It sounds like the Times badgered him in trying to squeeze this answer out of him, but in the end he did give them the soundbite they wanted for their “Libertarians gonna libertarian” piece.
Brian Doherty of Reason notes that Ron Paul built himself an ardent following nationally by offering this same whataboutist counterpoint to modern Republican hawkishness. That’s true — an ardent, marginal following. Donald Trump built himself an equally ardent but much bigger following with a cocktail of protectionism, authoritarianism, lip service to social conservative causes, and a foreign policy that sometimes sounds Paul-ish but often does not. If Paul’s following tells us something about the correctness of his views, I’d hate to know, as a libertarian sympathizer, what eternal truths Trump’s following reveals.
But when pressed four times on whether he saw a moral equivalence between deaths caused by the United States, directly or indirectly, and mass killings of civilians by Mr. Assad and his allies, Mr. Johnson made clear that he did.
“Well no, of course not — we’re so much better than all that,” Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said sarcastically. “We’re so much better when in Afghanistan, we bomb the hospital and 60 people are killed in the hospital.”…
In the Times interview on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson conspicuously sought to avoid another misstep. Asked if he knew the name of North Korea’s leader, Mr. Johnson replied, “I do.”
“You want me to name” the person, he said, then paused, before adding dryly, “Really.” But he declined to supply the name.
Alrighty then. Assad, as you probably know, deliberately targets hospitals and has spent the past five years effectively engaged in cleansing his country of Sunnis. The whataboutist response to that is that whether you’re dead in an accidental bombing or a deliberate bombing, you’re still dead. Right, but if your enemy is focused on soft targets and engaged in an eliminationist program, chances are there’ll be many more “you’s” in the you’re-still-dead equation. The classic isolationist straw man is that because the U.S. isn’t as virtuous as super-hawks like to pretend, it’s never virtuous, period, even relative to a minor Saddam like Assad. The logic of isolationism requires that straw man, though: It’s hard to defend the idea that intervention is always the wrong move unless every previous intervention was without virtue. Sounds like Johnson finally nodded in that direction once the Times twisted his arm hard enough.
Still, that’s odd because his whole shtick this campaign has been to run as a moderate, not as a doctrinaire ideologue. He and Weld have tended to emphasize their governing experience and to contrast their own positions with the worst excesses of Clinton and Trump, offering themselves as a sort of sensible, just-right middle ground. It’s weird to see him go full metal libertarian on a question like Is the U.S. better than Assad?, but I suppose that’s the eternal third-party dilemma playing out. How much should a fringe party stay true to its principles and how much should it pander to mainstream sensibilities in the name of greater electability? If Johnson was at 25 percent in the polls, you might have gotten a different answer to this question.
One other point. You can see from this answer how, er, not nimble Johnson is in framing his arguments to be maximally effective. Afghanistan is a bad example to use as a contrast to Syria since it’s the one war in modern U.S. history that began with an attack on America. If he wants to argue that the war has gone on far too long or is being run sloppily, all to the good, but if he’s unprepared to absorb the risk of an accidental bombing even as part of a war in which the U.S. was attacked first, then he’s pretty much anti-war under all circumstances. Not a great look for a prospective C-in-C. It would also have been nimble of him to note that if the Times wants to whine about moral equivalence, they should probably start with the Republican nominee defending the mysterious murders of Russian journalists for which his pal Vlad is a prime suspect by noting, and I quote, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe.” Had Johnson or Ron Paul said that, it would have been a scandal for days, especially among rank-and-file Republicans. As it is, Trump’s got a real chance of becoming president thanks to Republican voters shrugging off statements like that. If Johnson wants to practice whataboutism, he should start there. What about Trump?