps making messes that are created by him. He struggles to explain himself in a clear direct matter across a variety of subjects and that should be concerning,” said Amanda Carpenter, a CNN analyst, contributing editor of Conservative Review and former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz. “Even if you want to be sympathetic to Carson — which I’m inclined to be as a conservative — he has to provide better explanations. How many times can this keep happening?”
His primary Republican presidential rival, Donald Trump, has also seized on Carson’s foreign policy shortcomings, mocking him at a press conference in Worcester, Massachusetts on Wednesday.
“When the New York Times says, from his top adviser and a couple of others, he’s essentially incapable of learning foreign policy, I mean that’s pretty sad,” Trump said.
Carson has proven adept at selling his brand, which is in part based on his humility. His candidacy has attracted legions of evangelicals who find inspiration in his up-from-nowhere personal story, which is both aspirational and faith-based.
His heroics as a surgeon are proof of his intellect. Yet his recent stumbles highlight a vulnerability: that even a stellar medical career can’t easily overcome the rigors of a presidential campaign.
A Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll taken last month before the Paris terrorist attack found that among likely GOP caucus-goers, 49 percent found Carson’s lack of foreign policy experience “unattractive,” while 42 percent found it an “attractive” aspect of his candidacy.
That concern could grow if Carson is unable to course-correct and if his opponents are able to exploit this weakness. Mindful of the growing concern sparked by a New York Times report that featured one of his supporters and infrequent advisers griping about Carson’s lack of fluency in global affairs, Carson penned a column for The Washington Post laying out a more detailed ISIS policy.
Asked about his difficulties by PBS’s Judy Woodruff, Carson, whose campaign has been quick to point fingers at the media, dismissed questions about his readiness as a mere “narrative that people want to paint” and that he didn’t like sound-bite answers.
He told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that he was asking the “wrong question” when pressed to name which ally he would call first to marshal a larger force of ground troops to defeat ISIL. Carson said the calls that he would make would include officials in Yemen, Oman, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
But on the question of which world leader he would reach out to first — Carson said the question was “silly.” “What we really need to be talking about is the overall plan, the overall strategy, not who were going to call first,” he said. Pressed on steps he would have taken — in addition to those taken by the Obama administration — to prevent the Paris terrorist attacks, Carson charged that the administration had not been aggressive enough, but then named several measures that the Obama administration has already engaged in.
“The general principle that I’ve been talking about is that if we don’t fight them and eradicate them where they are, we will end up with situations like we have in Paris,” Carson said of ISIS. “We will end up with situations similar to that, or even worse, here in the United States, and I think we ought to take this as a warning that we need to really go in there with very serious intent — not to contain them — but to take (ISIS) out completely.”
“I would use every resource available to us,” Carson said when asked how he would achieve that goal. “I would use the world banking system to strangulate them in terms of currency. I would try to get rid of any revenues they could derive from the oil and energy fields that they control. I would look at all the pathways, entrance and exit, like in Sinjar. You know, they took control of the supply routes first. And that made the subsequent capture easier. You know those typical, old-fashioned but really effective military strategies — they work.”
The successful campaign by the Iraqi Kurds to retake Sinjar from the Islamic State was an operation backed by the United States and viewed as a success for the Obama administration shortly before the Paris attacks.
But even Carson aides concede that playing media critic is a losing gambit.
“He should have answered the question on Sunday,” Carson business manager Armstrong Williams said, referring to the Fox interview. “You don’t get to determine what you answer.”
Carson has also not backed away from some of his more curious claims — such as his assertion in a recent Republican debate that “the Chinese are there” in Syria. While Obama administration officials have insisted there is no evidence of a Chinese presence in Syria, Carson and his campaign said that his statement was misinterpreted by the press.
Carson said he was referring to the fact that the Syrian government has access to Chinese weapons technology — his campaign distributed images of what they claimed were Chinese radars in Syria.
“The Syrians have sophisticated Chinese weaponry, that’s the basis of it, and that sophisticated Chinese weaponry requires support in order to utilize it,” Carson said during his foreign policy-focused press conference in Henderson, Nevada, on Monday.
Pressed on the source of his information about Chinese weaponry, Carson answered: “My advisers, I have advisers who are former military people and advisers who are former CIA people.”
Among his advisers are Bud McFarlane, Ronald Reagan’s former National Security Advisor and Robert F. Dees, a retired U.S. Army major general.
Carson’s aides suggested that the campaign is now prepared to go on offense on the issue of Carson’s readiness to tackle foreign policy challenges, but see the admission that he is in study mode as part of the process.
“People will never criticize you for saying you have a lot to learn,” Williams said. “But once you say you have a lot to learn, they will want to know what you’re learning and what your vision is.”
In a CNN interview, Dees said he is in daily contact with Carson, either via e-mail or on the phone and they discuss foreign policy.
“I think he has all the right reflexes and an amazing intellect to craft commonsense solutions out of complex situations,” said Dees. “As a military leader I would be privileged to call him my commander-in-chief. He has the right stuff.”