Gary Johnson's Foreign Policy: Libertarian or "Strange"?


As Gary Johnson gears up to try to win the Libertarian Party's nod in their Las Vegas national convention in early May, various writers are wondering how thoroughly non-interventionist his foreign policy ideas are (especially in the wake of two Ron Paul campaigns that have raised the bar high for a libertarian-leaning approach to military intervention).

It started with a Daily Caller interview defining Johnson's foreign policy vision as "strange" in a headline. Why strange? Largely because in a macro vision of severe (in D.C. standards) cuts in military and defense spending (of 43 percent), Johnson leaves a lot of room for the sort of interventions the Ron Paul brand of libertarian foreign policy avoids. Johnson

told TheDC that he supports Americas efforts to aid African troops in tracking down Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and that he wouldn't rule out leaving behind American bases in Afghanistan.

Johnson said that while he wants to end the war in Afghanistan, that doesn't mean he would necessarily stop drone attacks against terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, even though he believes they create more enemies than they kill.

"I would want leave all options on the table," Johnson said….

"So now you have the U.S. bases that exist in those areas, do we shut down those military bases? Perhaps not," he suggested, taking an odd position for a supposed anti-war candidate.

"I would completely withdraw our military presence," he further expounded. "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."….

But despite Johnson saying he thinks that the Middle East is a region of the world the United States should maintain a military presence in, he contended that there are "no military threats" to the U.S. anywhere in the world.

"As I'm sitting here right now, there are no military threats against the United States," he said, stipulating that America should be "vigilant" against terrorist attacks on the homeland.

Last year, The Weekly Standard reported that Johnson told the publication that he supported the concept of waging wars for humanitarian reasons despite wanting to cut the military budget by nearly half. Asked whether he stood by that, Johnson said he did.

"I don't want to close the door that if any of us were president of the United States that we would sit idly by and watch something like the Holocaust go down," he said…..

"When you talk about a 43 percent reduction in military spending, that's going back to 2003 funding levels, not the end of the world," he contended, though military planners would likely strongly disagree.

One intervention Johnson said he supports is the U.S. mission to help capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, which Johnson believes is arguably the "worst terrorist" group in the world….

"Based on what I understand about it, that arguably this is the worst terrorist group that's been on the planet for the last 20 years."

He also noted that his mission would have differed from the current one in that he would have asked for volunteers from the military to undertake it with a more belligerent plan to "wipe 'em out."

"Well Congress passed the legislation to authorize us intervening, Obama signed the legislation and then eight months later we have an advisory force that goes in," he said. "I think if I would have signed the legislation that I would have had plans to immediately ask for a volunteer force and gone in and wipe 'em out."

This all matches my own impressions of Johnson the times I've seen him speak, mostly to smaller groups: he's a thoughtful guy with an intelligently pragmatic streak that leads him to recognize that government is out-of-control huge and expensive, and given his political experience I do expect him, if he wins the LP's nod, to do better for them than they've done in a while.

But he seems to lack either the systematic thinking or moral fervor that makes me trust him to reliably come to truly libertarian conclusions on many issues. While his conclusions are frequently, even mostly, libertarian, I'm not quite sure his natural instincts are.

He's more willing to give a statist solution a try if he thinks, well, that might do some good, as evidenced by the above, which seems to lack either a historic or strategic sense of what the U.S. government's proper purpose is, or what bad aftereffects often flow from seemingly easy or quick interventions. There are both constitutional and pragmatic reasons to not be as loose in expending American force overseas as Johnson is here. It's not just that we need to spend less; we also ought to do less when it comes to military force overseas in a country facing no serious military threats to the homeland.

Jim Antle at American Spectator reacted to that Daily Caller story and wonders what Johnson's foreign policy waffling will mean to his ability to shave off Ron Paul voters for the LP:

Now, there is nothing wrong with being selective in the use of military force. Being involved everywhere or nowhere may be consistent, but it isn't necessarily a sound foreign policy. Yet it is difficult to discern an overarching strategy or philosophy here that would influence or dictate when the United States would intervene. Back when Johnson was still running as a Republican, I noted that he was at a disadvantage against Ron Paul because he was less conservative on social issues and less radical on the issues of war and peace that drive Paul's libertarian base.

Daniel Larison at American Conservative also sees a lot to be supportive of in Johnson's statements, even if they lack Paulian coherence:

He endorses the decision to send soldiers to aid in combating the remnants of the LRA in central Africa, but that appears to be the extent of his support for recent decisions justified on humanitarian grounds. For those concerned about his endorsement of humanitarian intervention, I would remind them hat Johnson opposed the war in Libya from the beginning. I have not been able to find any evidence that he has taken a position for or against intervention in Syria. Presumably, his objections to the Libyan war would apply in that case as well, but we simply don't know his position. It's possible that Johnson endorses such interventions in principle, but rarely sees a situation where U.S. intervention would be desirable. The very minimal deployment in central Africa qualifies, but larger and riskier military actions do not.

Reason.tv interviews Johnson, featuring super interlocutors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie: