In 1999, then-candidate for president George W. Bush was ambushed on a Boston radio show with a pop quiz: could he name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, India, and Pakistan? An exasperated Bush mustered up only Taiwan’s Lee Teng-hui, and a minor scandal ensued. The Bush campaign defended its man by pointing out that most Americans wouldn’t have done any better, a valid point. I write fairly often about foreign policy and of those four countries I can only name India’s current prime minister. Then again, Bush was running for president, and I’m not—thank God for that.
Bush’s grilling was far more unfair than the one administered to Gary Johnson on MSNBC yesterday by former Boston Globe columnist (what is it with my fellow New Englanders and foreign policy gotchas?) Mike Barnicle. Barnicle asked Johnson, “What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?” Johnson went deer-in-the-headlights and asked “And what is Aleppo?”
The former New Mexico governor, pure class, later issued a statement admitting that he’d blanked because he’d misheard “Aleppo” as an acronym, but the ignorant critics had already swooped in. The New York Times ran a story about Johnson’s gaffe that erroneously identified Aleppo both as the Islamic State’s de facto capital (that would be Raqqa) and Syria’s official capital (that would be Damascus, though before the war Aleppo was Syria’s most populous city). Various morons on Twitter, meanwhile, mocked Johnson so voluminously that the city’s name began trending, only they spelled it wrong, “Allepo” rather than “Aleppo.”
Apparently no one in the Western Hemisphere had any idea what an Aleppo was before yesterday. With Obama mired in the Middle East, right now Aleppo is ground zero for America’s foreign policy, the pivot point of the Syrian Civil War where American, Russian, Assadist, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, Syrian rebel, and ISIS paths have all intersected. It’s also a city under siege and a painful humanitarian calamity, where tens of thousands have died or fled. A future president who wants to mend our masochistic foreign policy will have to contend with Aleppo. To forget a locale from a dated conflict—say, Sevastopol in Crimea—would have been more understandable, but right now Aleppo is where it’s at. It’s inexcusable that it didn’t spring into Johnson’s mind.
But can we also have some perspective here? Just as it’s easy for Twitter hordes to mock Johnson over Aleppo without having any idea what it is, so too is it simpler for the news cycle to focus on gaffes rather than substantive policy. Journalists have spent 24 hours now parsing Johnson’s flub with surgical precision: what if, just once, we spent that same span of time pressuring Hillary Clinton over her support for the war in Libya, which ripped that country open and gave ISIS its own North African protectorate? Given that the Libya aftermath resulted in thousands of deaths, isn’t it arguably more newsworthy than Gary Johnson’s brain fart?
I’ve marveled for years at this type of myopia, where the media hyperventilates over the superficial at the expense of the substantial. Remember how it worked during the tea party days? “Glenn Beck just made a dopey comment!” declared David Brooks who supported the Iraq war that wrecked the Middle East and haunts our foreign policy to this day. “Andrew Breitbart just got something wrong!” pronounced David Frum who believed we could airlift democracy into Baghdad and turn up stockpiles of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. That’s not to say that Beck’s and Breitbart’s excesses didn’t matter—coming off a two-day anti-pundit bender, I fully acknowledge that. But to hail Frum and Brooks as conscientious ombudsmen, as many did, was absurd, given that it was their failed policies that produced the tea party reaction in the first place.
Style matters, but substance must matter more, and substance that affects the fates of entire nations must matter most of all. So why isn’t Hillary Clinton, who supported the Iraq war and then made the same mistake in Libya, not subjected to at least the same glare as Johnson? Shouldn’t “your bad judgment killed thousands” be a more ringing denunciation than “gotcha”?