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Gary Johnson: it’s good to not know stuff about other countries

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson thinks knowing stuff about foreign countries is a bad quality in a president, because it means you're more likely to launch wars. That is a thing that he actually said, in an MSNBC interview on Tuesday afternoon picked up by ThinkProgress’s Alice Ollstein.

"The fact that somebody can dot the i’s and cross the t’s on a foreign leader or a geographic location then allows them to put our military in harm’s way," Johnson said to a skeptical-seeming Andrea Mitchell.

This is an odd theory, to say the least. Does Johnson really think uninformed people are more likely to be pacifists? Donald Trump seems like a good counterexample. Does Johnson expect anyone to believe ignorant people should run US foreign policy? It’s hard to see how he could.

But Johnson has put himself in an impossible position on foreign policy through a series of gaffes, and is now desperately making up excuses to try to cover his tracks.

Johnson just keeps saying ridiculous stuff about foreign affairs

First, there was Aleppo.

When Johnson was asked about the city, a critical site in Syria’s civil war, in early September, he responded with a question: "What is Aleppo?"

This wasn’t a rhetorical or philosophical question. It’s very clear, from his answer in a follow-up interview, that he literally didn’t know what Aleppo was:

When you recognize what’s going on in Syria, when you recognize that Aleppo is in kinda the epicenter between ... Aleppo! Umm, knowing that there’s a city between the two forces, really at the epicenter, but not remembering or recognizing that that’s Aleppo ... guilty.

The problem with this kind of glaring mistake is that it can end up having a snowball effect. Interviewers will ask more basic questions about foreign policy, on the theory that Johnson actually doesn’t know anything about foreign policy and thus will respond with more news-making ignorance.

That’s exactly what happened.

In late September, Chris Matthews asked Johnson to name a single foreign leader he admires. Johnson couldn’t do it. "I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment," he said, to a dumbfounded Matthews.

The second gaffe cemented the perception that Johnson, a former governor with no foreign policy experience, knows very little about the world. Theoretically, this could be quite damaging for a third-party candidate whose basic theory of the election is that he can attract voters who don’t see either Clinton or Trump as plausible Oval Office occupants.

So what to do? Johnson appears to have decided to lean into his ignorance, playing it up as a virtue somehow. It’s not just the MSNBC gaffe; here’s what he tweeted right after the disastrous Chris Matthews interview:

Viewed in this light, it seems like Johnson believes he can’t repair the perception that he’s ignorant about foreign policy. Instead, he’s made a conscious decision to lean into the image and argue that it’s somehow a qualification for being president.

Basically no one is going to buy this. I can’t imagine someone looking at Gary Johnson failing to identify Aleppo and thinking, "Oh, yes, this person should definitely be in charge of nuclear weapons." Johnson has just put himself in a bad situation, and he seems to think the only way out is to dig deeper — instead of, you know, actually learning stuff about foreign affairs.

It’s a shame, because the Johnson campaign’s actual stated foreign policy is interesting: Read his website and policy proposals, and it comes across as a fairly principled skepticism of US military force. It’s a valuable counterpoint to Clinton’s liberal internationalism, certainly a more credible alternative than what Trump has to offer.

But Johnson doesn’t seem to know the first thing about foreign policy, and so he can’t even participate in the conversation. He’s completely blowing it — and potentially torpedoing his chances to do well at the polls in the process.

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