“What’s Aleppo?” Is Still Smarter than Cavalier Interventionism

Call it a gaffe, call it a flub, call it what you will – it’s inarguable that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s most memorable moment in his bid for the presidency occurred on “Morning Joe” last month. Mike Barnicle asks the former New Mexico governor what he would do about Aleppo if elected, and Johnson responds with “What’s Aleppo?”

At least Gov. Johnson didn’t say “Who’s Aleppo?”, as if Barnicle were asking him what he’d do on behalf of some long-forgotten Marx brother instead of a major city in Syria currently in the midst of a grave humanitarian crisis.

But seriously, haters can make fun of Gary Johnson all they want. Edit out “What’s Aleppo?” from the transcript of the interview and you’re left with a cogent and coherent justification for a non-interventionist foreign policy that’s far more sensible than anything either major party candidate offers. Johnson is afraid that further US involvement in Syria would make the situation worse than it already is. His fears are justified, and would likely be realized under either Clinton or Trump.

The 2016 Democratic Party Platform reiterates President Obama’s 2011 call that “Assad must go,” but Russia’s commitment to keeping the Syrian president in power makes it highly unlikely that the proposed “negotiated political transition” can ever be achieved. Any US escalation in Syria (such as implementing a no-fly zone) will hasten the deterioration of US-Russia relations, further entrenching both countries in their ongoing proxy war. Incremental moves toward regime change are thus far more likely to draw out the conflict and resultant suffering of the Syrian people.

Even leaving aside her 2002 vote for the Iraq war, Hillary Clinton has displayed a cavalier attitude toward regime change. When informed on camera of the death of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi during the 2011 US-supported uprising, a jubilant Secretary Clinton joked, “We came, we saw, he died.” But of course Qaddafi’s death was hardly the end of the story. Five years later, Libya lacks an effective national government, which has allowed ISIS to establish footholds in the country. The US achieved regime change in Libya, but it is hard to see who has benefited apart from terrorists.

The 2016 Republican Party Platform criticizes the Obama administration’s handling of Syria, in particular singling out Secretary Clinton for blame, but it then absurdly advocates the exact same path forward as the Democrats. For his part, Donald Trump sees combating ISIS as a higher priority than removing Assad, but the means he suggests for doing so – “bomb[ing] the shit out of ’em” – threatens only to create more of the ungoverned spaces in which ISIS thrives. Both Trump and Clinton are cavalier interventionists, the difference between them being merely prioritization of targets.

Gary Johnson’s foreign policy positions, on the other hand, are neither feckless nor reckless. Unlike Green Party nominee Jill Stein, Johnson does not advocate shutting down all overseas US military bases, but rather trimming excess. Most importantly, Johnson calls for restoring Congressional checks on the presidential authority to wage war, which makes him the only candidate to explicitly call for the reduction of executive power. This, I contend, is the great unspoken issue of the current election, in which one party has nominated a despot and the other a dynast.

The expansion of executive authority – brought on largely by George W. Bush after 9/11, but readily taken up by his successor – will only continue under a President Trump or a President Clinton. Even if there isn’t a large scale deployment of US “boots on the ground” to Syria, we will still see more drone strikes, more collateral damage, more blowback, more unintended consequences, less due process, fewer checks and balances, all shored up by more twisted legal reasoning.

The office of President of the United States, as shaped by both of its 21st-century incumbents, possesses “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” In this respect, the only advantage that Hillary Clinton holds over Donald Trump is that she would be more predictable in her abuse of that infrastructure and more intellectually adept at justifying said abuses. But neither major party candidate wants to see an end to the imperial presidency. If we insist on limiting our choices to Republicans and Democrats, I fear that elections to come will only see the further triumph of despots and dynasts.

Were I a peer at the court of our future princeps, I would counsel her or him to pursue sustainable peace as a long-term goal over the short-term lure of regime change. A negotiated end to Syria’s civil war might see Assad (or at best a hand-picked, likely Alawite, successor) remain in the presidency, but governing a substantially restructured Syrian state. Ali Khedery has proposed a confederacy of ethno-sectarian entities as one possible future for Syria, and such an outcome appears amenable to Russia. Assad himself has rejected the idea, but if regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey could be brought on board, it has a chance. As I’ve written before, a sustainable peace will require the US, the EU, and Russia to strengthen the institutions best able to stabilize the region.

This of course will not solve our domestic quandary of how to handle the imperial presidency, but a more stable Middle East might mean that future presidents will be less tempted to use our undeclared wars in the region as justification for eroding civil liberties and overriding constitutional strictures. I’ve heard many arguments against voting for a third-party candidate, but I’ve yet to hear one that addresses that particular quandary. Whichever party controls Congress, it will be difficult for them to constrain the executive, so I prefer the candidate who campaigns for executive restraint. To those who argue against voting for a third-party candidate, this might sound naïve, even quixotic. It is not Cervantes to whom I would refer the matter, though, but rather Solzhenitsyn: “Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph; but not through me.”

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