Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson's Radical Foreign Policy Moment: Accused of "Moral Equivalence" Over Condemning U.S. Bombing of Civilians

The New York Times may think this will wound Johnson, but a similar moment of "unpopular" truthtelling regarding American foreign policy was the making of Ron Paul in 2007.


One of the things that fans of Ron Paul, the former congressman and antiwar GOP presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012, tended to admire about him was a bracing willingness to actually point out that the U.S. was not always a good actor in the world when it came to their foreign policy interventions. This is not something considered polite or sayable in most respectable thought, so seems especially refreshing, or shocking to some, when it is said, or even suggested.

Gage Skidmore

The New York Times seems thrilled tonight to have "caught" Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson doing the same sort of thing, actually seriously questioning the moral propriety of our foreign policy interventions and their often fatal effects.

This sort of thing had not previously been front and center in Johnson's foreign policy pronouncements.

The headline: "Gary Johnson Equates Syria Deaths Caused by Assad and West."

The fuller context, in which reporters Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns insist that Johnson:

drew a parallel on Wednesday between the Syrian government's targeting of noncombatants in that nation's civil war and the accidental bombing of civilians by United States-backed forces.

Attacking Hillary Clinton over what he criticized as her overly interventionist instincts, Mr. Johnson pointed to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, as well as civilian deaths caused by the American-backed coalition, and said Mrs. Clinton, the former secretary of state, bore at least partial responsibility.

But when pressed four times on whether he saw a moral equivalence between deaths caused by the United States, directly or indirectly, and mass killings of civilians by Mr. Assad and his allies, Mr. Johnson made clear that he did.

"Well no, of course not — we're so much better than all that," Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said sarcastically. "We're so much better when in Afghanistan, we bomb the hospital and 60 people are killed in the hospital."

Given the admitted badgering and that the actual quote out of his mouth the Times presents in fact is discussing the larger question of whether U.S. actions anywhere rise to the level of condemnable murder of civilians, by bringing in Afghanistan, and not just about Syria, that headline could just be one more in the media's very lively practice lately of misrepresenting the meaning of what public figures say in order to gin up controversy.

Someone not blinded by a sense that American amour propre requires never saying we are to blame for anything we do when it comes to our foreign policy missions, or what atrocities or even highly fatal "accidents" are caused by those we arm and fund, might find it not that shocking that someone might think civilian deaths caused by decisions made by the U.S. government, or even, as their only direct quote makes clear, actually committed by U.S. forces, might be blameworthy.

One may decide in their total moral calculus that particular means, or particular motives, or particular end goals, make one set of people blown to bits a moral monstrosity (by them) and the other just something sort of regrettable (by us and ours).

But it shouldn't be considered idiotic or disqualifying for serious policy discussion to actually have enough of a sense of responsibility, especially for someone vying to lead the U.S. military machine, to actually worry, and worry a lot, about innocents killed in our foreign policy adventures.

Johnson went further, as the Times quotes:

"Because Hillary Clinton can dot the i's and cross the t's on geographic leaders, of the names of foreign leaders," he said, "the underlying fact that hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria goes by the wayside." He charged that Mrs. Clinton "bears responsibility for what's happened, shared responsibility for what's happened in Syria. I would not have put us in that situation from the get-go."

More than 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, according to the United Nations.

But Mr. Johnson complained that presidential candidates were expected to talk tough about dealing with dictators like Mr. Assad or risk losing support.

"This is what happens in this country right now — unless you're willing to say that you're going to get tough on this stuff, on these atrocities — and these atrocities are horrible — but unless you as a politician are willing to do something about these atrocities then we're not going to elect you," Mr. Johnson said.

It may be the will of the American people that any politician has to say what Johnson fears they must. Or it may just be that people like New York Times reporters want to behave as if all politicians must say that.

At the same time it could be that the American people may find it worth hearing from someone willing to frankly discuss and frankly be bothered that U.S. decision making overseas causes innocent deaths. Maybe the electorate is less certain that American destructive and yes often murderous power needs to be expressed as much as the D.C./New York consensus would have it. Maybe that headline, designed to harm Johnson, might not.

Ron Paul's foes all thought that he'd disappear from the political scene for daring to mention that U.S. actions, not always admirable, may play some role in attacks against the U.S. in an exchange with Rudy Giuliani at a GOP candidate debate in May 2007.

In fact, as I detailed in my book Ron Paul's Revolution, that moment was more or less the making of Ron Paul mania for the rest of the campaign, and he ended up trouncing Rudy Giuliani in the primaries, coming in with nearly twice as many popular votes and running actively for months longer.