Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson on Syria, Iran, and Aid to Israel
The foreign policy positions of third-party candidates haven't received a great deal of media attention in the 2016 presidential election, but that could change in the weeks ahead as polls continue to tighten in crucial battleground states.
“[M]ost voters think/assume that Clinton is going to win. That can de-motivate turnout, or shift votes to [third] parties,” tweeted elections analyst Nate Silver.
RealClearWorld had the opportunity this week to discuss a variety of foreign policy issues with Joe Hunter, communications director for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson. This email interview has been edited for clarity and length.
RCW: Gov. Johnson said in a recent interview with NY1 that U.S. policy in Syria has led to the violent and sectarian situation on the ground in that country. The governor has also proposed working with Russia to bring violence there to an end. What is the long-term solution in the country? Should President Bashar Assad remain in power, as Moscow would prefer?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: Whether we want Assad to remain in power or not is irrelevant as long as Russia is backing him. A power dynamic in which Russia is backing the government and we are supporting or encouraging those opposed to Assad is destined to be a stalemate with no resolution in the foreseeable future. That is what we have today. Thus, the only way to shift that dynamic and bring an end to the civil war and the humanitarian consequences is to engage Russia in a credible peace process. And, of course, as long as the status quo remains, ISIS will continue to find a home in Syria. It is not a matter of whether we want to work with Russia; it is that there is no alternative that will work.
RCW: How would Gov. Johnson end that stalemate? Would he end U.S. support for Syrian rebel groups?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: Whether we like it or not, the reality in Syria is that it is probably impossible to end the stalemate without Russian "buy-in" to a real cease-fire and resolution. Until that happens, support for the rebel groups may extend the stalemate, but will not bring it to an end. Any decision about continued support for those groups must be part of a larger conversation with Russia.
RCW: Various human rights organizations have accused the Syrian government of using incendiary weapons and cluster bombs, and the United Nations has reported on the use of chlorine bombs in the war-torn country. Considering Russia’s support for Assad, would these human rights violations at all complicate Gov. Johnson’s proposal to work closer with Russia in Syria?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: Of course the government’s actions and abuses complicate any proposed solution. But until Russia engages in a process to end the fighting and, hopefully, the resulting atrocities, there is no rational path to a safer and more stable Syria that the U.S. can pursue. Simply saying that Assad must go is not a strategy. It is a wish. American regime changes in Iraq and Libya certainly did not produce the intended results, and if anything, Syria is even more complex and dangerous.
RCW: The governor has proposed that the United States stop policing the world -- how might that look in actual policy terms in the Middle East?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: In policy terms, it means that the U.S. must stop engaging in regime change efforts with no clear U.S. interest and uncertain outcomes. Our policy must be to protect the U.S., its citizens, and its property. Injecting ourselves into conflicts on the other side of the globe, that have persisted for literally hundreds of years in some cases, in the hope that we can somehow resolve them has failed miserably to make us safer or the MIddle East more stable.
RCW: The United States has several bases across the region, and thousands of troops stationed there. The U.S. also engages in counterterrorism efforts with host countries across the region, and sponsors troop and police training programs in countries like Jordan and Bahrain, just to name a couple. Would Gov. Johnson dismantle much of this?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: Dismantle isn’t the right word. Taking office, getting the benefit of national security briefings, and understanding the commitments that exist today would all be necessary before reshaping the U.S. footprint in the region. However, it would begin with the fundamental goal of reducing that footprint, and withdrawing troops that are not needed to defend U.S. interests, as opposed to nation-building and interventions. Certainly, maintaining and supporting strategic alliances that make us safer will continue.
RCW: The United States agreed last week to a military aid deal with the Israeli government worth $38 billion -- what is Gov. Johnson’s position on this, and as president would he honor this agreement or work to overturn it?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: We will honor agreements that have been made. Not honoring our commitments is not an option. However, going forward, all such agreements will be examined through the lens of fiscal realities, defending the United States, and keeping us safe.
RCW: Does Gov. Johnson personally agree with the $38 billion aid package allotted in the memorandum of understanding signed with Israel last week? Does he, generally speaking, support U.S. military aid to Israel? Has the relationship with Israel, to use your own words, made America safer and the Middle East more stable?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: Gov. Johnson has consistently viewed our relationship with Israel as one of the critical strategic partnerships about which he frequently speaks, and has long considered the military aid provided to Israel as a cost-effective way of helping to secure U.S. interests in the region. The $38 billion commitment over 10 years is, in reality, a modest increase over the $3.1 billion in aid we have been providing for several years, and represents an extension of the military partnership that has been in place for a long time.
And yes, our relationship with Israel does make America safer. Having a reliable and democratic ally in the region is of tremendous value, and in all likelihood, actually saves U.S. defense dollars.
RCW: As president, Gov. Johnson would inherit the Iran nuclear agreement from his predecessor, Barack Obama. How would he handle enforcement of the nuclear deal? Would he seek better ties with the Iranian government, or work to isolate the regime in Tehran?
JOHNSON CAMPAIGN: There appear to be many problems with the Iran agreement, including the likely and acknowledged flow of funds to terrorists. Likewise, the lack of transparency in the agreement and its development are extremely troubling. However, assessing agreements after the fact is a question of net benefits and costs. If the agreement delays the development of nuclear weapons and grants us greater ability to know what the Iranians are doing, the net benefits may outweigh the costs and flaws. As a matter of principle, engaging foreign governments and opening doors is good policy.