HomeDiplomacyLeaders That Gary Johnson Could Admire
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JohnsonAndPutin

I was recently brushing up on Gary Johnson news, and came across an article that was published during his previous run for President, headed by a massive photo of him posed shirtless on a mountain bike.

Aha, I thought. Early evidence of Johnson’s long and dedicated preparation to share a stage with Putin.

Then I found a hot-off-the-presses campaign video. It focused on foreign policy, denouncing “erratic military interventions” by the US in the Middle East. Despite a silly part where he called himself a “chess player” who wants America to “rule the world with diplomacy and free trade,” it wasn’t bad.

I could see why many people might find the overall presentation honest, passionate, and persuasive. I could also see his appeal to members of the military and why he polls so well among them.

But that video was too little too late. It should have been rolled out months ago, as a provocative conversation-starter at the beginning of the campaign rather than a lonely whimper at the end.

I hadn’t done much reading on Johnson since right after his second “Aleppo moment.” That was the time he couldn’t name a living foreign leader he admired, and then proceeded to give the world reason to wonder whether he could name a foreign leader at all.

It appalled me. After the first flub, there was still a chance to take up habits appropriate for the Oval Office. Johnson needed make his campaign a model of how to hit the ground running as a presentable President. By failing to build any foreign policy fluency, Johnson had squandered a national stage yet again, proving himself a serial flop in the role of champion against interventionism.

Do Libertarians recognize how badly Johnson hurt their brand? He out-gaffed Sarah Palin. She had been plucked from small town Alaska, from a culture that was happily remote from global complexities. But Johnson had been seeking the Presidency for years. He had more than enough time to think ahead about moves to make, how they might play out, and how to avoid Fool’s mate.

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Still, Johnson’s cheering section hung on. Donations flooded in after the first mistake. Endorsement by the Chicago Tribune dulled the sting of the second. The paper called him the “principled option” of this election…. artful words that signaled more dismay at Trump’s and Clinton’s perceived lack of principles than excitement over his.

Even though I don’t support Johnson (to stop Trump, I’ll vote for Clinton), there was a time when I was rooting for him to get into the debates.  I was hoping to see someone step up and stand out with a cogent argument against no-fly zones in Syria. Third parties have often played a role in changing the American conversation, and Libertarians had a fair shot at it this year.

But Johnson didn’t seem to understand that great principles need great champions. Making the case for an anti-war message takes more than an amiable anti-war sentiment. It takes good persuasive arguments crafted for the benefit of a truth-impoverished nation. The intelligent arguments that voters deserve are long overdue.

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Then I found another emblematic Johnson video. He was on a park bench, bragging to an interviewer that he could win the Presidential debate while sticking out his tongue and making sounds that were intentionally incoherent.

In this season of Trump, maybe. But in more sober times, definitely not.

So Johnson’s brand is set. He’ll always be the guy who knew next to nothing about foreign affairs because that was all he thought would need to know.

He owns the caricature, and he’s embraced it by playing to it.  Now we can find interviews where he dismisses the Hillary-like virtues of “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” on background details.

To prove how low he could go, Johnson adopted the Trump-style practice of tweeting out condescending hyperbole, announcing that no foreign leader merits his admiration anyway. Because nothing’s funnier than directing gratuitous insults toward every other country in the world.

johsnontweet

So, in the spirit of my previous post “What Gary Johnson should have said about Aleppo,” I’m imagining how he could have framed a more constructive response to the question: “What foreign leader do you admire?”

***

Thank you for the question.

As President, I expect I’ll always have admiration for any other heads of state who want to have productive conversations that advance normal and mutually beneficial relations between our people. That’s how things work in business. It’s great to have reliable partnerships.

More specifically, I’m deeply impressed by the position achieved by Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India. He was elected to serve the worlds’ largest democracy, a country three times the size of the United States. I wish him well and I look forward to meeting him.

And you can count me among those many Americans who are rooting for Angela Merkel in Germany, and Theresa May in the UK, as they navigate their countries through huge, transformative challenges.

But there’s another leader we should be talking about… Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin.

One of the strangest things about this strange election is that the Republican candidate has expressed such open fondness for him. Donald Trump and his supporters even cheer for Russian cyber-meddling.

On the other side, the Hillary Clinton has compared Putin to Hitler. Despite the reservations of most Democrats, including the President, she promotes the very unfriendly folly of a US-led no-fly zone over Syria.

Given the controversy, it’s fair to ask whether I admire President Putin, or not.

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Americans once considered Putin a sincere, forward-thinking man dedicated to transforming Russia from bureaucratic Communism into a modern market economy. Now he looks more and more like a media-savvy autocrat who dreams of making an old empire great again. Some Americans like that kind of politician. Some are very skeptical.

We can’t ignore the implications of personality on our relationship with Russia, but It helps to keep history in mind.

Despite huge ideological differences, the people of the United States and the Soviet Union fought on the same side in World War II. We recognized the Nazi regime as a common enemy, along with its creed of racial supremacy. That alliance was possible because of an underlying philosophical affinity. At heart, both capitalism and communism oppose racism and prefer broad prosperity.

