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."

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