What Is Aleppo? Why Gary Johnson's Gaffe Is So Much More

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Libertarian presidential candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson on May 18, 2016, and a child an ambulance airstrikes in Aleppo, Syria, August 17, 2016.
Libertarian presidential candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson on May 18, 2016, and a child an ambulance airstrikes in Aleppo, Syria, August 17, 2016.Credit: Rick Bowmer, AP, and Aleppo Media Center via AP

One of the more cringe-worthy moments thus far in the American presidential campaign, the kind that makes you hang your head in shame with despair over what the rest of the world must be thinking, came Thursday when a candidate named Gary Johnson was perplexed when asked what he would do about one of the most war-rattled cities in Syria.

“And what is Aleppo?” Johnson, the candidate for the Libertarian party replied, after an MSNBC interviewer asked him about the city that – for those of us who think globally in general or care about the Middle East in particular – is a familiar name in the news. In kind, there are untold numbers of Americans who, if asked about the other two candidates, would probably say, “And who is Gary Johnson?” 

Johnson is a former governor of New Mexico, having served from 1995 to 2003, when he was a Republican. Among his views are non-interventionism and a general desire to roll back American political and military involvement abroad, so much so that he promises to cut the annual U.S. military budget by 43 percent – the exact opposite of what Republican nominee Donald Trump is promising. It’s a kind of isolatism that is as American as George Washington, who warned the nation in his farewell speech in 1796 to avoid “foreign entanglements.” 

There is no question that Syria fits the bill. Even Hillary Clinton, who along with her husband favors a much more robust role for America on the world stage – including interventions for humanitarian reasons – said Wednesday that America would never send U.S. ground troops to Iraq again, and that they wouldn’t be sent to Syria, either. 

What does it say about America when a candidate for the most powerful job in the country – and maybe on earth – doesn’t care to keep tabs on of the wholesale slaughter going on in Syria? Does Gary Johnson read a major newspaper each morning, which would have told him before he went on air Thursday that there had just been a suspected chlorine gas attack perpetrated by government forces against a rebel-held section of Aleppo? And more importantly, does any of it matter to the average American voter?

There may be no such animal. But there is a sense among some Americans of intense dislike for both Trump and Clinton, and they’re looking for places to cast a protest vote. In some states, Johnson has polled close to 15%, and if he reaches that threshold nationally, he gets a shot at being on stage with Trump and Clinton in the all-presidential debates starting in just over two weeks. 

Johnson probably fumbled that chance, not because he is the least knowledgeable man in politics, but because he simply couldn’t fudge his indifference. He knows there is a war in Syria, but which city is which, not so much. Even the New York Times, as documented by the Concourse, had to keep updating its story Thursday after initially describing Aleppo as an ISIS stronghold. It isn’t. Rather, it’s a place where various rebel groups – some friendly to the U.S. and some formerly affiliated with al-Qaida – are fighting the government of Bashar Assad.   

With enough factions to drive even the most skilled negotiators mad, it’s no wonder that even people in the media – save a few savvy reporters and editors - fail to understand what’s happening in Syria. But Aleppo in particular has been back in the public eye, particularly since the image of one little 5-year-old boy, shocked and bloodied after being plucked from the rubble and plopped down on an ambulance, bounced around the globe and reignited talk of “doing something.” One hopes Johnson saw that image; one assumes that the exact location or circumstances were for him as unnecessary as big government spending.

This ignorance, the kind that makes the rest of the world laugh at us – and rightfully so – is a kind of caricature that has some unfortunate truth in it, but not the whole truth. In fact, this obliviousness is as much a media disease as it is an American disease. Fewer and fewer voters get their news from a traditional newspaper, where that image of Omran Daqneesh was out front, above the fold, unmissable. Instead, it comes tailored to your interests, to your inbox and your newsfeed, and that means that it’s much easier to tune out other major things that might be happening in the world. American news channels have been complicit in this. In the raucous election season, many broadcasts are simply a Donald and Hillary show. If you want international news, you need to actively seek it out – it will no longer land on your doorstep each morning.

I had my own Gary Johnson moment just this week while teaching a journalism class. I asked my students to work on a digital news quiz in groups, and to give their group a name. The winning group? Harambe. This being Spanish-influenced South Florida, I was thinking, Ay Caramba! But then I realized that wasn’t it. “What’s Harambe?” I asked innocently.

The students’ jaws dropped in shock. I could lecture them on every journalistic topic under the sun, but I didn’t register the name of the gorilla who was shot dead this May at the Cincinnati Zoo to save a 3-year-old boy who fell into the 440-pound primate’s enclosure? I was in Israel at the time of this incident, catching up with what seemed like bigger issues to me. But when they explained, I had a vague recollection of having seen the story somewhere. To them, Harambe was it. For many reasons, Harambe has achieved a kind of cult status in America since his death, and is being turned into the poster beast of many causes. In fact, after Johnson, one alternative candidate Americans tell pollsters they’d like to want to vote for is – Harambe. According to polls, between 2% and 5% of Americans say they would vote for the gorilla. Of course, Harambe is neither human nor alive. But in an absurd election year in which no gaffe or gross generalization seems to put a major dent in the top candidates’ chances of winning, almost anything goes.

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