Libertarian Presidential spoiler Gary Johnson tipped his hand in a major gaffe today when he responded "What is Aleppo?" to a question about the besieged Syrian city; and it turns out his hand has more than a couple Jokers in it.
This is a man who claims to be bidding for the highest executive office in one of the most powerful and influential international powers and he was caught unaware by a question about the most important city in the most important conflict in the world today.
The Syrian Civil War did not break out yesterday. It has raged since 2011 - in other words, he should have started studying it the last time he ran for President. He has failed to learn anything of substance about it in half of a decade, instead choosing to fill his time with, from his personal presentation, biking and mountain climbing. Mike Barnicle of MSNBC had a spot on reaction to Johnson's bewilderment - "You're serious?" The internet community has seized on this gaffe precisely because Aleppo has become a household name - alongside Homs, Damascus, Raqqah, and Palmyra. Ignorance is not just no excuse: it is a liability.
Any candidate worth their salt must be familiar with the conflict. And yet the gaffe didn't end with "What is Aleppo?" Mike Barnicle had to provide three distinct prompts to Johnson before finally getting him on track by mentioning that it is not just a city in Syria, but the "epicenter of the refugee crisis." But to be honest, Johnson wasn't on track but on a parallel one. Rather than talk about the distinct dynamics in play in Aleppo, Johnson takes off on a talking point about Syria writ large.
The first two Jokers - Johnson hasn't been following the Syrian Civil War, and doesn't understand the importance of that conflict's most important city and the implications of the refugee crisis.
Johnson then makes some broad, half-true declarations about the war seemingly gleaned from headlines passing on his Facebook feed: that the Syrian Opposition is in league with Islamists. There are Islamists on most sides of the conflict, but there is no monolithic "Opposition" and there are more than the two sides he implies in his response. Third Joker.
Honestly, he'd have been better off leaving it at that punt - "I do think that it's a mess" - but he then goes on to show his fourth Joker, that he supports a "diplomatic" solution to the conflict in league with Russia.
At first blush, this seems sensible, save for the facts that "the Opposition" and the Assad regime are at loggerheads over who gets to rule the region and that Russia is committed to a military resolution of the conflict. Furthermore, it does not account for the loose cannon that is Turkey vis a vis the Kurds and Russia, it does not consider the ongoing security agreements in Iraq (under threat by the Islamic State which is taking advantage of an unenforceable border), and the lax environment and ample propaganda potential such a decision would create for the Islamic State as they move to increase their footholds in Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.
Ultimately, these are all symptoms of a core problem that Johnson suffers as a Libertarian: his approach to foreign policy seems to be right in line with Libertarian Party doctrine, to wit, that we shouldn't have a foreign policy. His solution to the Syrian question is to extricate by the most expeditious means possible, without regard for the outcome or the people involved. He even goes so far as to explicitly blame "regime change" for the entirety of the crisis, language which suggests an external hand rather than the Syrian people rising up in civil war.
This lack of a plan further suggests the restoration of Assad to power, a plan which falls right in line with Russian goals and will therefore likely earn Johnson accolades from Trump. This alignment also highlights a conflict within Libertarian philosophy. It seems that isolationism trumps a people's right to self-determination. This lack of a plan completely fails to address the millions of people who are displaced by the conflict; who have no homes to return to, whose nation is threatened by the Islamic State regardless of the diplomatic relations between Assad and the Opposition, and who likely would be in grave danger should they return to Syria under a restored Assad. This lack of a plan ignores the pressures which the conflict is placing on the politics of many nations, many of whom are dealing with a wave of terrorism and a rising tide of far-right nationalism in response. Disconnecting with Syria and disinterest in the welfare of countries with whom we have old and deep diplomatic and economic ties beckons disaster.
While this blog has previously acknowledged the wisdom of status quo ante in Syria, that assessment was also made only one year into the conflict. In the last four years, the United States has committed to one side over the other and a reversal of that position out of misguided isolationist principles will do far more damage to American standing than holding course. Cooperation with Russia is possible with regards to defeating the Islamic State, but only insofar as the Islamic State challenges stability in Syria. The end-state of that Syrian stability is going to be the result of diplomatic negotiations between Russia and the United States - and will only include Syria as a matter of protocol. The problem is bigger than it used to be, and it requires a committed and nuanced approach. It will not go away for being ignored.
But a total lack of any nuanced foreign policy - or even evidence of a gloss on Syria - constitutes only the flagrant failures of Johnson. The final Joker is in what this gaffe shows about his overall skill as an executive.
Nobody is President alone. Every head of state has a team which they build to inform them of events and policy, to help them craft strategies and talking points, to groom their presentation.
This gaffe indicates a failure of Johnson's own interest in the conflict. It indicates that the failure was so total that he did not even instruct his team to get him a briefing on the topic. Furthermore, it indicates that the sort of people that Johnson has chosen to guide and aid him in presenting an executive presence ALSO failed to take an interest in the topic, to take initiative and prepare their candidate, to support him and make him competent. Instead, these are people who have let the campaign slogan be "Feel the Johnson," apparently oblivious to the fact that if you are feeling the johnson, you are getting fucked. Luckily, they made that clear today. The Johnson campaign is the blind leading the blind, no matter which way you look at it.