Will Foreign-Policy Ignorance Actually Hurt Ben Carson?

Don’t count on it.

David Becker / Reuters

It has become a commonplace since Friday’s attacks that whatever else the political effects of the carnage in Paris may be, they mean that candidates with foreign-policy experience now have an edge.

You should be skeptical of this claim. It’s not just, as Brendan Nyhan writes, that events like this tend to have very little effect on the eventual outcome. Nyhan caveats that “the attacks may prompt a sustained focus on foreign policy among Republicans, who are still searching for an issue to run on against Democrats in 2016.” If that is true, it would seem that the candidates with the most to lose are Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who currently lead the GOP field.

You should also be skeptical of anything that’s said to be change the game in favor of establishment Republicans at the expense of Trump and Carson. Those predictions have proven wrong over and over again, and they often seem to emanate from establishment Republicans—folks who dislike the outsiders and may be prone to wishful thinking. Besides, it’s also hard to think of a time in recent history when a foreign-policy stumble truly hobbled a candidate.

Ben Carson seems to be making a bid to be the first. Daniel Drezner makes a careful, cautious case that Carson’s unpreparedness on foreign policy might actually hurt him. Let’s review the tape. On Sunday, Carson was on Fox News Sunday, where Chris Wallace asked him what allies he’d enlist to fight ISIS. When he didn’t name any, Wallace followed up, twice, and got no real answer:

CARSON:  My point being that if we get out there and we really lead and it appears that we're making progress, then all of the Arab states and even the non-Arab states who I think are beginning to recognize that the jihad movement is global.  It is not just local in the Middle East, but if we fight it there, they will have to pool their resources in that area, and then we won't have to necessarily fight them here.  That's what I'm saying.  

WALLACE:  But can you tell us who you would call first, sir?  On the international scene.

CARSON:  I would call for all of the Arab states to be involved in this.  I would call for all of our traditional allies to be involved in this.  You know, I don't want to leave anybody out.

While it isn’t news that Carson is untutored on foreign policy—just read this devastating Jason Zengerle piece—the combination of his rise in the polls and the Paris attacks have brought a new focus on his lack of experience. On Tuesday, The New York Times ran a damning story about the concerns Carson’s own aides harbor about the candidate:

“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” said Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so “we can make him smart.”

The campaign blasted the Times for taking advantage of “an elderly gentleman,” but was then forced to admit they’d recommended Clarridge to the reporter.

Clarridge is a character. A former high-ranking CIA official, he was indicted on seven counts of perjury and making false statements in the Iran-Contra scandal, but President George H.W. Bush pardoned him before he could be tried. The Times’ Mark Mazzetti reported in 2011 that Clarridge was running his own private spy agency “from poolside at his home near San Diego … hatching schemes that are something of a cross between a Graham Greene novel and Mad Magazine’s ‘Spy vs. Spy.’”

Clarridge’s independent spy ring was apparently the source of Carson’s contention during a recent Republican debate that the Chinese were involved in Syria, a claim mocked by Carson’s rivals and even the White House. The Times:

Mr. Clarridge … said on Monday that the information was wrong. The operative in Iraq had “overleaped” in suggesting that Chinese troops are in Syria, Mr. Clarridge said, adding of the operative, “You know how it goes when people are desperate for some headline.”

Finally, and humorously, Carson’s campaign tweeted out a badly mangled map of the United States on Tuesday (since deleted). What did the terrorists do to New England?!

Facebook via Citylab

Carson’s missteps and stories like this could damage him in two ways. One is that they raise questions about the seriousness of Carson’s campaign. Why is he relying on a octogenarian Iran-Contra figure who is feeding him intelligence he later disavows? Who else is advising him? Why did the campaign recommend Clarridge as a source and then get angry when he was used a source? These are not the moves of a winning campaign. Add that to questions about his fundraising model reported here and by others and you start to see a case that the campaign isn’t ready for primetime.

The second danger is that voters will actually respond poorly to Carson’s lack of foreign-policy knowledge. That’s not impossible, but it would be unusual. Carson’s appeal has long been built on the fact that he’s a commonsense outsider, not a policy expert. Besides, when has a candidate really been penalized for lacking international acumen? Herman Cain was mocked for joking about “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” but it was a sex scandal and not his flippancy about Central Asia that brought down his candidacy. Scott Walker was mocked for saying his battles with unions in Wisconsin qualified him to beat ISIS, but it was fundraising, strategy doubts, and domestic-policy flip-flops that knocked him out of the race. You can even go back to the most famous foreign-policy gaffe of all time, Gerald Ford’s 1976 claim that Eastern Europe was no longer under Soviet domination. But Ford’s polling actually improved after that gaffe. (In fact, the final Gallup poll of the cycle was the very first to show him leading Carter, but as they say, the only poll that matters is on Election Day.)

It’s worth comparing Carson’s experience to that of Donald Trump. If the experience question was really a danger, presumably it would hurt Trump as well as Carson, right? Of course, Trump is the Man to Whom No Standard Rules Seem to Apply. The main American reaction to the Paris attacks so far has been for Republicans to take an extremely hard line against allowing Syrian refugees. Anyone who thinks that dynamic will hurt Trump, who has been the most anti-immigrant candidate of the cycle, just hasn’t been paying attention.

The funny thing about all this is that it may make no difference at all. Carson’s poll numbers are already down slightly from their peak—and while there’s no telling if the trend will hold, he might already be on the downswing. Trump, meanwhile, is back on the ups.

In other words, even if foreign-policy ignorance doesn’t matter, candidates have plenty of ways to lose momentum and shake off support.