Speaking with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday, Ben Carson unintentionally demonstrated that attaining celebrity status among right-wing activists is not quite reason enough to mount a presidential campaign. The neurosurgeon-turned-conservative commentator, who recently launched a 2016 exploratory committee, thoroughly embarrassed himself by showing a breathtaking ignorance of foreign policy and religious history, falsely suggesting that the Baltic states are not part of the NATO alliance and implying that Islam predates Christianity.
Pressed on how he would respond if Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in hostile action against the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, Carson replied, "We need to convince them to get involved in NATO and strengthen NATO."
Hewitt noted that the three states are already part of the alliance, which prompted a confused Carson to claim, "Well, when you were saying Baltic state, I thought you were continuing our conversation about the former components of the Soviet Union. Obviously, there’s only three Baltic states."
"Right, and they’re all part of NATO," Hewitt emphasized.
"Right," acknowledged Carson.
Asked about how he'd deal with Islamic terrorism, Carson told Hewitt, “You have to recognize that they go back thousands and thousands of years — really back to the battle between Jacob and Esau.”
“Dr. Carson, you know, Mohammed lives in 632 A.D. So it’s a 13, a 1,400-year-old religion," Hewitt pointed out. "How do you go back to Jacob and Esau, which is B.C.?”
“I’m just saying that the conflict has been ongoing for thousands of years,” Carson said. “This is not anything new, is what I’m saying.”
While the exchanges underscored that Carson is far from ready from prime time, he's hardly the only Republican to commit a cringe-inducing foreign policy gaffe. Below, Salon looks back at five other cases.
Herman Cain: "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan"
"I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come," businessman Herman Cain told CBN's David Brody during his flash-in-the-pan run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. "And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?"
George W. Bush: "No, can you?"
Perhaps Cain had been thinking of George W. Bush, who as a presidential candidate in 1999 failed to accurately name the leaders of three out of four foreign territories during a local television interview.
"Can you name the president of Chechnya?" reporter Andy Hiller asked
"No, can you?" Bush replied, visibly miffed.
Bush could not identify the prime minister of India, and he referred to newly installed Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf as simply "the general." He did know, however, that the Taiwanese president was named "Lee" -- specifically, Lee Teng-hui.
Sarah Palin: "In what respect, Charlie?"
Back when Bush was struggling to name the leaders of global hot spots, Sarah Palin was the mayor of a little hamlet called Wasilla, Alaska. Nine years later, she'd be catapulted into the national spotlight when John McCain named her his vice presidential running mate. Asked by ABC's Charlie Gibson for her views on Bush's signature foreign policy doctrine -- a willingness to employ preventive, unilateral military force -- Palin was positively stumped.
Ronald Reagan: "We begin bombing in five minutes"
During his 1984 re-election campaign, President Ronald Reagan tested the sound before his national radio address by cracking a wise one about starting a war with the Soviet Union. "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes," he said. Though his joke wasn't broadcast live, it later leaked, prompting the Soviets to briefly place their military on alert.
Gerald Ford: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe"
In one of the more noteworthy flubs to emerge from a presidential debate, President Gerald Ford asserted in his 1976 face-off with Jimmy Carter, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." An incredulous Max Frankel, the moderator, asked Ford if he really meant that there was no Soviet domination in the Eastern bloc of communist countries, but Ford refused to retract his claim.