The “Aleppo moment”

Gary-Johnsonx-large-1Gary Johnson has had another “Aleppo moment”. Aleppo is the Syrian town at the centre of the three-way fight for control of the country between the Stalinist regime of Bashar Assad, some apparently fairly liberal rebels, and the medieval forces of Da’esh (Islamic State). When asked about Aleppo, Johnson replied “what is Aleppo?”

He also struggled to come up with an answer as to who is his favourite foreign leader. It is true that libertarians are unlikely to have many governmental leaders among their heroes, and your columnist, who is pretty widely informed on world affairs, would struggle to name a favourite at present. But there are still ways that Johnson could have answered this question that would have sounded informed. He could have said, for example, “I quite like Angela Merkel’s policies on X, though I have serious differences with her on other issues”. He could even have volunteered “Well it certainly isn’t Vladimir Putin”. Even if you don’t want to nail your colours to some other politician, there are plenty of ways to answer that question.

Instead, Johnson himself volunteered that this was another “Aleppo moment”. He praised the “former president of Mexico”, but couldn’t come up with the name. It was running-mate, William Weld, who suggested that he meant Vicente Fox.

Johnson’s background is as state governor. He was the guy in charge of New Mexico’s government. That’s a good background for a president, and he would not have had much need to deal in foreign affairs, except somewhat with President Fox across the border. But he’s running for president now. Shouldn’t he at least be reading about events in other countries? Indeed, even as governor of New Mexico some curiosity about the world at large would be welcome. Singapore, for example, has an excellent system of healthcare. Isn’t that the sort of thing a state governor should probably know about? Perhaps some knowledge of education reform in Sweden or South Korea would be valuable too.

If Johnson were to become president, he would not have to recall the names of leaders in other countries. Aleppo would be covered in his daily briefing. A president is not short of data. A chief executive needs to be able to make decisions based on the data. That’s why governors, entrepreneurs and, occasionally, generals have proved to be good presidents. But a president who comes in with a clear interest in foreign affairs is going to be at an advantage. This is, after all, a field in which a president can formulate policy with fairly minimal involvement from Congress. It’s great that Johnson wants to cut taxes, reform entitlements, and end the drug war. But he can’t without Congressional support. He can make foreign policy.

He wants to change foreign policy to something less interventionist. He’s going to have to battle with the establishment at the Pentagon, at Foggy Bottom and at Langley. To take them on he probably needs to know what he is talking about.

This is hardly reassuring about Johnson. His instincts and experience are generally sound, but if he is uninformed on this key area, it’s a worry.

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Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it

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