Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Most reasonably informed people will tell you that Gary Johnson doesn’t know a lot about foreign policy, but he has principles. This is partly because Johnson regularly tells people that he’s unusually principled, partly because he’s the nominee of the Libertarian Party, which has a terrific brand for purity, and partly because Johnson so effectively casts himself as a category rather than a person; one of his most frequent interview schticks is to respond to questions with “Libertarians believe … ” Thus, even his critics often suggest that his statements can be extrapolated into an ideology.
Among libertarians, though, the issue is a little less clear. When Johnson announces his principles, they’re roughly the principles of Ron Paul. Nonetheless, Ron Paul speaks more highly of the Green Party’s Jill Stein than of Johnson, specifically because of her foreign policy superiority. That isn’t because she’s more knowledgeable (Paul defends Johnson from claims that his ignorance is relevant), but because she’s more principled.
Do Johnson’s positions reflect claimed principles?
To see why this is, examine the correlation between Johnson’s claimed principles and his approach to military policy. Start with his most frequent statements: he is against regime change, and there has not been a single positive example of regime change in his lifetime. Johnson has gone on record about at least five historical instances of regime change. He supported regime change in Afghanistan and Bosnia (in his 2012 book he says we should not have gone into Afghanistan in Chapter Ten, but supports it in the appendix and consistently favored it before and since). He’s been opposed to regime change in Iraq and in Libya. He probably endorses American efforts in World War II; he’s refused to endorse it in front of libertarian audiences, but he cut an ad that depends on the assumption that he supported it, his campaign contextualized his debate answer, and before his debate answer he’d condemned the US for waiting so long to enter WWII. In his latest book, he declines to pick a side in the Civil War, noting the free trade libertarian and similar arguments for the Confederacy, but that may not be a question of regime change.
His next most frequent condemnation is of interventions generally, sometimes with an exception for responses to attacks and sometimes for humanitarian wars, despite his view that “without exception” intervention makes things worse. This general rule means that sometimes he says that fighting ISIS does no good; if we wipe out ISIS we’re going to create a void; and drone strikes, bombs, boots on the ground, and military interventions in general don’t work, since the successor to ISIS will be “just as bad” or worse. Instead, we should focus on increasing cyberwarfare (sometimes he opposes cyberwarfare and advocates eliminating the NSA and abolishing FISA courts, drawing a moral equivalence between them and China, but at other times he denies advocating this), treating those who practice Sharia in America like Kim Davis, oil sanctions, and a Weld-described “expensive” and “not libertarian” thousand-man expansion of the FBI focused on counterterrorism combined with changes in criminal procedure such that investigations against potential terrorists would not be so easily dropped for lack of evidence.
At other times, he supports fighting ISIS, including with drone strikes, bombs, and naval bombardment. He nods along when Weld advocates hypothetical strikes in Yemen. He’s keen to clarify that he’s not a pacifist. He criticizes Obama for insufficient military action against Joseph Kony, despite Kony having attacked America even less than Milosovic. Given support for those interventions, on which Trump is silent or opposes, it is possible that Johnson supports more intervention than Trump does. It might appear inconsistent to sometimes favor attacks on ISIS while opposing intervention in Syria, but Johnson’s problem with Syria is mostly that we’re opposed to Russia, when the only path to peace is to be aligned with Russia, or, in other interviews, hand in hand with Russia. In other words, the problem is that when, in 2011, some of Assad’s troops refused to fire on unarmed civilians, mutinied, and formed the Free Syrian Army, the US failed to support Assad’s crushing of that resistance, and American non-endorsement of atrocities has continued to this day.
Fundamental ignorance of Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria
In August, Johnson claimed that in Libya we supported the opposition, but they were wiped out and their arms were all taken by ISIS. He said this two days after the Libyan government, formerly the rebels, took the ISIS headquarters in Sirte, the last “major” (eighty thousand people) settlement they held in the country. Sometimes Johnson defenders will point out that there are still problems, which there absolutely are, but they aren’t problems on a remotely similar scale to ISIS defeating the opposition. Two factions of the opposition currently rule Libya. ISIS does not.
