The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ben Carson’s Middle East muddle

Ben Carson at the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Nov. 10. (Morry Gash/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee was Tuesday night and I’m still trying to understand an answer Ben Carson gave to Maria Bartiromo on terrorism, Syria and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. I’ve read and re-read his “winding response” and I still can’t figure out what his policy is.

Bartiromo: Americans face security threats at home and abroad. Last year, terrorist attacks rose 61 percent, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, with the most deaths occurring in just five countries, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. 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 confusion starts the moment Carson starts his reply. The man who was against the military personnel decisions made by President Obama supports those positions. Special Operations forces in Syria are “better than not having them there.” Keeping 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a counterbalance to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We have to oppose him there in an effective way,” Carson said.

Carson is right. The Middle East is a “complex place” that has “all kinds of factions there.” Yes, the Russians are there because of long-standing vested interests, namely a warm-water naval base in Syria. But, as The Post’s Fact Checker points out, the Chinese are not.

“What we’ve been doing so far is very ineffective,” Carson said, “but we can’t give up ground right there.”Remember, this is the same guy who was against putting troops on the ground in Iraq or leaving any in Afghanistan. Besides, as The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor masterfully points out in his own piece on all this, “The United States has no ‘ground’ to ‘give up’ there.”   

Follow Jonathan Capehart's opinionsFollow

Tharoor then ably explains how Carson stepped deep in it by even acknowledging the caliphate sought by Islamist extremists. Carson would thwart their goal and “destroy” them by “mak[ing] them look like losers.” And he would accomplish this by taking an oil field. “Take that from them. Take all of that land from them,” he said. “We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I’ve learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there.”

Um, remember the last time we were told that taking an action in the Middle East would be easy? Vice President Dick Cheney told Bob Schieffer of CBS News on “Face The Nation” that the looming war with Iraq would be a cinch.  

Schieffer: If we do have to take action, do you think it will be a long war or a short war?
Cheney: My own judgment based on my time as secretary of Defense, and having operated in this area in the past, I’m confident that our troops will be successful, and I think it’ll go relatively quickly, but we can’t . . .
Schieffer: Weeks?
Cheney: . . . we can’t count on that.
Schieffer: Months?
Cheney: Weeks rather than months.

Left unsaid, but plainly apparent, is whether American boots on the ground would be necessary. Of course, they would be. The Carson worldview, as espoused in his rambling response, demands it. Yet he wasn’t pushed to give specifics on troop levels. And rather than a collective gasp about another promise of a “fairly easy” American adventure in the Middle East, the Republican front-runner was applauded.

“Our goal is not to contain them,” Carson said at the end of his response to Bartiromo, “but to destroy them before they destroy us.” Nice chest-thumping line. Pity we are no closer to knowing how exactly he would succeed.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Loading...