But after Hitler was defeated our alliance unraveled. Each side insisted that the other’s political system belonged on the ash heap of history. That hostility didn’t give peace much of a chance. Over the years, each superpower put too little effort into modeling durable economic success at home, and too much into searching for foreign monsters to destroy.

Our conflicts dominated a long stretch of the 20th Century. We called it a Cold War, but it was deadly hot for people in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan. Though it ended peacefully when the Soviet state collapsed, many issues are now coming back to haunt us. Some people worry about a sequel.

Consider these Cold War echoes:

  1. Russia and America are again fighting proxy wars. This time the killing fields are in Syria.
  2. There’s also a dangerous revival of the arms race. Too much money is going to people who profit from weapons and war, while too much effort is going into muscle-flexing and brinksmanship.
  3. Capitalism versus Communism is no longer the central ideological antagonism, but there’s still lots of grist for the propaganda mills. Both sides are masters at ginning up hostility against a scary, deplorable adversary. So, just as Soviet-era media ran newsreels about the Jim Crow South to warn against the injustices of capitalism, Russian television is showcasing our Presidential debates to warn against the depravity of US-style democracy.

 

Nevertheless, if the Cold War can have a sequel, so can our World War II alliance.

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Existential threats loom again. The Russians are as alarmed as we are about by the rise of what they call takfiri. It’s a more precise identification than ours. Their word conveys the idea of violent, uncompromising dogmatism. It spares them pointless debates over the metaphysical etymology of “radical Islamic terrorism.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an obvious argument for a comeback alliance. But there are more assuring ones. Russians and Americans can find fortitude in deeper, binding values.

Unlike takfiri, we’re appalled by parents who raise their children for suicide. Unlike takfiri, we cherish the truths revealed by modern science, and seek disclosure of more. Unlike takfiri, neither of us wish to see our world crowning the ash heap of history, and certainly not on the pretext that a war of Armageddon would deliver paradise.

For some time now, Putin’s government has been proposing a United Front against the takfiri. Given our common interests and affinities, it’s a prospect to consider. But doing so would oblige both sides to confront doubts about the other’s trustworthiness for such an ambitious partnership.

***

The Russians don’t look like appealing allies to many Americans. Not now. There are many reasons, but Russia’s position on the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 stands out.

Moscow claims there’s insufficient evidence to conclude that the deed was done with a missile system provided by the Russian Federation. That’s the official line, and the one most Russians seem to believe.

It’s crazy and wrong. It’s so bizarre, it needs to be called out. It’s equivalent to claiming there’s not enough evidence to prove that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s a showstopper for Americans who would rightly ask, “How much confidence can we have in the credibility and judgment of people who are as self-deluded as birthers?”

The worst kind of dishonesty is when you’re dishonest with yourself.

We can anticipate that the Russians might respond, tit for tat, pivoting to their own long list of grievances, criticisms, and fears. That would get us nowhere. Again. It’s the dreary theme of our current relationship.

Our best chance to close this chapter depends on both sides attaining a shared, transformative insight. Here’s a suggestion for one: People are very good at pointing out hypocrisy, except when they look in a mirror.

We Americans all look forward to seeing new pictures of President Putin riding his horse, but we would be delighted to hear his honest views on how to establish a fact-based mutual understanding of the international situation.

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If the Russians can ever come to terms with the truth about MH17, they might also come to recognize the degree to which people who want peace matter. It’s a movement that spans borders. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose, but you know we’re here.

We lost in 2003 when we failed to prevent George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but we won in 2013 when the British Parliament, pushed by the British public, blocked David Cameron’s plans for military action against Syrian government forces. That move, plus opposition in the US (in which Libertarians played a leading role), prompted Barack Obama to back down from his famous “red line” pledge.

Soon after, the Russian government initiated a proposal that led to removal of chemical weapons from the Syrian government’s control. It was a hopeful moment, but it was only a moment. The lopsided fighting continued, abundantly fueled by Assad’s “conventional” arsenal, fomenting chaos across the world.

It’s not clear why the Russian people have been so silent so long about the atrocities committed by their Syrian client.

We know that the powers-that-be in Russia are elite masters of media management, no less skilled than their American counterparts. We also realize that no nation is immune from being bamboozled by a jingoist press. Still, for the long run, there’s every reason to believe that there are many Russians who are savvy enough to figure that out, who are moral enough to be revolted by the injustices done in their name, and who will dare to show leadership by speaking truth to power.

Those are people to be admired, because those are the kinds of people we aspire to be and with whom we can seek to build reliable partnerships.

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From time to time we Americans need to take a break from the unpopularity contest of our Presidential campaign and turn our attention to urgent, important issues. So, let’s be clear. The US should not be getting into the business of bombing allies of the Russian Federation. If we sincerely intend to stay out that business, imposing a no-fly zone over Syria is the wrong thing to do.

The Libertarian Party insists on this, not for the sake of being friendly to Putin, but for the sake of daring to give peace a better chance than the political leaders who are perpetuating this tragedy.

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