Brain Surgery Would Have Been Easier: Ben Carson’s Struggles With Foreign Policy

On the morning of September 5th, 1987, a brilliant young neurosurgeon named Ben Carson stood over the motionless, butterflied bodies of the 7-month old Binder boys at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Surrounded by an extensive team comprised of some of the brightest medical minds in America, the 35-year old Carson would soon be entrusted with making the most delicate incisions throughout what would wind up being a 22-hour surgery to separate these conjoined twins who had the gross misfortune to have been born with their skulls fused together. At the time, there were only a handful of neurosurgeons with the requisite dexterity, knowledge and skill to slice through the complex web of blood vessels shared by the twins and Carson was maybe the most gifted of them all.

While some of these gifts were certainly of the natural or “god-given” variety, much of Dr. Carson’s prodigious ability came from a relentless work ethic and years upon years of intensive study. By the time that September morning rolled around, Carson had completed 4 years of undergraduate study at Yale, another 4 years of study at the University of Michigan Medical School, 6 years as a neurosurgical resident at Johns Hopkins and a year abroad as a senior registrar in neurosurgery at Sir Charles Gardner Medical Hospital in Perth, Australia before returning to Hopkins and spending 3 years as the university’s Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery. In the months leading up to the surgery, Carson and his team went over the strategy for the surgery again and again, practicing on baby dolls attached at the head by velcro to try and simulate what the surgery would be like. And, even with all this experience at his disposal and all of their practice, Carson and his team were ultimately only partially successful.


Ben Carson’s campaign bus parked outside one of the candidate’s rallies in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Initially, the surgery seemed to be remarkable triumph. Overcoming great odds, the young twins had been successfully separated from one another, but neither of them would go on to lead anything approaching a normal life. When they were eventually discharged from the hospital and sent back to their home in Germany, one twin had undergone enough neurological damage during the surgery to result in developmental delays while the other twin was unresponsive and in a vegetative state. By the age of 7, both children were still in diapers, unable to sit up straight, make words, lift their limbs or imbibe food and drink without aide. Soon thereafter, with her now ex-husband an alcoholic wreck and unable to deal with the emotional and physical toll of taking care of two severely disabled children, their mother gave them up to be taken care of as wards of the state. From what little can be gathered about them today, one of the twins has died, while the other continues to live in an asylum. In an interview given several years after the surgery, the mother of twins told a German paper that she wished she never authorized the surgery, saying that she flew to Baltimore with, “a healthy, happily babbling baby bundle and came back to [Germany] with two lifeless, soundless, mentally and physically…damaged human bundles.”

My purpose in outlining the story of the Binder twins for you is not to impugn Dr. Carson’s prodigious abilities as a neurosurgeon so much as to demonstrate that, even with a lifetime of practice and what might appear to be initial success, complex operations such as this one can turn into disasters over time. Given what he has written about the Binder surgery in his memoirs and the remarks he has made concerning it in interviews, it would seem that Carson doesn’t see, or doesn’t care to see, how this nominally successful surgery led to the disintegration of a family and two severely damaged lives.

In his most recent book, My Life, Carson again recounts the tense moments before, during and after the incredibly complex surgery to separate these craniopagus twins. In the book, he describes the moment the drugs began to wear off and the boys first started to come to consciousness. “I couldn’t believe what was happening.” Carson wrote. “I hadn’t expected them to survive twenty-four hours, yet here they were progressing beyond my wildest dreams.” In My Life, Carson stops talking about the boys when they turned two years old, claiming that he is unable to go any further into the story because of a contract signed by the twins’ parents and the German magazine Bunte for exclusive rights, but given the fact that that contract ended when the boys turned 18 in 2005, it’s far more likely that Carson ended the narrative then because, at that point, it still makes for a heartwarming story. After all, it would have been a bit crass for Carson to talk about a distraught mother being forced to hand her permanently disabled children over to an asylum and then end by proclaiming, “Thank you, God. Thank you! I know you had your hand in this.”

Carson’s real or feigned short-sightedness when it comes to the long term consequences of his actions as a neurosurgeon are not immaterial when it comes to determining the sort of president he might be. At a campaign rally in Ft. Wayne, Indiana on Thursday, Carson spent a good portion of his speech trying to shutdown some of his naysayers who claimed that his knowledge of foreign affairs was abysmal and not befitting a man with presidential aspirations. While not nearly as stilted as his recent address to the Republican Jewish Coalition, which was described by some in the media as sounding more like a book report than a speech on middle eastern policy, Carson’s remarks to a crowd of around 2,000 supporters in the heart of Indiana’s rust belt came off as over-simplistic and absurd.

