Carson distancing himself from Trump on foreign policy
© Cameron Lancaster

Republican presidential candidate Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonHousing and health care go hand-in-hand Carson's calendar includes trips to Florida on Fridays: report The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Dems grapple with race, gender and privilege MORE laid out his plans to deal with the threat of terror and the Syrian refugee crisis in an exclusive interview with The Hill, separating himself from GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE on hot-button issues pertaining to surveillance and databases for Muslims.


Carson said Sunday he is against that kind of blanket surveillance Trump has advocated, arguing that domestic spying should only be initiated if intelligence indicates a specific threat.

“You first have to have good reason to believe that there’s something going on,” Carson said.

Still, Carson said more resources should be directed toward the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s surveillance programs, saying they are a critical component in chasing down terror threats, whether they spring from “a church, a school or a museum.”

“Any place where we get an indication that people are being radicalized, we need to monitor that,” Carson said. “It’s vital to our self-interests.”

Trump has called for broad surveillance of American mosques, saying there is “absolutely no choice” but to close some down over fears that terrorists are using them as gathering places to plot attacks.

Carson also said he does not support a database tracking all American Muslims — an idea that Trump has entertained, but not committed to, in recent days.

Carson instead supports a database tracking all Syrian refugees seeking to resettle in the U.S. — a program that is already in place — as well as a database tracking every immigrant seeking entry into the country, no matter their country of origin.

“We should keep a database on anybody coming into this country from the outside, recognizing that many radicalized individuals carry European passports,” Carson said. “We’re not accomplishing anything if we’re just looking for the ones with Syrian passports or Iraqi passports. They can easily circumvent that.

“[The database] is for everybody who comes in here,” Carson continued. “We should be in a heightened state of alert, and people who want to cause damage could be coming from any place using any passport. The world has gotten a lot more sophisticated and we have to get sophisticated with it.”

Trump similarly supports a database to keep track of all Syrian refugees entering the country. In a Sunday interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a database tracking all Muslims in the country, although he seems to have backed away from the idea in recent days.

Carson has struggled at times to elucidate his vision on foreign policy, admitting that, as a political newcomer, he’s still getting up to speed on the complicated global landscape.

But in the conversation, Carson detailed at length the foreign and domestic policies he’d implement as commander in chief.

For example, Carson called for the creation of a safe zone in Syria for refugees fleeing the country, as well as a no-fly zone along the Syrian-Turkish border.

In Iraq, Carson said the U.S. must arm Kurdish rebel groups battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), recommit to supporting the Iraqi fighting forces and bolster the U.S. special operations forces that have been conducting covert strikes there.

And across the Middle East, Carson said the U.S. must do a better job of cracking down on the global money markets that terror groups have access to, shuttering their modes of profit.

“We have to take all of their oil revenue,” Carson said.

Carson said the U.S. must also reach out to moderate Muslims to recruit them as allies against the radical elements within Islam.

“We need to put pressure on the imams and clerics to draw a distinction between the radical Islamists and the moderate or reasonable people,” Carson said. “If they can’t draw that distinction, it’s going to be very difficult for us to draw it.

“Let them know that if they’ll fight with us, we’ll fight with them,” Carson continued. “But if they’re going to sit there silently, people are going to assume that they tacitly agree with the radicals.”

Domestically, Carson advocated for countering ISIS’s social media and online propaganda machine by having the U.S. counter with Internet outreach meant to spread democratic principles across the region.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another GOP presidential candidate, has proposed something similar, saying last week that a federal agency should be tasked with disseminating “Judeo-Christian Western values” around the world.

“[ISIS] puts out a lot of propaganda all over the world and particularly feed on disenfranchised people,” Carson said. “We need to be targeting those people also with very different messages.

“We need to get our messages out just as effectively as they’re getting theirs out, and we have the capability to do that, but we’re neglecting to do so,” Carson added.

Finally, Carson called for a cyber war against ISIS, saying the U.S. must be “hacking their servers or putting pressure on whoever is allowing them to utilize those servers.”

He also said the Transportation Security Administration needs an overhaul, with a focus on training workers to identify potential threats.

Carson’s detailed plan comes after weeks in which he had a hard time answering questions related to U.S. interests abroad and generally struggled to put forth a consistent or coherent message regarding his vision on foreign policy.

Those struggles were exacerbated when Duane Clarridge, a former CIA agent who has briefed Carson on national security on several occasions, aired his grievances to The New York Times, saying that Carson was incapable of quickly absorbing foreign policy information.

“I didn’t expect that, and I knew as soon as I saw it that it would do a lot of damage,” Carson said. “But we’ll weather that.”

The Carson team pushed back strongly, saying that Clarridge has only briefed Carson on a handful of occasions and describing the former CIA agent as “an elderly gentleman” who had been manipulated by the paper.

But Armstrong Williams, Carson’s long-time friend and confidant, was also quoted in the piece. Last week, Carson seemed to rebuke Williams at a campaign stop in Alabama, saying that Williams, who is not officially with the campaign but acts as a surrogate on television, doesn’t speak for him.

The two appear close as ever now. Williams was with Carson for a stretch over the weekend in South Carolina and sat in on the Sunday phone call with The Hill.

Still, there is evidence that Carson has been politically damaged by the turbulence. His favorability rating, though still the best in the GOP field, has swung lower. And after Carson and Trump spent weeks jockeying atop the polls, Trump is once again pulling away.

Carson said Sunday that after dealing with weeks of reporters questioning the veracity of his life story, which is the lynchpin of his appeal, he expected the polling damage would have been much worse.

“I expect ups and downs, and honestly, I’m a little shocked it didn’t go down more with the concerted attack that’s been going on, the intensity of the blitzkrieg,” Carson said.

“There’s plenty of time and people get to know you through how you react to these adversities,” he continued. “Some people, their poll numbers go down and they get all huffy and start attacking people. It gives people an opportunity to see who you are and how you react to various things, and that’s good.”