Gary Johnson

Hawks Love Their Foreign Policy Quizzes. But Do Americans Care?

While Lindsey Graham, Hillary Clinton, and the Washington Post guffaw at Gary Johnson, voters seem strangely unpersuaded by the language-policing of interventionists.


Lindsey Graham. ||| United States Senate
United States Senate

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made a funny yesterday about Gary Johnson's Aleppo-gaffe. "He set back the cause of legalizing marijuana by 50 years." This seemingly non-sequiturial fusion of two separate concerns actually makes perfect sense if you view it through the lens of establishmentarian self-policing of what is and is not "serious." As I wrote two years ago,

For decades, all the way up to November 2010, prohibitionists could rely on dismissive giggling and hand waving any time the rest of us advocated legalizing drugs. And those current or former pot smokers in or near power who should have known better were often the ones leading the mockery. When California tried crossing over from medical marijuana to full legalization in 2010 through Proposition 19, the state's editorial boards almost universally panned the measure. Instead of fact-based persuasion, they offered "reefer madness" and "what were they smoking?" jokes. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned, tellingly and inaccurately, that legalization would make "California a laughingstock."

This is how prohibitionists and cowards alike avoided having an argument: by playing to the insecurity of political elites who were desperate to be taken seriously.

It takes genuine effort for governing elites to maintain bipartisan distance between their policy preferences and the contrary desires of voters, and foreign policy is one of the areas where that gap is widest. This helps explain why so much of the discourse surrounding the Iraq War—even in its disastrous aftermath!—was framed as a discussion between Very Serious People (who either favored it or were on the fence) and a bunch of hippie know-nothings. The constant social policing of who gets to be Serious and who doesn't is one of Washington's great policy-perpetuation machines. And strangely, no matter how many failed wars (Drug or Middle Eastern) the Lindsey Grahams of the world support, and how many presidential primary campaigns they fail to finish in the top 10, they will always and forever be treated as possessors of gravitas, while the Rand Pauls of the world will be presented as dangerous flakes. As I explained last night on The Blaze:

As a matter of basic presidential preparedness, Johnson's Aleppo-blanking was a gratuitous brainfart. But is there any evidence that voters give a rip? I'm not so sure.

Consider what I referenced in the video above: Donald Trump's infamous-at-the-time Sept. 3, 2015 interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt. Here's a snippet:

HH: Are you familiar with General Soleimani?

DT: Yes, but go ahead, give me a little, go ahead, tell me.

HH: He runs the Quds Forces.

DT: Yes, okay, right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior…

DT: The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by …

HH: No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces.

DT: Yes, yes.

HH: …is the bad guys.

DT: Right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior to change as a result…

DT: Oh, I thought you said Kurds, Kurds.

HH: No, Quds.

DT: Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you said Kurds, because I think the Kurds have been poorly treated by us, Hugh. Go ahead.

"Donald Trump," wrote the Washington Post at the time, "leading in the polls and riding a wave of momentum in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, just hit a speed bump named Hugh Hewitt." Yeah, not so much: Trump's next two national polls saw him go north of 30 percent for the first time, and his average monthly poll percentage from September onward would go 25-26-28-34-35. In February, on Lindsey Graham's home turf of South Carolina, Trump enraged the Very Serious People by calling the Iraq War a "big, fat mistake," saying that Bush administration officials "lied" us into war, and pointing out that the World Trade Center went down while Jeb Bush's brother was president. He promptly won the primary in that military-heavy state by 10 percentage points. The only heavy foreign interventionist who managed to compete after Trump entered the race was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who finished a distant third.

||| Reason

As I have argued in these pages, presidential-candidate demonstrations of foreign policy ignorance or disinterest fill me with worry, since presidents who are unfluent will always in a time of global crisis (and there's ALWAYS a global crisis) reach for the knowledgeable, who tend to be hawks. But I think it's also true and worth pointing out that moments such as yesterday are opportunities above all for the policy establishment to reassure themselves about their own qualifying wisdom, completely untroubled by their long record of supporting disastrous policies while getting their place-names right. For instance, here's a headline from the Washington Post's reliably hawkish editorial board: "Gary Johnson's Aleppo gaffe was bad. But Trump's consistent ignorance is worse." Needless to say, the phrase "smart power at its best" is nowhere to be found within.