When talking about the Syrian refugee crisis, Carson played up his recent visit to the middle east and to a refugee camp in Jordan and argued that the Obama administration had constructed a false narrative for the American people regarding the crisis:

“What we’ve been told, is that we only have two options. Either we bring in thousands of Syrian refugees…or we turn our backs in cold hearted indifference and forget about them. But there is a third option, which is better than that, which is to take care of them over there, where they already have the capacity to take care of them.” [Italics mine]

The line drew a large swell of applause from the assembled crowd, not because it was a viable alternative to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in nations like America, but because it was exactly what the audience wanted to hear. It is true that the Jordan needs financial aide to deal with the influx of refugees from Syria—the annual budget for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Jordan has increased more than six-fold since the start of the conflict, clocking in at over $400 million in 2015—but it’s also true that only about 15% of the Syrian refugees currently in Jordan are living in refugee camps and that the 650,000 Syrian refugees currently in Jordan only make up about 14% of the registered Syrian refugees in the region—a population in which, it should be noted, more than 80% of its members are living below the local poverty line of a little more than $3 a day. The Jordanians very clearly don’t have the capacity to take care of that many refugees for an indefinite period of time and neither do the Turks or the Lebanese or any other middle eastern nation currently bearing the brunt of this crisis.


Dr. Carson & his wife Candy on a recent trip to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan (Photo Courtesy Dr. Ben Carson Facebook Page)

Later on his speech, after excoriating the Obama administration for not adequately disrupting the distribution of oil that allows ISIS to be so well funded (his sage advice: “you need to do it better.”), Carson put on his Patton boots and started playing general for the Fort Wayne crowd. Citing the recent success of Kurdish forces, when backed by US air support, in retaking the Iraqi city of Sinjar from ISIS control and shutting down a major supply line for the terrorist group, Carson advocated replicating this strategy in Mosul and other major ISIS-controlled cities before going after Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria.

“There are 4 routes in an out of Raqqa.” Carson told the crowd. “We can shut those routes off, soften that city, make it vulnerable, and when they flee from there, we’ll find out where they’re going to set up their command center and we’ll do the same thing there and the same thing there, and we chase them wherever they go.”

It’s a lovely militaristic sentiment, to be sure, but Carson’s drawn-on-a-paper-napkin grade plan is, at best, an exercise in futility. What the good doctor failed to mention was the fact that, within days of the military victory in Sinjar and the closing of an important supply route between Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS had simply created an alternate route, trucking in loads of gravel and dirt to a create stable, albeit unpaved road around the blockaded area. Beyond that, any semi-permanent or permanent closure of supply routes between Mosul and Raqqa would have devastating effects not only on ISIS, but on the large civilian populations who still live in those cities, driving up the cost of food and basic supplies and providing ISIS with an avenue to create enmity between that population and the US-led coalition responsible for the blockade.

As for duplicating the relative success of the retaking of Sinjar in Raqqa, it’s not a safe bet that the Kurds would be able do the job on the ground, even with coalition air support and the help of smaller groups of Sunni Arab fighters and other Arab auxiliaries. However, even if they were able to topple ISIS in Raqqa, there’s very little chance they would be able to establish anything approaching sustainable local governance, particularly if the Kurdish-majority Syrian Defense Forces were to play terrorist whack-a-mole and chase ISIS around from de facto capital to de facto capital until, I suppose, the group would cease to pose a threat.

It’s all well and good for politicians like Carson to refer to the Kurds as singular force in the region and, although they are a definable ethnic group, they are separated by a number of political party and tribal allegiances that would take another article to even begin to explain properly. With that being said, the Kurdish people are the world’s largest ethnic group without their own nation, something that all segments of the Kurdish population would like to rectify. However, the creation of Kurdish state is hardly a universally popular proposition among many other players in the region, particularly Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been carrying out air strikes against the members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is actively involved in the fight against ISIS, and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has the backing of both Russians and the Iranians, with Russia bombing all groups in Syria that oppose the Assad regime, including the Syrian opposition forces that the West has been supporting. And, on top of all that, even the success of US-led coalition forces in eliminating ISIS wouldn’t necessarily do much to help the nearly 4.4 million Syrian refugees spread across the Middle East, since it was the Syrian Civil War and Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party that drove most of them into exile, not ISIS.

There is no simple solution to the Syrian refugee problem and any presidential candidate that tells you he or she has one is either delusional or in the business of selling snake oil. Regardless of which camp Ben Carson falls in, the fact remains that he is patently unqualified to be the Commander in Chief of the United States of America. Before he was allowed to slice through the thin blue vein connecting the bodies of the Binder twins, he had to undergo tens of thousands of hours of schooling and practical experience, proving his worth at every step until his colleagues and patients had the requisite faith to allow him to take another human being’s life in his hands.

As president, Dr. Carson would have the lives of millions upon millions of people placed in his care and he would be accepting that responsibility with zero hours of formal education and real-life experience at his disposal. As a neurosurgeon, if he makes a misstep or takes an ill-calculated risk and fails, he may lose the life of a patient or lessen their quality of life. As president, those same sorts of failures result not in the loss of one life, but in the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

When people joke about how being the President of the United States isn’t exactly brain surgery, they’re right. It’s not. It’s much, much harder.

Categories: 2016 Election, International Affairs, Uncategorized, US Politics

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