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Ben Carson’s remarkable gibberish on Syria and Iraq, explained

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Last night's Republican presidential debate was marked by a rather scattered conversation on foreign policy. The highlight of the discussion, in WorldViews' reckoning, was the response Ben Carson offered when asked by Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo about the current U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

This was Bartiromo's question: "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?"

And here, according to The Washington Post's annotated transcript of the debate, is Carson's reply. Read it in its wondrous entirety and then see WorldViews' notes, enumerated in red. (Others, too, have parsed the stumbling statement.)

Well, putting the special-ops people in there is better than not having them there(1), 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 [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is trying to really spread his influence throughout the Middle East(2). 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(3), 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(4). 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(5)? 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(6). 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(7).
But you have to continue to face them, because our goal is not to contain them but to destroy them before they destroy us.(8)

1. Let's begin with a bit of sympathy. Carson's point here is not wrong — given U.S. strategic goals in Syria, it's probably better to have special forces on the ground than not at all. But the bumbling explanation that follows sets the tone for the rest of Carson's adventure through Middle East policy.

2. As WorldViews has examined at length, the Russian mission in Syria is an opportunistic gamble to help bolster the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It has involved, to varying degrees, cooperation from the governments in Iraq and Iran, and it may widen to include dealings with a leading faction of Syrian Kurds.

Is Putin's move into Syria really the first step of a wider Russian takeover in the Middle East? Probably not. 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. And recent events, including the suspected bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, suggests that Moscow has already put itself in line for a great deal of blowback.

3. The short answer is no, the Chinese are not there, certainly not in any meaningful way. It's nice that Carson recognizes that the region is a "complex place" but pretty amusing that he brushes aside its actual complexity for a phantom menace.

4. The United States has no "ground" to "give up" there. Some Syrian rebel factions loosely backed by the United States do, but it's not at all clear here what it is that Carson thinks "we've been doing so far" that is "very ineffective."

Presumably, if we are to be charitable, he's talking about the half-hearted American effort to train and equip "moderate" Syrian rebels. But there's no trace of an alternative solution in his response, especially when you consider that Carson's prompt was a question about his earlier reticence to deploy ground forces in the region.

Instead, he offers up some incredible nonsense, as we will see below.

5. So here's the solution: "Make them look like losers." Interestingly, Carson doesn't say make them lose, but make them look like losers. Because we don't show it to be the loser that it is, he suggests, the Islamic State is able to "gather a lot of influence."

To be clear, the United States, particularly the State Department, is actually trying pretty hard to make the Islamic State "look" like a loser. It has engaged in a concerted, sometimes controversial counter-propaganda campaign online against the group, aimed at dissuading potential recruits from joining the Islamic State, as well as discrediting its noxious ideology. Carson offers no advice on how to further improve these efforts.

6. But — aha! — he does present a solution. We "make them look like losers" by destroying their caliphate. Okay. This makes a bit of sense: The Islamic State defines itself as a caliphate, so if you destroy it, then presumably you have destroyed the group.

But by making this declaration, Carson has bought into the extremists' own worldview and gone against the deliberate rhetoric of basically every single major Western and Arab government seeking to combat the Islamic State. Many officials even refuse to use that name when referring to the extremist organization, choosing instead to go with the more pejorative "Daesh."

But Carson is more interested in propagating his doomsday view of Islamist extremists bent on "destroying our way of life," a perspective that gets muddled just a few sentences later.

7. The key to destroying this caliphate, this fount of global jihadism, is ... to take land in Iraq. Some generals in the know have told Carson that it's easy. It involves an oil field outside Anbar — a particularly unhelpful place to cite given that it is Iraq's largest province — and the presumption that "we" can "take all of that land from them."

Let us put to a side the initial question about where this is — WorldViews assumes that Carson is referring to the strategic oil refinery at Baiji, a city that has been long contested and recently wrested away from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. air support.

Carson's grand strategy raises plenty of questions: Is he proposing to deploy U.S. ground troops to help the Iraqis battle the Islamic State? Does he know that the United States is conducting rather consistent airstrikes on the militants' positions in Iraq and Syria? What does he think about the Shiite militias, some with direct Iranian backing, that are on the front lines against the extremists in parts of Iraq?

What would "moving on from there" even mean: an offensive against other Islamic State strongholds in Iraq? An invasion of Syria? The occupation of territory by U.S. forces? Who knows. (Carson probably doesn't.)

8. We'll just quote how Rob Golan-Vilella, former managing editor of the National Interest, reacted to Carson's apocalyptic closing line about the Islamic State: "The U.S. is the most powerful nation in human history and the Islamic State is not going to destroy it."

This post has been updated.

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