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Five Days in the Foreign Policy Education of Ben Carson

The candidate has quickly learned that he needs to show he's learning.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Ben Carson’s appeal to voters in the Republican presidential primary is widely believed to be based on his status as a political outsider. Of course, being an outsider means you don’t have a lot of inside info on political stuff, like how to win wars, or even who to ask for help. This has been a tough lesson for Carson over the last five days. Let’s review:

Sunday: Under repeated questioning on Fox News Sunday, Carson is unable to name the nation he’d call first to build his international coalition to fight ISIS.

Monday: To do damage control, Carson’s campaign calls Duane R. Clarridge, a former CIA official who has been advising Carson on national security. Clarridge gives “input telling us we need to get in real substance, not fluff, saying to be bold about it,’’ Carson adviser Armstrong Williams later tells The New York Times. Williams adds that Clarridge “emboldened me to say to Dr. Carson, ‘You’ve really got to be specific.’” Without naming Clarridge as the source, Williams passes this info on to Carson, who begins writing an op-ed.

Tuesday morning: In a devastating article about Carson’s struggle to comprehend foreign policy, Clarridge tells The New York Times, “Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.” Top adviser Williams says of the Fox flub, “He’s been briefed on it so many times. ... I guess he just froze.”

Tuesday afternoon: The Carson campaign releases a statement saying Clarridge is an old man who is so feeble it’s actually cruel for the media to interview him.

Tuesday night: Carson tells PBS that Clarridge is “not my adviser.”

Wednesday morning: The Washington Post publishes Carson’s op-ed, titled, “Ben Carson: My plan to defeat the Islamic State.” 

Wednesday afternoon: The New York Times reports that Carson’s plan contains portions of the five-point plan Clarridge presented days earlier.

Wednesday night: Echoing Williams’s interpretation of Clarridge’s advice—that the candidate must be more specific on how to fight ISIS—Carson appears on The O’Reilly Factor and says, “What I would do is take the war to them very specifically by getting our allies in the area.” (When one is unable to be specific, noting the need for specificity is often good enough.)

O’Reilly then says, “You have to basically say, look, we’re going to commit enough troops to the theater to beat these people and that isn’t being done. I don’t think it’s going to be done under President Obama. ... He puts 50 soldiers in there. It’s ridiculous.”

“It’s not going to be done,” Carson agrees, despite that very morning having published an op-ed saying that ISIS should be fought on the ground with local troops and only “military advisers and Special Operations forces” from the West.

Carson then shows how he’d handle the crisis as commander-in-chief—by making phone calls to people who know things, whoever they are. “It’s not going to be done with a first phone call. You know, there will be multiple phone calls. We have to call the Department of Defense and tell them what the plan is, what our goal is and ask them how many troops do we need? Do we need ground troops or do we just need special ops people? They’re supposed to be experts in that area.”

You hear that folks? Multiple phone calls. Who are the experts in defense? The Defense Department. This guy is absorbing foreign policy intel like a sponge. Don’t worry: He’s ready for the presidency. As Carson assured PBS, “You know, I know a lot more than I knew. A year from now—a year from now, I will know a lot more than I know now.”