Ben Carson’s remarks on foreign policy have repeatedly raised questions about his grasp of the subject, but never more seriously than in the past week, when he wrongly asserted that China had intervened militarily in Syria and then failed, on national television, to name the countries he would call on to form a coalition to fight the Islamic State.
Faced with increasing scrutiny about whether Carson — who leads in some Republican presidential polls — was capable of leading US 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.
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview. He also said Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so “we can make him smart.”
As the deadly assaults in Paris claimed by the Islamic State reframe the presidential race, the candidates’ foreign policy credentials are suddenly under scrutiny. And Carson has attracted extra attention because his repeated dubious statements give rise to questions about where, as a retired neurosurgeon without government experience, he turns for information and counsel on complex global issues. What is unusual is the candor of those who are tutoring him about the physician’s struggle to master the subject.
In last week’s Republican debate, speaking of the turmoil in Syria, Carson said that “the Chinese are there.”
Both the White House and China denied that China had intervened militarily in Syria.
This week, Carson’s advisers said that his source for claiming Chinese involvement in Syria was a telephone conversation he had with a freelance US intelligence operative in Iraq.
According to notes of the briefing kept by a Carson aide who was also on the line, the operative had said, “Multiple reports have surfaced that Chinese military advisers are on the ground in Syria, operating with Russian special operations personnel.”
Clarridge, a former CIA agent who had connected Carson with the operative in Iraq, said Monday that the information was wrong. The operative in Iraq had “overleaped” in suggesting Chinese troops are in Syria, Clarridge said, adding of the operative, “You know how it goes when people are desperate for some headline.”
Clarridge, described by Carson’s top adviser, Armstrong Williams, as “a mentor for Dr. Carson,” is a colorful, even legendary figure in intelligence circles, someone who could have stepped out of a Hollywood thriller. He was a longtime CIA officer, serving undercover in India, Turkey, Italy and other countries. During the Reagan administration, he helped found the agency’s Counterterrorism Center and ran the CIA’s Latin American division.
Indicted on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal (he was later pardoned), Clarridge today runs a private network of intelligence sources, including, he said, experts on Iran, China and the Middle East, who have all briefed Carson in phone calls or Skype sessions.
Clarridge, who contacted Carson nearly two years ago to offer his services without pay, has helped the candidate prepare for debates. But the briefings do not always seem to sink in, Clarridge acknowledged.
After Carson struggled on “Fox News Sunday” to say whom he would call first to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Clarridge called Williams, the candidate’s top adviser, in frustration.
“We need to have a conference call once a week where his guys roll out the subjects they think will be out there, and we can make him smart,” Clarridge said he told Williams.
Williams, one of Carson’s closest friends, who does not have an official role in the campaign, also lamented the Fox News interview.
“He’s been briefed on it so many times,” he said. “I guess he just froze.”
Carson, 64, who retired as one the world’s foremost pediatric neurosurgeons, has sometimes struggled to adapt his thoughtful manner and speaking style to the rat-a-tat of debates and TV interviews.
“Sometimes he overthinks things,” Williams said, adding that he spoke to Carson after the Fox News stumble. “I could tell, talking to him, it was a bummer for him.”
Once written off by political insiders, Carson has rocketed to the top tier of candidates and has traded off a lead in recent polls with Donald Trump.
But the stress of his ascent has revealed an inexperienced political operation and a lack of connections to informed and respected advisers. Whereas Jeb Bush can call on dozens of experts from the foreign policy establishment who once worked for the presidential administrations of his father and brother, Carson so far has only one paid national security adviser, Robert F. Dees, a retired Army general on the staff of Liberty University, the institution founded by Jerry Falwell.
The Carson campaign has also set up conversations between the candidate and former senior foreign affairs officials in past presidential administrations, including former secretaries of state, Williams said.
One official, Michael V. Hayden, a former CIA director, described a conversation he had with Carson to MSNBC last week.
“I had one lengthy phone call with Ben Carson two months ago,” Hayden said, “and his instincts are all right, but this is a database in which he’s very unfamiliar.”
Dees, a U.S. Military Academy graduate whose biography lists commands in Korea and Europe, met Carson at a conference at a Baptist church in February. He said he and the candidate had since “locked ourselves up in a hotel room a couple of different sessions and took walks around the world.”
He also provides Carson with a regular national security update, with input from a group of retired military officers, business leaders and “ambassador-level type guys,” he said, some of whom the campaign plans to identify shortly.
Dees offered a different portrait of Carson than Clarridge.
“Dr. Carson is an amazing intellect,” he said. “He has the right stuff to be commander in chief.”
On Facebook, where the campaign connects to its vast grass-roots army, two of his top campaign aides posted a video Monday highlighting his “Fox News Sunday” interview with no hint of Carson’s private acknowledgment that he had performed poorly.
The Facebook page included what it said was supporting evidence of Carson’s claim of Chinese involvement in Syria: a satellite image of a purported Chinese-made radar system in Syria, and a Syrian soldier posing on a Chinese-made armored vehicle.
But the effort to claim that Carson had meant only that there was Chinese-made material in Syria, not military personnel, was contradicted by his own top Middle East adviser, Clarridge.
He blamed his operative, who had spoken to Carson before last week’s Republican debate. The operative, who had visited the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil in Iraq, described unconfirmed intelligence he had gleaned about disguised Russian soldiers working in Kurdistan.
“Russian special forces are staying in the Titanic Hotel in Sulaymaniya,” the operative said, according to notes recorded by Williams. “They frequent an Irish pub in the hotel bar.”
“The jump from Irbil and Soviets,” Clarridge said, to the Chinese “in Damascus is a long leap.”
Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.