Home/Daniel Larison/Carson and the GOP’s Foreign Policy Ignorance Problem

Carson and the GOP’s Foreign Policy Ignorance Problem

Some of Ben Carson’s foreign policy advisers admit their candidate doesn’t understand the subject very well:

Faced with increasing scrutiny about whether Mr. Carson — who leads in some Republican presidential polls — was capable of leading American foreign policy, two of his top advisers said in interviews with The New York Times that he had struggled to master the intricacies of the Middle East and national security and that intense tutoring was having little effect.

Carson’s lack of preparation on foreign policy is hardly news, but this story is interesting for what it can teach us about some common conceits about inexperienced presidential candidates. One of these conceits is that a candidate’s knowledge is less important than his “instincts.” Carson’s “instincts” receive praise from the same advisers that are dismissing his grasp of the issues, and instincts are often treated as all that really matters. The fact that his advisers recognize that he doesn’t know very much about these issues but still support him for president shows how strong this misguided idea can be. As long a candidate has the “right” instincts, his lack of experience and knowledge isn’t held against him by other members of his party. Yet we know that a president with supposedly “good” instincts can make terrible decisions because he is poorly informed or if his understanding of an issue is distorted by questionable ideological assumptions. No matter how good his instincts may be, a president that doesn’t understand a particular conflict or has an exaggerated view of the U.S. role in the world will get into serious trouble.

The fact that Carson is proving to be difficult to “tutor” on foreign policy isn’t surprising, since it isn’t possible for any candidate to start off with little or no knowledge of these issues and then be able to make up the difference at the same time that he is campaigning. If a candidate is seriously ill-prepared at the start of a campaign on foreign policy, no amount of tutoring between now and the start of voting is going to fix that. Carson may be an extreme example of this, but what we’re hearing about him is not really all that different from what we saw with Walker earlier in the year. Candidates that have paid scant attention to foreign policy beforehand don’t suddenly acquire the interest or inclination for it during their busy schedules after they start to run for higher office, and their advisers are given a very difficult task of making them minimally ready to answer the most basic questions.

As we can see from Carson’s positions on Syria, Russia, and other matters, his lack of experience and knowledge don’t make him less likely to endorse aggressive and confrontational measures. Instead, they guarantee that he will accept the prevailing views within the party as a way of taking the path of least resistance, and in the GOP that means endorsing hawkish policies regardless of their merit. This shatters another conceit, which is that “outsider” candidates that do not have many years of experience in Washington are less likely to accept the Washington consensus view. Because inexperienced candidates have so little prior knowledge of these issues, they are more likely to buy into conventional assumptions about U.S. foreign policy and our role in the world because they don’t have the knowledge to challenge the status quo.

The bigger problem that Carson’s struggles point to is that almost all of the Republican candidates are woefully unprepared and lacking in foreign policy experience, and the few that have some experience don’t have very much. Carson’s lack of preparation on foreign policy is the most obvious in the field, but most of his competitors have the same weakness. That is what happens when a party simultaneously equates hard-line rhetoric with “expertise” and dismisses foreign policy experience as unnecessary for its presidential candidates.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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