“What is Aleppo?”—It’s Time to Address the Libertarian Foreign Policy Blind Spot


It happens once, it’s a forgivable gaffe. It happens twice, we have a real problem.

When Gary Johnson asked “What is Aleppo?” on MSNBC’s Meet the Press earlier this month, I experienced a cringe of disbelief. It was shocking and depressing that this clearly intelligent and literate man did not actually know what or where Aleppo was, or that it was host to some of the grisliest horrors of the Syrian conflict. It was a missed opportunity, a chance for the Libertarian candidate to demonstrate a clear differentiation between his own foreign policy position and that of his two mainstream rivals. He had the chance to deliver a slam dunk against the mindless, unthinking intervention of Clinton and Trump, and he blew it.

Now Johnson has done it again: When asked to name a foreign leader he admires, Johnson was unable to name anyone. Perceptually, that is a huge problem. Libertarians are known for a tendency toward isolationism and disregard for what happens beyond America’s shores, and an apparent lack of even basic knowledge of the people who are shaping the world order, represents a serious problem for the legitimacy of the movement.

SEE ALSO: A Libertarian World Order: Reconsider Cutting the Military and Abandoning Institutions by John Engle

Many libertarians jumped to Johnson’s defense, either through excoriation of Clinton for having helped create the conflict that has engulfed the city, or through the rather flaccid argument that Johnson had simply experienced a momentary brain fart in the context of an early morning interview. Yet the Libertarian candidate’s discussion of the conflict in Syria, and in the Middle East more broadly, has shown a level of knowledge that makes it clear he definitely did not know what Aleppo was, irrespective of the earliness of the hour. And that is a real problem for both Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party.

Foreign policy has been a black box for Libertarians for a long time. The usual policy line is that a libertarian administration would pull back from wars of choice and would not pursue regime change and other adventurist military policies. That all sounds well and good, but when there is no fine-grained explanation for the steps and the consequences of such actions, the whole policy falls apart. Foreign policy demands detail, and libertarians consistently fail to deliver.

Sure, Donald Trump has managed to run a no-facts campaign very effectively. But history shows he is an aberration. And besides, a third party candidate by their very nature has a higher bar of legitimacy to fulfill. Is that fair? Probably not. But it is the reality we live in. For a Libertarian to stand a chance, he has to be seen as a serious and knowledgeable individual who can pass the all-important commander-in-chief test. And when it comes to someone from an unusual background or ideology, the bar is set very high on that score.

Johnson has now failed to meet that standard twice. What that will mean for his candidacy is uncertain. But as we struggle to guarantee the crucial 5 percent threshold for federal funding in future elections, such stumbles are cause for real concern. If we are ever going to build a serious political alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, we need to be far smarter and more knowledgeable on foreign policy. We cannot stand beside platitudes and simple bromides. We have to win on the fine-grained knowledge or we will lose every time to the established parties.

SEE ALSO: Debating or Not, a Vote for Gary Johnson is NOT a Waste by John Engle

We have to get smarter on foreign policy or we will never get anywhere. We need to know what Aleppo is, and who runs the world. Expecting anything less from our standard-bearers is an insult.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.