Return to Policy: Gary Johnson Takes the Stage at UChicago

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson continued his intriguing yet bizarre presidential run with a stop at the University of Chicago on October 7. Despite achieving levels of success unparalleled by any other third-party candidate in the last twenty years, his campaign has come under turmoil in recent weeks as a result of several stunning foreign policy gaffes. He has been sharply criticized for not knowing what Aleppo is and failing to name a foreign leader he admired.

In his speech, Johnson laid out his vision for America, which was predicated on a reduction in the size and scope of government. The three main pillars of his platform are social inclusion, non-interventionism, and an embrace of free markets. The former governor of New Mexico honed in on his support for immigration reform and marijuana legalization.

But Johnson wasted no time addressing the foreign policy blunders during the event at International House, stating, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. And that means you make mistakes, and there’s not a quicker way to fix mistakes than to first acknowledge them.” He then spent the majority of his event addressing foreign policy, the area in which he has been criticized the most. While Johnson lacks the showmanship of Donald Trump or the polish of Hillary Clinton, his eagerness to discuss the issues provides a refreshing return to policy in an election cycle that has been dominated by personal attacks and obfuscation of the issues.

A self-identified “skeptic” of military intervention, Johnson boldly asserted, “I would not need to be talked out of dropping bombs and sending young men and women into harm’s way. I’d be the president that would have to be convinced that it was absolutely necessary.”

Johnson advocated cuts on defense spending, a policy even Bernie Sanders didn’t propose, noting the shocking fact that the United States spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined. He also promised to respect the War Powers Act, which requires congressional authorization to go into war—something that hasn’t occurred since World War II. Johnson then sifted through each military intervention in the Middle East under the last two administrations, describing how each one reduced the stability of the region and, in turn, “made the world less safe.” Despite his foreign policy gaffes, it is difficult to dispute Johnson’s main contentions and not be skeptical of future interventions in the region. Humanitarian crises in Iraq and Libya notwithstanding, American intervention has created power vacuums that have unleashed chaos and fueled the rise of ISIL.

Johnson occupies an important space in the foreign policy discourse during this election. Because of the focus on personal attacks and outlandish statements, there has been little serious attention given to the foreign policy prescriptions of each major party candidate. Hillary Clinton, for example, promises to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a similar approach to the ones the US took in Iraq and Libya, where interventions unleashed devastating unintended consequences. Furthermore, she supports imposing a no-fly zone, a policy that is too hawkish for President Obama and most Democrats. Her policies demonstrate that she prioritizes knocking off the Syrian regime and not ISIL, since the latter has no planes. A no-fly zone would also raise the risk of conflict with Russia if the US rival continues to carry out air strikes. As General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “Right now, for us to control all of the air space in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia; that’s a pretty fundamental decision.” Although Trump has criticized such interventions, he has yet to put forth much of a cohesive policy, and has oddly shown full support for a Russian regime that is supporting Assad.

Additionally, Johnson stands out as the only candidate in full support of free trade, since Clinton has retreated toward her opponent’s protectionist policies. At the International House event, Johnson stated, “It’s absurd to believe, in a global economy, that we can somehow restore our economic strength and competitive by building walls, both physical and financial,” later calling for “robust trade relationships across the world.”

Johnson concluded by noting his particular strength among millennials. His explanation for his apparent popularity was that young people are anxious about their retirements. “Limiting the size and scope of government is creating a future for young people,” he declared. Johnson’s theory has some credibility, as millennials are particularly concerned about saving for the future. However, Johnson’s rise is probably fueled most of all by the same sort of bold idealism that gave rise to Sanders on the left, combined with mass dissatisfaction with both major party candidates.

Several times during this Q&A session, Johnson unwittingly placed his fitness to serve in question. In contrast to his composed demeanor throughout his speech. When the former governor had to go off script and answer student questions during the Q&A portion of the event, he often became uncomfortable and defensive. When asked about his recent blunders, Johnson reiterated his previous defense, passionately rebuffing the notion that “because you can dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the names on names of foreign leaders or geographic locations, then that qualifies you to put the military in a situation where the military is dying.” “If that’s the qualification,” Johnson continued, “just count on the military policies of this country continuing as they’ve been for the last fifteen years going forward.” However, by underscoring the complexity of these situations, Johnson ironically demonstrated that he is not qualified to preside over them. Although basic foreign policy knowledge is not the sole component of being qualified to make such decisions, it is a very necessary one. When pressed on the issue by Institute of Politics executive director Steve Edwards, Johnson said, “I still can’t come up with a name” of a foreign leader he admires, because, he said, so many of them cared about getting re-elected than about public service. He then answered a question about diplomacy and foreign strength by discussing his vision of an increasingly sharing economy, noting his common slogan, “Uber everything.”

Although labeled a “spoiler” candidate, Johnson has been taking votes roughly equally from Trump and Clinton. The main impact of his campaign, therefore, will be increasing visibility for the Libertarian Party and changing the political discourse. When asked what he hopes the impact of his campaign will be if he doesn’t win, Johnson responded, “The death of the two-party system,” saying that “this is a rigged game.” Although an outright “death” is likely far-fetched, Johnson has made great strides in weakening the stranglehold of the two party behemoths on our electoral discourse. By steering away from personal attacks on his opponents, Johnson has attempted to focus on substance in what has otherwise been widely regarded as a nasty, insult-based campaign. He demonstrated that approach again at the University of Chicago.

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