I had a few reactions to Gary Johnson’s televised admission that he didn’t know what Aleppo was. The first was “how refreshing to see someone on television admit that he doesn’t know something!” It’s an open secret in the think tank/pundit-sphere that the first rule of talking about politics on TV is to proceed as though you know everything about everything. “If you’re on TV talking about it, you’re an expert on it,” as one Media Professional put it.
Teaching this way of thinking is helpful to the rare aspiring pundit who worries about what he doesn’t know, or who lives in fear that he might wind up on a split screen with the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq on the subject. (Spoiler: Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, who took time out of his day to do an interview trashing Johnson, does smarm better than he does Syrian politics or geography . If anybody should be embarrassed from this whole thing, it’s Chris Hill.)
My second reaction, though, was to think what a sad reflection the interview was on the extent to which the Libertarian (and libertarian) infrastructure had underinvested in foreign policy. Hundreds of millions of dollars each year pump through the conservative and liberal foreign policy complexes to train foot soldiers, educate future policymakers, and generally condition the battlefield in a way amenable to the prerogatives of neoconservatism and liberal imperialism, respectively. There is nothing similar from the viewpoint of non-interventionism or restraint in Washington.
Foreign policy is an elite sport in the United States, and the media and pundit world quickly piled on Johnson in a way many voters wouldn’t have. But particularly with a Libertarian candidate, elites play a role in legitimizing or delegitimizing a candidate, and this was all they needed to pile on. Never mind that I doubt Mike Pence could point to Aleppo on a map–he could have shot a winsome smile and mumbled something about American exceptionalism that would have sufficed. Johnson was unprepared because there’s little constituency for preparing him.
But as I stewed about how Johnson lacked a foreign policy team–and how my former colleagues at Cato had to fight long shot, lopsided battles day in and day out in Washington–the third thought occurred to me. If you think the United States is terrifically secure–so secure that Americans are far removed from the consequences of unsound foreign policy making–then where is the pressure for more restrained policy supposed to come from? From voters, who are almost totally untouched by the negative consequences of extravagant foreign policies? From elites, who are totally untouched?
The sad coda to this line of thinking was that perhaps Gary Johnson was paying exactly the right amount of attention to foreign policy, given the incentive structure he faces. I recalled a meeting at the office of a prominent libertarian magazine where I was invited to discuss foreign policy with him before his 2012 presidential campaign. The convener had invited a neoconservative journalist and me to brief the candidate. As NJ and I dutifully attacked each other on the Iraq War, blowback, and U.S.-Iran relations, the candidate seemed attentive but uninterested. Not unlike the average American–or even the average American politician–in the absence of talking points carefully drawn up and hammered home by staff.
It’s a certain sort of wistful whimsy that holds if we just #LetGaryDebate, the Libertarian candidate could break through. That seems exceedingly unlikely, given his press appearances in the 2016 campaign thus far. But if libertarians, or Libertarians, are going to play a more prominent role in national politics, dramatically expanding the libertarian foreign policy infrastructure seems like an important prerequisite.