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Gary Johnson and Humanitarian Interventions

Jim Antle writes that Gary Johnson is “badly positioned to make a credible presidential run,” and Dan McCarthy adds that he is “setting himself up to play the libertarian stock villain in the GOP’s quadrennial opera buffa.” They’re both right, but I have to admit that this is part of what I find appealing about the prospect of a Johnson candidacy. He isn’t just badly positioned–he’s horribly positioned, but there’s a chance that he might run anyway and have a salutary effect on the primary contest. His candidacy would force debates on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the drug war, which are all subjects where most of the other likely candidates hold misguided and sometimes appalling views. The rest of the field will all be officially pro-life*, but perfectly content with the idea of starting wars, detaining suspects indefinitely, and perhaps even torturing detainees when “necessary.” The contrast would be useful and instructive, and it might even lead some pro-life voters to insist that their leaders show more consistent respect for human life. All right, that last part is pretty unlikely, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

On a more serious note, I admit that I am more puzzled than repelled right now by Johnson’s apparent endorsement of humanitarian interventions. My first impression is that he hasn’t fully thought through the implications of what he’s saying. Let’s look at what Johnson says:

If there’s a clear genocide somewhere, don’t we really want to positively impact that kind of a situation? 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.

These are rhetorical questions for Johnson. Obviously, he believes the answers to all of these are yes. It’s hard to know why Johnson believes that this is “what we’re all about,” since there isn’t much in American history that would lead anyone to conclude that humanitarian interventions are at the core of who we are as a nation. It doesn’t make much sense to support humanitarian intervention and oppose nation-building. Whatever outside power chooses to intervene in the internal affairs of another nation will end up taking on responsibilities for security after the intervention is over, and typically this will be paired with civilian reconstruction efforts, diplomatic engagement with the various political factions in the country, and an attempt to sort out an enduring post-conflict political settlement. Based on Johnson’s opposition to nation-building, I conclude that he wouldn’t actually be very interested in launching humanitarian interventions, since these interventions would inevitably lead to the nation-building that he sees as unacceptable. Humanitarian intervention really makes no sense on its own terms if there is no effort to follow it up with political stabilization, and Johnson seems to see that follow-up effort as misguided.

One of the other problems with this position is that it is often not “clear” that a genocide is taking place. Even when it is “clear,” it is not always certain that outside intervention would halt the killing, but might instead lead to its intensification. There is a presumption that outside intervention can meaningfully resolve or end these conflicts, when in most cases it will merely interrupt them until the intervening forces depart. In order to engage in a successful preventive intervention, the U.S. would have to involve itself before the policy and intentions of the government or group in question became “clear,” which would make the case for intervention extremely difficult and vexed. For that matter, this reason for intervention has been horribly abused, leading to the entirely unjustified 1999 war against Yugoslavia, and it is difficult to separate the idea of humanitarian intervention from that grossly illegal war, especially when most of the champions of humanitarian intervention and the “obligation to protect” remain dedicated supporters of that war. The strangest thing of all is that Johnson is coming around to see the virtue of humanitarian interventions at a time when humanitarian interventionism is meeting with a lot more skepticism among some of the people who previously endorsed it. As Mark Mazower wrote in World Affairs Journal earlier this year:

To the more ardent interventionists, such considerations represented pure legalism when set beside the chance to topple a dictatorship and prevent mass murder. But the more thoughtful of them have come to realize that the way leaders treat their people is not the only problem that counts in international affairs. On the contrary, if the history of the past century showed anything, it was that clear legal norms, and the securing of international stability more generally, also serve the cause of human welfare. Let alone the fact that it is much easier to destroy institutions than to build them.

One reason I’m not instantly put off by Johnson’s answer is that it doesn’t really fit with anything else he’s saying. If Johnson’s positions generally put him on the side of respecting international law and state sovereignty, which they seem to do, I am far less worried that Johnson would be willing to intervene militarily in another nation’s internal conflicts. Compared to everyone else in the likely GOP field, none of whom opposed invading Iraq and most of whom want to attack Iran, Johnson seems far less likely to support violating another country’s sovereignty for any reason. If Johnson wants to decrease military spending by half, or at least by some large amount, he is arguing for a significantly reduced ability to project power around the globe. A policy preference for humanitarian interventions requires the ability to project power quickly to many different places around the globe, and absent an extensive network of clients and bases that becomes much more difficult. Johnson’s interest in reducing military expenditures dramatically seems to be much greater. In the end, he doesn’t seem interested in willing the means to achieve the end he endorses, which suggests that his support for humanitarian intervention is not as deep or significant as it might seem at first.

* It is worth noting that Johnson’s position on abortion is actually the one that is basically consistent with the view of constitutionalists:

But as a matter of law, Johnson thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned. “It should be a states issue to begin with,” he says. “The criteria for a Supreme Court justice would be that those justices rule on the original intent of the constitution. Given that, it’s my understanding that that justice would overturn Roe v. Wade.”

On the main question of appointing justices to the Court and his view of the relevant case law, Johnson is no different from most conventionally pro-life Republicans.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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