Given my druthers, all intervention-skeptics, including presidential candidates I like, could find every important world city on a map, and exhibit a winning mastery of global affairs. I think libertarian foreign-policy arguments are too often an off-putting ad-mixture of sound instincts and embarrassing ignorance. That said, I will take his gaffe-prone restraint over Hillary Clinton's unreflective interventionism any day of the week, and I vastly prefer as a potential leader someone who readily admits ignorance and error rather than tries to paper over it with bluster.

Humility—both personally, and as an approach to knowledge acquisition and policy argumentation—has for too long been a neglected virtue in Washington, as I argued a year ago after Trump's Hewitt interview:

[A]s the rise of Donald Trump reminds us, there is…very little reward out there in the field of political and policy commentary for luxuriating in difficulties and nuance. Certainty makes for much better television than doubt. People would rather confuse Kurds with Quds than admit they're only noddingly familiar with either. […]

What would happen in a world where humans, including those in or near power, freely admitted that they don't know how to stop ISIS, can't tell the difference between a Yazidi and and Assyrian, have no convincing explanation for why crime stats are fluctuating this year, and don't know why Billy Beane's shit doesn't work in the playoffs? For one, I think people would be a little less likely to champion or sign up for giant, mass-mobilizing schemes. If we are humble in the face of facts, and mindful of the unforeseen consequences that come with every grand plan, we might be more cautious about bending a sprawling nation's resources and will in one direction or another.

NEXT: Portland's Light Rail System Can't Take the Heat

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  1. I don't care if a presidential candidate can name cities or factions of a conflict. There are very knowledgeable local experts we pay lots of money to write briefs to the president on those details. I'm much rather a president to listen to those briefs than to go off what he remembers.

    Much more important is overarching foreign policy and government ruling philosophy. How do they choose who tells them about the local situation. What kind of policy do they have towards people giving them briefings that say things they don't want to be true. What is their cutoff for when an invasion is necessary and when do they think something is none of our damn business.

    1. If only Gary had had an earpiece.

    2. You ask good questions, Illocust. But you are still thinkng "Top Men" can solve these problems. Truth is everybody, you, me, Obama, Assad, etc are winging it. Nobody knows what the fuck is going on, especially in some third world warzone. A smart person looks at the situation and turns around and walks away. An asshole puts on a navy blue suit and interrupts prine time tv to tell the country that he had the situation figured out.

  2. Unfortunate freeze-frame for Matt there.

    1. He always looks like that. He has resting o-face.

  3. Slightly o/t, but the phrase "smart power" has always made me chuckle. If leftists are so self-evidently brilliant in their own minds, why do they feel the need to attach the adjective "smart" to their preferred policies? Smart power, smart diplomacy, smart growth....if it's so fucking smart, it shouldn't need advertising in the title, should it?

    1. Smartass!

    2. I hate when the bottle water available is smart water. It reminds me of those horrible smart cars.

      1. The Amazing Randi has eviscerated the "evidence" behind Smart Water numerous times.

  4. As a few people have already pointed out, the same idiots who have been giving the President of our 58 states a metaphorical blowjob for 8 years insulting Gary Johnson is insanely hypocritical. It can also be said for idiots such as Lindsay Graham who provided the same service for Bush the Lesser.

    1. 57 states. What is ya, ignorant?

      1. It's 58 if you count Canada.

        1. Canada is a protectorate. Dumbass.

          1. Wait til it flips over...

          2. I don't see what rectal exams have to do with any of this.

          3. No, Canada is a HAT.

      2. He said he'd visited 57 states, but still had one to go, because he'd missed Alaska and Hawaii. Not kidding.

      3. 57? You left out the continent of Hawaii you cisgendard shitlord.

        1. He's an *islandist*?!? The horror! Islands are individuals who haven't been collectivized into continents yet.

  5. I like to see someone ask Clinton randomly about the different nuclear reactors designs blocked by the NRC and what she thinks the strengths and weaknesses of each design are.