This sort of basic confusion permeates his thought on foreign policy. He has a five minute summary that explains why he thinks that regime change is wrong. He thinks that Libya is not more stable or safe “since we helped topple its government.” Before the US intervened in Libya, Libya was at the height of a civil war. You don’t have to believe that the intervention was a good idea to believe Libya is more stable and safe today than it was in early March 2011. At some level, Johnson knows this, since he thinks that the newsworthy atrocities were the motivation for intervention and he spends enough time going through airports to know that Libya is not constantly on CNN screens today.
Likewise, he says that Afghanistan is not more democratic than it was under the Taliban. Afghanistan has a better Freedom House score (24) than five out of six of its national neighbors (and Russia). Admittedly, that’s a low bar. Nonetheless, “more democratic than the Taliban” is an even lower bar. Today, Afghan democracy is shamed by being ranked no better than Angola, despite considerable support. Before 9/11, it was shamed by being ranked alongside North Korea. The undemocratic nature of Taliban rule isn’t exactly a closely guarded secret.
As in Libya, Johnson insists on non-recognition of viable forces that are neither ISIS nor tyrannical. Thus, he has said that the US is allied with ISIS against Assad, a claim that is at odds with the many and decisive US attacks against ISIS with no intentional strikes on Assad. He gets there by suggesting that because the Kurds and the FSA, the chief enemies of ISIS in Syria, are opposed to the government, they are allied with ISIS, and hence we are, too, and then that the people we sided with are trivial. His belief that the opposition has been completely wiped out is the heart of his problem with Aleppo; how can you understand a fight in which you refuse to believe that one side of the fight still exists? Sometimes he goes further and says, giggling, that the opposition has not only been destroyed, but that it was mythical to begin with.
None of this means that the invasion of Afghanistan was justified nor that any particular policy in Syria is sound. If I make the argument that Obama should not be president because he has never travelled outside of Washington, you could not soundly defend my stupid claim on the basis that Obama is a bad president, or that Obamacare is poor policy. Nor would disputing my claim make you a supporter; agreement with a conclusion does not justify agreement with an argument. If US intervention in Libya was a strategic and moral mistake on the scale of Hitler invading Russia, Johnson’s claims would still be shamefully ignorant.
Is his ignorance a virtue?
Johnson, his defenders say, may not know about foreign policy specifics, but he knows about libertarian principles. It’s certainly true that someone deeply versed in International Relations theory might grasp contemporary applications of that theory faster and more soundly than someone ignorant about both facts and theory. Johnson knows the institutions who host functions with him (Reason, CATO, Friedman Foundation), but sitting down and reading in long form isn’t how he rolls, so Rothbard and other libertarian staples have passed him by. New Mexico officials had a maximum of two minutes to brief him on any issue, and he would frequently change the subject from policy to fitness; today, watch any interview in which he is asked a third question on the same topic and you’ll see him almost desperate to change it. The one libertarian author whose books he has read is Ayn Rand. He likes to say how his life partner asked him what he believed and he gave her a copy of Atlas Shrugged. He was so passionate about Rand that he read a second book of hers, also fiction, also without a foreign policy focus. The title of his new book, “Common Sense For The Common Good,” rejects theoretical or ideological principle as a claim. The possible nod to theory is a feint. He did name it after Thomas Paine’s book, but says that he doesn’t remember what Paine believed, he just liked the title. Time and again in interviews and speeches he disclaims that a position “isn’t libertarian, but…” The book is, like many of his interviews, filled with examples of favorable polls being used to demonstrate that a position is correct, although he also denies that polls are particularly reflective of reality. One is reminded of Trump’s Fifth Avenue shooting hypothetical; what would it take for people to believe Johnson when he says he’s not into theoretical principles?
Johnson spent most of the campaign claiming as an asset his lack of learning. Good government is easy. He has the advantage of not knowing the rules, which means that there are no sacred cows. He argues further that “The fact that somebody can dot the I’s and cross the T’s on a foreign leader or a geographic location then allows them to put our military in harm’s way….We elect people who can dot the I’s and cross the T’s on these names and geographic locations, as opposed to the underlying philosophy, which is, Let’s stop getting involved in these regime changes.”
His later effort was the 2016 approach to policy competence of giving a prepared and reasoned speech. He’s often claimed that Clinton was well intentioned but hapless, but here he explicitly claimed that he, Johnson, was a “chess player”. Unlike Clinton, he would not only consider his opponent’s response when moving but also his own follow up (chess enthusiasts often plan more than one move ahead, but Johnson claims only to be a chess player, not a chess master). This speech, given after some of his gaffes but before others, rejected the first approach.
Thus for a change he made accurate claims about the size of the defense budget, but more significantly avoided kowtowing to Russia. Indeed, he promised to use economic power to “end the era” of the US being “powerless to influence” Russia. Russia would have “no choice but to be concerned about the economic and diplomatic ramifications of their actions.” He also promised to rule with free trade, a claim somewhat in tension with this (free trade is where the government does not intervene in markets, muscular use of economic influence for political reasons is intervention in markets). Nonetheless, as with Pence at the debate, there was a moment of apparent resolve. Unfortunately, when the speech ended, a student asked for details. Johnson’s hilarious response focused mostly on the portion of his stump speech that addressed Uber and young people finding work. When the moderator insisted that he explain how he would resist Russia, Johnson went back to talking about supporting Putin in Syria, making it clear that whoever wrote the speech failed to convey to Johnson how or why we might wish to engage in resistance. Aggression against third party non-NATO Members would be fine, returning to a general policy of appeasement of Russia.
Does ignorance matter?
Johnson objects to questions about foreign policy specifics on the basis that they are easy to google. This defense is undone by the chess analogy. It is important to competent chess playing that one is highly familiar with the existence, alignment, placement, and movement capabilities of each and every piece.
This problem with googling when issues arise is partly that knowledge is often layered (this is part of the reason that a grandmother with WebMD is no substitute for a doctor). Thus, although Johnson has access to Google today, he nonetheless frequently makes the claim that he could reduce the Defense budget by 20% without reducing capabilities because the BRAC Commission claimed that bases could be reduced by 20% “in the mid 1990s”. Kevin Williamson takes apart the first layer of ignorance here, noting that bases aren’t really a big part of the defense budget. Even if Johnson internalized this and lowered his aim accordingly, the last of the Commissions he could be referring to was in 1995. There has been some change in the demands on the military since the post Cold War reforms, with BRAC closures taking place as a consequence, rather than a primary driver, of tremendous drops in manpower. Even if Johnson internalized that and understood the relevance, he uses BRAC closures as the sole major example of spending cuts he would engage in (closing departments by moving agencies to other departments isn’t a spending cut, particularly when paired with more FBI, massive new non-libertarian “emergency” federal jobs and education spending on African American men, a new Social Security death benefit, more oversight of police training on race, etc.), claiming that this would allow him to balance a budget. The BRAC consolidation of bases support long term savings but incorporate up front costs; no BRAC commission has reduced spending for the administration of the President that commissioned it.
The BRAC isn’t magic, but a way of fulfilling policy set at the top, and Johnson has no idea what he wants. Sometimes he says that we should not have any bases overseas at all, since our refueling abilities give us a global reach anyway (you will note that he also thinks we spend twice as much as we do on defense and have twice as many troops in Europe). Sometimes he suggests that we should have them. For example, “I would completely withdraw our military presence [from Afghanistan]. Does withdrawing our military presence from Afghanistan mean that we would still have a base open in Afghanistan if they allowed us to keep a base open? Perhaps.” When he’s talking to Charles Krauthammer, he suggests that the Navy “may be the direction that we should pursue”. How would he find out? He suggests that people should apply for White House jobs, he’d hire people who thought like him, and something would emerge. When he talks to Military Times after his success in their poll, he says he would not bring upheaval to the Pentagon and that “I will exempt from that category [of government that can be cut by 20%] those that are serving, the resources going to those that are serving, and veterans. There is no obligation that is too great for those we have asked to do that.”
