Gary Johnson's Aleppo gaffe: Does foreign policy experience matter?

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson came under fire on Thursday for telling an interviewer that he wasn't familiar with Aleppo, Syria. 

Scott Morgan/AP/File
In this Sept. 3, 2016 file photo, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. Johnson went viral on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, but not in the way the 3rd party candidate wanted, when his befuddled question “What is Aleppo” on a morning tv show overshadowed his effort to present himself as a serious alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Gary Johnson found himself in a presidential candidate's nightmare Thursday, when asked a simple question about the crisis in Aleppo, Syria on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." 

"What is Aleppo?" the Libertarian candidate responded, prompting a wave of online criticism and ridicule that quickly made its way around the internet. 

The timing certainly wasn't ideal: Mr. Johnson, who has hovered at around 10 percent in the polls, needs to reach 15 percent to qualify for the upcoming presidential debates. But the gaffe, while embarrassing, may not have a significant impact on the fate of Johnson's campaign, as experts say foreign policy doesn't typically play a large role in the outcome of elections.

Later in the day, the former New Mexico governor clarified his initial confusion, explaining that he had thought the interviewer was referring to an acronym – and that yes, he does understand the Syrian conflict.

"As Governor, there were many things I didn’t know off the top of my head," Johnson said in a statement. "But I succeeded by surrounding myself with the right people, getting to the bottom of important issues, and making principled decisions. It worked. That is what a President must do." 

While Americans name terrorism and foreign policy as their second and third most important priorities in the 2016 election, their voting habits indicate that perhaps experience in these fields isn't seen as the most important qualification.

Republican nominee Donald Trump, a businessman whose foreign policy stances remain difficult to pin down, is neck and neck in recent polls with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a career politician with years of foreign policy experience. 

And Bernie Sanders, who at one point in his campaign polled higher than Ms. Clinton, responded to criticism by the Clinton campaign regarding his "lack of knowledge on foreign policy" in February by suggesting that while foreign policy experience is an important strength for a presidential candidate to have, it may not be the most significant qualification.

"There's no question that Hillary Clinton has a great deal of experience regarding foreign policy," Sen. Sanders said at the time. "But it is not just experience that matters, it is judgment."

Current president Barack Obama had a similar response to opponents' accusations that he lacked foreign policy experience in 2008, arguing that his real-life experiences living in Indonesia, visiting Pakistan, and connecting with relatives in poor villages in Kenya were more valuable than foreign policy experience on a political level. 

Candidates' levels of experience aside, foreign policy issues typically take a backseat to economic ones when November rolls around.

"Americans rarely, rarely, rarely vote on foreign policy issues, and it has to be a dramatic and immediate event happening leading into the election," said Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, in a Council on Foreign Relations discussion in January.

Still, that doesn't mean presidential candidates will pass up an opportunity to highlight an opponent's foreign policy gaffe when it comes along. 

"Those are moments that get used in campaigns, but I think if we thought back to those elections, did Michael Dukakis lose because of the tank ad? No," said Lynn Vavreck, professor of political science at UCLA, in a foreign policy panel discussion at Tufts University in October. "Those often become interesting moments, but ... they're not game-changers."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.