Ben Carson Almost Makes a Good Point on Foreign Policy

Ben Carson sat down for an interview this past weekend with ABC, and came perilously close to making a good point regarding the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Upon further questioning, it became apparent that he actually had no idea what he was talking about. But since it was in the news, I thought we’d take the opportunity to recall a part of this story that is often forgotten.

First, let’s discuss what exactly Dr. Carson said. During the second Republican debate, Carson suggested the following as an alternative to invading Afghanistan after 9/11:

Declare that within five to 10 years we will become petroleum independent. The moderate Arab states would have been so concerned about that, they would have turned over Osama bin Laden and anybody else you wanted on a silver platter within two weeks.

Saying something off-the-cuff in a debate is of course different than a considered statement of policy. But when he was questioned on the position this weekend, he stuck with it. Carson reiterated that we could have used economic threats against the Arab countries to get them to extradite bin Laden to the US. And then the US and Afghanistan could have been spared the horrible catastrophe of the War in Afghanistan, that continues to this day.

In one very important respect, he’s right about this. The US could have avoided an all-out invasion and regime change operation in Afghanistan. But he’s wrong about virtually everything else.

For starters, it’s an open question whether Saudi Arabia and company would have been threatened by a US pledge to become petroleum independent. Today, the idea of US energy independence is plausible thanks to the boom in shale oil and gas production that took off after 2008. But in 2001, this was basically just an idea that US politicians, dating back all the way to Nixon in 1974, paid lip-service to without any real plan of getting there. So there’s really no reason to think we could have made a credible threat of energy independence at the time, and it’s unlikely the Arab states would have bent to our will on that basis as Carson claims.

That said, the far more important problem with Carson’s reasoning is that, in fact, one of the countries in the Middle East did offer to capture bin Laden. That country was actually, wait for it, Afghanistan itself. Yes, you see, the little-reported fact is that the Taliban were not allied with Al Qaeda. And after 9/11, the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was willing to see bin Laden brought to justice. But there were two conditions. The Taliban leader demanded evidence that bin Laden really was behind the attacks, since Al-Qaida had not claimed responsibility publicly at the time. Additionally, Mullah Omar wanted bin Laden to stand trial in Afghanistan or in another neutral Muslim country. This latter condition makes sense when you realize that the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan by enforcing Islamic law. And they really were true believers. So for them, it would be hypocritical to surrender someone to an American justice system that they deemed unjust.

Indeed, when you consider the issue from the Taliban’s perspective, these conditions aren’t really unreasonable. They hated Al Qaeda as much as anyone else at this point, but they were unwilling to compromise their belief in the rule of law–even when their very survival depended on it. There’s a way in which you can almost see it as noble.

Unfortunately, Bush refused to consider negotiating on these conditions at all. Instead, he opted for the more tactful position of “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” And so, the Taliban became part of the latter group and remain part of that group to this day. But we should remember that even that war was avoidable.

If he’d gotten his facts straight, Ben Carson could have reminded Americans of this important truth. Instead, he just reminded us that he may know even less about history than his competitors.

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