It is also a problem because, while some problems are somewhat like chess (what is the minimum force level we need to achieve a particular goal, for instance), foreign policy is not a zero sum game and sometimes involves nuance. Johnson appeases Putin by rejecting the protection of the borders of countries with whom we only have collective defense treaties that he believes did not get Senate approval. In addition to explicitly “reassuring” Putin on Syria and Ukraine, he would also provide comfort by pulling back the US military presence from Europe even from NATO allies. Why don’t we need those troops? Because Russia knows that we would nuke them if they invaded one of the Baltic Republics and we can send aircraft and redeploy quickly (although, obviously, if we close our European bases we probably can’t redeploy all that quickly, and certainly not at a “speed of Russia rolling through Estonia” level). This is roughly the foreign policy mistake that Trump was most mocked for (Johnson failed on the chief rival for that title, the nuclear triad, too). Johnson accuses Clinton of being likely to start a nuclear war because she tries to appear tough. What this misses is that nukes being the first line of defense makes nuclear war far more likely; it’s precisely because she has a little education in “looking tough” and escalation theory, a subject that she has talked about frequently, that Clinton, like most Presidents, is likely to steer clear of the top levels of escalation. A foreign policy that ends the Pax Americana has all kinds of economic and moral consequences at lower levels, but it is also pretty terrible at managing the risk of the ultimate horror unless one goes all the way and also foreswears the use of nuclear weapons.
Johnson likes to say that if you’re honest, you don’t have to remember anything. As anyone who has underprepared for a test before knows firsthand, even if Johnson were honest, it would be helpful for him to remember some things. Nonetheless, one does not need to know a lot to appear to be a principled non-interventionist. If you think that regime changes are always bad, for instance, don’t support the toppling of governments, even when it’s popular. If you think we should not have bases overseas, don’t suggest we should have bases overseas, even when talking to people who want them. If you think that we need a chess player in the White House and that you might be president, spend a little time with a book. If you think that US military intervention is morally equivalent to chemical warfare attacks on children, don’t call for US military intervention, even when Facebook makes a Kony documentary popular. Given that Johnson correctly identifies himself as a non-pacifist, Ramesh’s post does not show that he has pacifist principles, but that he has no principles.
Although if Johnson simply imitated Ron Paul’s answers he could appear more principled and knowledgable (and he’d probably have landed Paul’s endorsement), imitation still wouldn’t make him principled. To be principled doesn’t just mean that you answer in line with a principle, but that you do so out of sincere commitment. Johnson and Weld suggest that immigration enforcement is kind of like the Holocaust, but do not apologize or even imply concern about the immigration enforcement, including raids, that took place under them as governors. When they further propose, without regret, apology, or concern, a policy of universally deporting people when their work visas are done, they make it clear that they never believed their implied principle, to wit, that deportations are unthinkably evil and Anne Frank references are appropriate. When Weld describes the border fence as reminding him of the Berlin Wall, Johnson does not feel a need to explain why he was one of the earliest governors in the country to come out in favor of that sort of fencing in 1995, supporting the building of a fence at Sunland Park to follow on from Clinton’s first walls in San Diego and El Paso. Sunland Park marked an early instance of the “Berlin Wall” line. One can be principled and support Clinton’s walls but not Bush’s, but it’s hard to see principle that makes one section of border fence positive and another shockingly evil. Similarly, the suggestion that Libya today is ruled by either Gaddafi or by ISIS shows that Johnson’s short temper on these things is a Trumpian temper, a snapping about disrespect, rather than a concern for the issues.
A candidate does not have to work hard to make it possible to believe that he has principles; he just needs to support them more often than he opposes them. A candidate does not have to work particularly hard to suggest that he cares a little about the issues; if reading TWS or the NYT is outside his comfort zone (and properly digesting some articles can take more than two minutes on a single topic), there are limited government and libertarian digests. Paying attention to them would have been enough; it’s not like he’s under much scrutiny. He’d have avoided proof of his ignorance and some of the proof that he is uninterested in principles. Trump’s limited efforts to educate himself have been mocked, but anyone depressed and angry at Republicans running a D student against a do-anything-to-win A student may take comfort in looking at the Libertarian Party and being reminded that there are grades worse than D. It is also helpful to remember that it is not true that fringe candidates are necessarily more principled than their more successful peers.