Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, responded to a question Thursday morning about the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo by looking puzzled and asking, “And what is Aleppo?”
That footage, recorded last month in the aftermath of an airstrike on a rebel-held neighborhood of the city by the Syrian government or its Russian allies, struck a nerve on social networks because it included heartbreaking images of Omran Daqneesh, a dazed 5-year-old boy pulled from the rubble of his destroyed home.
As my colleagues Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham reported last week, there is an intense battle for control of the city between government forces supported by Russia and a coalition of Syrian rebel factions supported by the United States that is allied with Islamist groups, including Jabhat Fath al-Sham, al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria. The Islamic State has no presence in the city, although rebel groups have battled with ISIS in the countryside outside Aleppo, as the Syrian media activist Rami Jarrah documented earlier this year.
This week, the horror of Aleppo’s bombardment was again in the headlines as allegations that government forces had used chemical weapons were followed by more distressing images of child victims.
As aerial footage broadcast by the BBC report shows, much of the ancient city that was once the country’s economic center is now in ruins, four years after fighting started there.
The fact that Johnson had apparently never heard of the strategically important city — and even failed to guess that it was the name of a city (he told Whoopi Goldberg later that he thought it might have been an acronym) — stunned Mike Barnicle, the columnist who asked him what he would do about the situation there if he was elected president.
When Johnson asked what Aleppo (or A.L.E.P.P.O. — or, a leppo) might be, Barnicle replied, with open contempt, “You’re kidding.”
But Johnson, it turns out, was not alone.
As remarkable as that moment was, it was quickly followed by reports on Johnson’s cluelessness that included basic errors about who was fighting in the city and why the tragedy there matters to the rest of the world.
Taken together, those error-strewn reports suggest that American journalists and pundits have become so completely focused on the horse-race aspect of electoral politics that they are paying almost no attention to the biggest foreign policy crisis that will face the next president.
The tone was set by Christopher Hill, a former United States ambassador to Iraq who is now the dean of international studies at the University of Denver.
Asked by MSNBC for his response, Hill wrongly identified Aleppo as “the capital of ISIS,” apparently confusing it with Raqqa, another city in northern Syria that is held by Islamic State militants. Hill’s error baffled Jenan Moussa, who has reported on the war in Syria for Dubai’s Al Aan TV.
To make matters worse, Hill went on to complain that while there are a lot of “inside baseball” terms familiar to foreign policy experts like himself that he would not expect many people to know, it was remarkable for Johnson to draw a blank on a city that has been “very much in the news, especially in the last two days, but for the last two years.”
The Washington bureau of the New York Times then added to the confusion by rushing to publish a report on the reaction to Johnson’s ignorance that echoed Hill’s error by calling Aleppo “the de facto capital of the Islamic State.”
When that obvious mistake was spotted by readers — and, no doubt, the newspaper’s own foreign correspondents — the Times report was first edited to insert a new but still incorrect description of Aleppo as “the Syrian city that is a stronghold of the Islamic State.” That description was later removed, and a correction appended, but the article still includes a mistaken summary of Barnicle’s explanation to Johnson of why Aleppo matters.
Barnicle told Johnson that Aleppo is “the epicenter of the refugee crisis,” which is correct, since fighting in what was before the war the most heavily populated region of Syria, and its economic heartland, has driven millions of Syrians to seek refuge in neighboring countries and Europe. Barnicle did not, as the Times reports, ask Johnson “how, as president, he would address the refugee crisis in the war-torn Syrian city.”
Rather than deal with the question of how, exactly, the United States might help to bring this conflict to an end — which it has fueled by supporting rebel groups allied with al Qaeda’s proxy — political reporters covered Johnson’s blank stare as a process story, asking how his gaffe might affect his chances of getting into the upcoming presidential debates.
Typical of those reports was an interview of Johnson in the hallway outside the MSNBC studio, conducted by Mark Halperin of Bloomberg News, that felt more like a post-game chat with an athlete than a discussion with a potential president about an important policy matter.
Johnson played along in the analysis of his gaffe as primarily a matter of politics by telling Halperin that it reminded him of being quizzed, while running for governor of New Mexico, on his plans for rural communities near the Mexican border known as “colonias.”
Eric Levitz, an editor at New York magazine, pointed out that after Johnson managed to get himself elected New Mexico’s governor anyway, he joked about once bluffing his way through a meeting alongside the governor of Texas at the time, George W. Bush, who was similarly baffled.
Of course, being just as unfamiliar with foreign affairs as most Americans is not necessarily a barrier to the highest office in the land.
George W. Bush, who failed a pop quiz on the names of global leaders in 1999 and went on to order the disastrous invasion of Iraq, is now broadly popular, eight years after he slouched from office. According to the most recent Gallup poll, conducted in July, Bush is now regarded favorably by 52 percent of Americans, essentially tied with his successor, President Obama, and three points ahead of his predecessor, Bill Clinton.