    1. This line of questioning is misogynist.

        1. ^This^ You better believe that if HRC was asked a sciency question and fudged it, her media lackeys would spin it into a story about how women have been marginalized by the STEM patriarchy.

  6. I just keep thinking where we'd be now if a well-known friend of liberty like Kurt Russell had thrown his hat in the ring and snagged the Libertarian nomination, then, if he were capable, showed up with a clearly articulated Libertarian message.

    I feel like with Herr Drumpf and Canklestein being the two most disliked and mistrusted candidates in recent memory, we squandered our best chance, not necessarily to win the presidency, but to leave voters with a generally positive perception of classical liberal political theory and practice.

    And at least Russell says he tries to say informed, unlike, ahem, some recent LP candidates we might name:

    "I always had a good time talking about things with people. The thing people did get to know about me if they engaged me is that I'm fair, I'm pretty energetic, and I'm pretty knowledgeable. I don't pop off without finding out about stuff?and I like finding out about stuff, and don't have that much of an agenda about it."

    1. Voting for Snake Plissken could actually make voting awesome.

      Or at least, useful.

      1. Can you imagine? He'd win so easily.

  7. A grown ass man named Lindsey. Thank God it's unable to procreate.

    1. Gay men father kids all the time, so we're not out of the woods yet.

      1. I interpreted SoCal's comment to be implying that Lindsey Graham has no dick.

        1. +1 Walter Peck

          1. Well that's what I heard!

    2. He's definitely an ass man. Grown? Not so much.

  8. the insecurity of political elites who were desperate to be taken seriously.

    That's what elections are; a plea for validation from wannabe tyrants with deeply rooted self-esteem issues.

  9. Johnson's better than Trump or Clinton but he should have fucking known what Aleppo is. He needs to prepare better which he seems to have refused to do. It's not the kind of thing I'd expect the clerk at the corner store to know but he's running for President for god's sake. It isn't the end of the world but, please, stop making excuses for him here.

    1. Oh hogwash. We've all been caught off-guard by unimportant questions. Even if we know the answer, sometimes we are focused on something else, some other aspect, and answering such petty nonsense just isn't important.

      1. Just don't include me when you say "we".

      2. Making excuses for their candidate's stupid shit should be left up to the Democrats and the Republicans. People look to third parties to get away from business as usual and this excuse making smacks of that.

      3. Unimportant? Johnson was given a chance to make a point on a subject that's on the world's agenda. If you want to contrast yourself w other candidates, or even if you want to agree w them, you have to know what it's about.

  10. Johnson's real gaffe was that he committed the cardinal sin of politics: he admitted to not knowing something. You just can't do that if you expect to be taken seriously by the self proclaimed Serious People.

  11. Just another reiteration of "all politicians suck, but you should vote for my favorite because he sucks less".

  12. So true. Just because a politician is geographically clueless or can't name some obscure foreign minister doesn't mean they're stupid or unqualified. I was glad to see Reason defend Sarah Palin and George W. Bush from such petty and unwarranted attacks, and I'm glad to see them stick by those principles in defending Johnson.

    1. Psst, I think sarcasm is illegal now.

      1. Yeah, but prison is already filled with Mexicans and sodomites, so I figure it'll be an easy transition.

    2. This is not a defense of Gary Johnson's brainfart, which is described in the piece as a "brainfart." And you'll notice that I linked to and quoted from a piece one year ago that argued--in the face of a foreign policy gaffe from Donald Trump, who I despise--that admitting lack of knowledge is better than bluffing, and that normal people (even political candidates!) cannot be expected to answer all these gotcha questions all the time.

      So yeah, nailed me.

      1. This is not a defense of Gary Johnson's brainfart

        "Everything after the "but"..." as they say.

        My point was the absurd double standard, which the link you quote in defense actually demonstrates, ironically enough (unless you're arguing that, like Trump, GayJay's ignorance of foreign affairs is a dangerous harbinger that his administration will be run by hawks).

        I actually don't give a shit whether Gary Johnson knows where Aleppo is, or even if he knows where Alabama is. I wish something that trivial was the stupidest thing he'd said in the last month, let alone in his entire career. But then I haven't made a career towing the media line about dangerous know-nothingism only to soft play it as soon as it's my own ox being gored.

