The Bigger Picture of "What is Aleppo?"

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson exploded the internet today because he asked "What is Aleppo?"

Seriously guys, what even is a "LEPPO?" Is that an acronym?

Seriously guys, what even is a "LEPPO?" Is that an acronym?

Pretty much every single news site proceeded to eviscerate him. Twitter made "Aleppo" a trending topic. Google Trends shows that Aleppo shot up in searches in the last few hours. Coverage from Time, The Hill, CNN, NPR, etc. has not been kind. 

Should a presidential candidate know what Aleppo is? Of course. But for in the end, it was a simple mistake, a brain fart, and not a significant deal.

We can all mock him for a day and move on. You heard it here first. You have my blessing.

What was far more interesting was his answers about Syria after his Aleppo gaffe. 

JOHNSON: Well, with regard to Syria, I do think that it’s a mess. I think that the only way that we deal with Syria is to join hands with Russia to diplomatically bring that at an end. But when we’ve aligned ourselves with — when we’ve supported the opposition of the Free Syrian Army — the Free Syrian Army is also coupled with the Islamists.

And then the fact that we’re also supporting the Kurds and this is — it’s just — it’s just a mess. And that this is the result of regime change that we end up supporting. And, inevitably, these regime changes have led a less-safe world.

JOHNSON: Well, no, I do understand Aleppo, and I — I understand the crisis that is going on. But when we involve ourselves militarily — when we involve ourselves in these humanitarian issues we end up — we end up with a situation that in most cases is not better, and in many cases ends up being worse.
And we find ourselves always — politicians are up against the wall and asked what to do about these things and this is why we end up committing military force in areas that, like I say, at the end of the day have an unintended consequence of making things worse.

A libertarian friend of mine described this particular exchange as "waffle." Indeed, this particular quote is largely meaningless. Essentially, he said that Syria is a mess. 

Breaking news! Water is wet. More at 11. 

Pictured here: a "mess."

Pictured here: a "mess."

But how does Gary Johnson really feel about the Syrian conflict? And how should we as American people feel? And what is the right thing to do?

First, we must discuss foreign policy. 

At the core of Libertarian foreign policy is "mutual respect". According to the Libertarian Party's website, two main facets of libertarian foreign policy or "sane foreign policy" are: 

  1. Building positive relationships

  2. Avoiding negative relations (military non-interventionism).

Libertarians cite the United States' enormous defense budget as wasteful, aggressive, and counter-productive to global peace. While it is true that we spend an absolutely incredible amount of tax dollars on the military, anyone who has taken basic foreign policy classes can tell you that America's position as the world's superpower and its massive military is no coincidence. 

If American foreign policy had to be described in one word, it would be "Power."

America leverages its tremendous influence with a carrot and a stick. However, American foreign policy has evolved dramatically throughout history. Warren Cohen's "Challenges to American Primacy" describes a post-1945 world where the United States filled a massive power vacuum and never really let go. Presidential foreign policy doctrines have evolved with each administration, but the core premise has always been this: America is number one, and we must do everything to keep it that way. 

The United States has complete economic dominance, military supremacy, and institutional influence over the rest of the world.

Back to Aleppo. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. Barrel bombs are dropped over civilian areas. The Free Syrian Army has crumbled and members have been absorbed largely by the Al-Nusra Front, designated to be a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. Johnson wasn't wrong; Syria is a mess.

But does Syria have to be a mess? Libertarians say yes. 

To Johnson and the 9% of Americans who support him, the United States should be Switzerland. The Libertarian Party calls is "Armed Neutrality: the Swiss Model of Defense." Essentially, Libertarians want the United States to have a strict policy of non-interventionism. No invading nations. No pre-emptive strikes. No Seal Team 6s.

Sounds pretty good, right? America shouldn't be the world's bully. 

Or is that being idle? We're not Switzerland, the European capitol of "Do-Nothing-ville." The United States has tremendous capacity to right wrongs in the world.

Take, for example, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, also known as the Gulf War. George HW Bush and a frankly impressive coalition of nations pushed Saddam Hussein's forces back in less than 100 hours and secured Kuwaiti independence. It was principled. It was decisive. And it was fast! Kuwait is described as one of the Middle East's most liberal nations in regards to civil liberties and political rights. The nation ranks highly for freedom of press (at least compared to the rest of the Middle East), and is arguably one of the most democratic states in the region. 

Compare that to our global failures to intervene. Bosnia. Rwanda. Sudan. Syria. ISIL. Genocides. Ethnic killings. Crimes against humanity.

We look back on our failures to intervene with regret. 

But we can't do it alone. The global political scene is filled with individual actors, states, and alliances. Shared principles of democracy, human rights, and essential freedoms unite many states together on the international stage. America is an international leader, and has been one for the last hundred years. When America speaks, the world listens. A president's foreign policy needs to be measured, decisive, and careful. Being a global leader means that we have a unique responsibility to care about the problems that the rest of the world has, that we can do something about it.

We rebuff unchecked military aggression. We unite nations to push sanctions. We draw international attention to human rights violations. I'm not advocating for the expansion of the already sprawling American military. I'm not championing the reduction of our armed forces. But the American influence is a powerful tool, and we need to be ready to wield it if necessary.

So what about Aleppo? That's for our next president, and the American public, to decide. If anything at all came out of this gaffe, it should remind the American people that there are people suffering, dying, and we allowed this to happen instead of fixing the problem. That's why we elect responsible, educated people who know statecraft, diplomacy, and how to make things better.

That's not you, Gary.

Gary doesn't know what Aleppo is. That's fine.

Gary doesn't care about Aleppo. That's not.

So that's foreign policy, but what about diplomacy and foreign policy? Check out our podcast, Collegiate Cronkites, for more information.

Skip to about the 18:04 mark to hear more.