There’s been some interesting commentary in the conservative blogosphere about the presidential prospects of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Johnson excites a conspicuous set of younger, libertarian cons who dream of a conservative movement without its messy insistence on defense and foreign policy issues.
But is Johnson a serious-minded politician? Is he knowledgeable and well informed? Does he understand history and geopolitics? Is he fit to be Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States?
Johnson is supposedly a Ron Paul type, but without Paul’s conspicuous baggage — except that Johnson has his own conspicuous baggage. For example, he admits to having smoked pot (for medicinal purposes) from 2005 to 2008. This caused the American Spectator’s Jim Antle to write a post entitled, “Gary Johnson: Up in Smoke.”
“While I don’t have a problem with that [smoking pot and getting high],” Antle writes, “lots of Republican primary voters will. And it isn’t exactly a very presidential image.” But what most bothers the paleocon Antle is that Johnson might discredit the “non-interventionist conservative arguments.”
Johnson, after all, doesn’t think that U.S. troops should be in Iraq or Afghanistan. And he wants to slash the defense budget “by as much as 44 percent to 90 percent from current levels,” reports the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack.
Johnson’s rationale for such a cut? He notes that the United States accounts for half of worldwide defense spending, and suggests that our share of the international defense budget should be proportionate to our population.
“If you just based it on population alone, we should be spending five [percent],” he says.
But why should defense spending be proportionate to our population? Does Johnson feel the same way about America’s use of natural resources and economic output? Should these, too, be drastically cut to ensure that they are not “disproportionate” or incongruent with our population?
[So] ‘is Johnson saying that the United States defense budget should be cut in half?’ McCormack asks.
‘I don’t want to make that kind of statement because I somehow think it would make me appear irresponsible,’ Johnson says. ‘And I don’t want to be irresponsible regarding this. I just have this sense that we’re spending way too much.’
Well, credit Johnson for not wanting to be “irresponsible.” However, breezily airing his uninformed “sense” about the defense budget is just that: irresponsible.
As a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we’re spending roughly a half to a third of what we spent on defense under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (a Republican) and John F. Kennedy (a Democrat).
Yet, the military threats today are far more diverse and multifaceted; and they require much greater engagement of U.S. ground forces in labor-intensive peacekeeping and nation-building efforts. Moreover, our troops today are better paid and better compensated than they were in the 1950s and ‘60s, thus further straining the defense budget.
That’s why another better and more informed 2012 GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney has argued for significantly more defense spending.
“When I add up the demands of all these defense missions,” Romney told the Heritage Foundation in June 2009:
I do not come up with budget cuts. As a simple matter of budget mathematics, we cannot fulfill our military missions without an increase of $50 billion per year in the modernization budget…
I can see no reasonable scenario by which America can spend less and still provide our servicemen and women with the modern equipment and resources that they need to defend us.
Romney has it exactly right. Of course, if, like Johnson, you favor American withdrawal from the world, then it makes perfect sense to slash the defense budget.
But interestingly enough, Johnson says he’s not an isolationist. Why, he tells McCormack, he even favors so-called humanitarian wars (!) — provided, he insists, they don’t metamorphose into “nation building.”
‘If there’s a clear genocide somewhere, don’t we really want to positively impact that kind of a situation?’ he says. ‘Isn’t that what we’re all about? Isn’t that what we’ve always been about? But just this notion of nation building—I think the current policy is making us more enemies than more friends.’
Weekly Standard: So, you think that the United States, even if it weren’t in its own narrow national interest, even if we weren’t threatened by the [other] country, but there was a genocide going on—a clear genocide—it would be the right thing to do to go in and stop that?
Johnson: Yes. Yes, I do.
Credit Johnson for having a heart and for wanting to stop genocide — at least in principle. His positions, though, are incoherent, incongruent and irreconcilable.
Stopping genocide is a labor-intensive effort that requires boots on the ground. Yet, pay and personnel are the most expensive part of the defense budget. So Johnson can say he would support “humanitarian interventions”; however, his defense budget wouldn’t allow it.
And as for dreaded “nation-building,” that’s a caricature and a straw-man which the politicians love to deride.
In truth, though, as I have explained here at FrumForum, nation-building is necessary and unavoidable in the wars of the early 21st Century. It is part and parcel of any real counterinsurgency campaign such as we are waging in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
This doesn’t mean that we’re foolishly trying to create or build something in these countries that never existed. It means, instead, that we’re allowing an indigenous civil society to emerge under the protection of our military umbrella.
The alternative, typically, is to allow countries and regions to descend into anarchy, and thereby become breeding ground for terrorists who would destroy us, as al-Qaeda tried to do on September 11, 2001.
And that’s why we’re now “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan — not because of some utopian desire to wage a “humanitarian war” and “do good,” but rather because of a hard-headed strategic imperative to win and prevail.
McCormack notes that Johnson
‘isn’t even sure if U.S. troops should have been stationed in Europe to confront the Soviets following World War II.’
‘I don’t think I have the expertise to be able to say that it was good or bad, it just seems to me that today, it doesn’t really seem warranted,’ he says.
Johnson also says Iran’s nuclear program isn’t a threat to the United States because the principle of ‘mutually assured destruction’ would keep the Iranians from attacking.
So even today, with the benefit of historical hindsight and the successful prosecution of the Cold War, Johnson can’t say with certainty whether it was a good idea to station American troops in Western Europe.
Johnson is equally clueless about Iran. He willfully ignores Iran’s support of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Jihad. Ditto’s Iran’s support of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its terrorist proxy war in Lebanon.
The Iranian regime’s threat to wipe Israel off the face of the earth doesn’t seem to phase him. And Johnson is apparently nonplussed by Iran’s real potential to destabilize the entire Middle East through its continued promotion and support of violent Jihad.
Of course, I hope that Johnson is right and that Iran can be contained. But we already have one president who campaigned on a strategy of “hope”; we don’t need another. Hope is not a strategy. Hope, in fact, can be a rationale for delusion, stupidity and appeasement.
Up in smoke, indeed — and deservedly so.