  13. "He set back the cause of legalizing marijuana by 50 years." This seemingly non-sequiturial fusion of two separate concerns actually makes perfect sense if you view it through the lens of establishmentarian self-policing of what is and is not "serious." As I wrote two years ago.

    I think Reason should relax a bit here, it makes perfect sense because it was a joke.

    1. It's actually a pretty damn good throwaway punch line. So good, I doubt Graham came up with it himself.

    2. Only, the people making that joke laugh and ridicule legalization while stalling whenever the issue comes up.

      If Graham had an ounce of shame and self-awareness, he'd realize he's too big of a clown to joke about anyone.

  14. Lindsey Graham sets back the cause of closeted confirmed bachelors by at least fifty years, so maybe it evens out?

  15. GJ does not know how to BS, that is his problem. The question came out of context, and he could simply have said "Aleppo? What do you mean?" Barney would then have been forced to ask him other questions and he could have clued in.

    The media will continue to blast this gaffe at 11 until he falls into the low single digits with Jill Stein.

    1. He is seriously lacking in both imagination and creativity.

      1. He needs to prepare better with a coach for this stuff. It's a bit too late now though.

        1. Well, even if he had given some long winded wonky answer to the Aleppo question, there would be something else. He is in the spotlight now and he doesn't get the 1000 free gaffe points that ClinTrump are allowed.

          1. That's true. I wonder what the polling says about who he's draining more votes from. If it's Clinton, it's no surprise the press has gone into full destruction mode. This was a gaffe but it's being blown way out of proportion.

            1. For a while, he was drawing about equally from Ds and Rs. More recent poll though show that he is poaching some of Clinton's supporters, especially millennials and women (51% of GJ supporters in a poll I saw yesterday are women). Presumably he is taking a chunk of the moderate republican vote that Clinton is trying to get, so I think you are exactly right Grinch-this explains why the media have gone nutzo over Aleppo.

    1. Obama wants to ban armpit shaving? Sleeveless shirts?

    2. You have restored my faith in the commentariat, but I can't believe it took an hour and a half before we got a 'would'.

      (Also, would)

  16. Sorry, folks, but the same reason LP had for nominating former governors of states for prez (2nd time) & VP is the reason people would want Johnson to know what Aleppo was about: being experts on the affairs of the world. How serious a candidate can you be if you don't keep up w the news?

    True, this matters less for Johnson or Trump voters than for Clinton voters. Trump's the anti-politician, so not knowing stuff like that could actually enhance his cachet. Johnson is sorta-anti-politics, but not as much as Trump appears to be, so it hurts Johnson somewhat; had LP nominated a non-politician, it wouldn't've mattered, but they nominated Johnson & Weld because they wanted to be in that "serious" category, so this gaffe is a lowering of that. Even in Clinton's case, it's not as important as it would be in the case of, say, Biden (even though he's been a gaffemaster), because many Clinton voters assume she'd be a figurehead, Bill calling all the shots behind the scenes.

    1. "How serious a candidate can you be if you don't keep up w the news?"

      Yes, it would help if GJ reads the news now and then, but he does not have the team of policy experts to come up with carefully crafted answers and coach him on how to answer questions and the guy has never done well in front of a camera. He should have been better prepared before going before hostile interviewers like MSNBC.

  17. Matt, I find the alt text unimaginitive but appropriate.

    Being Lindsey Graham is punishment enough.

  18. The Libertarian Party needs to talk Howard Stern into running for them again.

  19. Legalizing marijuana is no laughing matter you (evil) assholes who want to prevent it. As far as I'm concerned, you're contributing to the high incarceration rates and the destruction of families and by extension communities over fucken tiny amounts of grass.

    It has little to do with being serious and more to do with being enlightened and moral.

  20. "But is there any evidence that voters give a rip?"

    Voters do not give a rip but they also don't vote for Libertarians. Johnson, through his ignorance, lost an opportunity to point a finger at 'our' foreign policy/military establishment that has been financing, training and equipping 'rebels' to overthrow Bashar Assad - rebels who mysteriously morph into ISIS.

  21. Stoner deer in the headlights thought it was the lost Marx bro or a character in an Italian opera.

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