realclearworld Newsletters: Mideast Memo
Sitting in for an interview last week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson found himself stumped and stumbling during this unfortunate exchange with journalist Mike Barnicle:
BARNICLE: “What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?”
JOHNSON: “And what is Aleppo?”
BARNICLE: “You’re kidding.”
BARNICLE: “Aleppo is in Syria. It’s the epicenter of the refugee crisis…”
JOHNSON: “OK. Got it. Got it.”
It was the kind of TV gaffe that serves as a handy and amusing anecdote in the Amtrak cafe car and is shared over and over again across multiple social media platforms -- as indeed it was. The former Republican two-term governor of New Mexico was left deservedly chastened, and he would spend the following days atoning for the error during his media rounds.
The media frenzy over Johnson’s Aleppo flap died down rather quickly in this election cycle of serial gaffes and short attention spans. Johnson insists that the embarrassing episode has actually aided his campaign efforts, and survey data post-gaffe suggests that the brief affair has had little effect on his poll numbers.
Interestingly overlooked during the hullabaloo over the governor’s remarks was the fact that his own proposals for dealing with Syria -- in which for instance he suggests “joining hands with Russia” to help bring an end to hostilities in the country -- sound strikingly similar to current U.S. policy there. (To make no mention of their similarity to the suggested policies of Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.)
Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein found herself at the center of a similar albeit smaller storm last week, when the physician and longtime activist called for a new inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks. Judging the original 9/11 Commission to be too compromised and caught up in politics, Stein told RealClearWorld that as president she would ask the new commission to investigate any possible ties to Saudi intelligence in the attacks carried out 15 years ago this month.
Stein -- who has not shied away from targeting longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia -- has proposed freezing Saudi government bank accounts if any officials in Riyadh were determined to be complicit in the funding of terrorism, and she has also pledged, if elected, to sign a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the bill, which passed unanimously in the House last week.
“It would be a positive step forward not only for the families of 9/11 victims, but also for international law to allow victims of criminal violence to hold the perpetrators accountable regardless of international borders,” Stein said via email.
Analysts have panned the proposed legislation, arguing that it would open American servicemen and women up to similar litigation abroad. Additionally, alleged links between Saudi officials and the 9/11 attackers remain murky and conjectural at best, and the U.S.-Saudi relationship has become incredibly valuable in the fight against terrorism. Any reassessment or severing of those ties could bring negative consequences for U.S. policymaking in the future, but these are tradeoffs that the Stein campaign is willing to make.
“The project of U.S. military and economic domination of the Middle East has been a disaster, and we need to send a clear signal that our foreign policy is shifting to one based on diplomacy, international law, and human rights.”
It is undeniable that there has been a noticeable shift in American thinking on traditional Arab allies like those in Riyadh. Johnson and Stein -- much like Mr. Trump -- are tapping into a palpable sense among the American public that there is something terribly awry about U.S. policy in the Middle East. While American public opinion has indeed turned against the Iraq War and the wisdom of its prosecution, so too has opinion of President Obama’s handling of the regional chaos that has ensued since the United States ended major combat operations in Iraq. The rise of the Islamic State group, coupled with state collapse and war in Syria, have called into question the Obama administration’s handling of the war on terror, and the apolicies of both administrations have left Americans looking for answers and assurances.
Johnson and Stein have made their missteps, and critics have pointed in particular to Stein’s political dalliances with Russia -- and her appearances on Russian television -- as an example of just how out of step the Green candidate is with the conventional foreign policy wisdom. But if the chosen candidate of the party of Reagan can criticize the sitting U.S. president on Russian television, why can’t Stein dine with Vladimir? In this unorthodox, upsidedown election year, all bets appear to be off.
Neither third-party candidate is going to be elected president this fall, nor are they likely to have too significant of an impact on the nationwide popular vote (Johnson and Stein finished with 1 percent and 0.4 percent of the vote, respectively, in their 2012 presidential bids). Both, however, draw much of their support from millennial voters, and as my RCP colleague David Byler notes, this will likely hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the most. This could prove particularly relevant as polls tighten up in the so-called battleground states, and as a percentage point here or there becomes more consequential.
“Johnson takes from both major-party candidates, but slightly more from Clinton than Trump. When you add Stein into the mix, Clinton still often loses more supporters to third parties than Trump does,” said Byler, who covers elections and polling data for our Politics sister-site.
Green activists and social libertarians believe that time has vindicated their positions on social issues such as gay marriage and marijuana legalization, even if the ballot box has not. Could the same prove true of foreign policy? It’s a question that Hillary Clinton, the undisputed flag-bearer of the foreign policy establishment, will need to answer, and fast.
The Johnson campaign could not be reached for comment at time of publication.
Eager for more Mideast news and analysis? Check out our new site, Real Clear Middle East.
The Mideast Memo will be on break next week.