'What Is Aleppo?' Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson Draws a Cringe-Worthy Blank on War-Ravaged Syrian City

Gary Johnson later said of his Aleppo flub, "I am incredibly frustrated with myself"

Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

Gary Johnson may not make the presidential debate stage after all following a cringe-worthy foreign policy stumble during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday.

When the Libertarian presidential candidate and former governor of New Mexico was asked on MSNBC how he would address the situation in Aleppo, the city that is at the center of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, he replied, “What is Aleppo?”

“You’re kidding,” MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle said.

“No,” Johnson responded.

After Barnicle explained what Aleppo was, Johnson replied, “Okay, got it,” and went on to say he thinks the U.S. should partner with Russia to work to resolve the conflict. “With regard to Syria, I do think that it’s a mess,” he said.

Pressed on the flub by host Joe Scarborough, Johnson said, “I do understand Aleppo and I … understand the crisis that is going on. But when we involve ourselves militarily, when we involve ourselves in humanitarian issues, we end up – we end up with a situation that in most cases is not better, and in many cases ends up being worse.”

Johnson later told Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin “I am incredibly frustrated with myself” and released a statement chalking the mistake up to human error.

“This morning, I began my day by setting aside any doubt that I’m human. Yes, I understand the dynamics of the Syrian conflict – I talk about them every day. But hit with ‘What about Aleppo?’, I immediately was thinking about an acronym, not the Syrian conflict. I blanked. It happens, and it will happen again during the course of this campaign,” the statement began.

“Can I name every city in Syria? No. Should I have identified Aleppo? Yes. Do I understand its significance? Yes.

“As Governor, there were many things I didn’t know off the top of my head. But I succeeded by surrounding myself with the right people, getting to the bottom of important issues, and making principled decisions. It worked. That is what a President must do.

“That would begin, clearly, with daily security briefings that, to me, will be fundamental to the job of being President,” Johnson’s statement concluded.

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The misstep comes as Johnson had been slowly rising in the polls and inching closer to qualifying to participate in the upcoming presidential debates along with major-party nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Asked about Johnson’s flub at her foreign policy press conference Thursday morning, Clinton didn’t make too much of it, only chuckling and saying, “Well, you could look on the map and find Aleppo.”)

Aleppo was trending on Twitter Thursday as many users voiced their outrage over Johnson’s flub.

Political commentators also criticized Johnson for his lack of basic foreign policy knowledge.

Christopher Hill, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, said later on MSNBC, “I’m still trying to get my mind around that one. In foreign affairs there’s a lot of inside baseball that I don’t expect people to understand or follow. But the capital of ISIS is very much in the news for the last two days, the last two years. And for him to draw that kind of blank and boy was that a blank stare on his face …it was just mind-blowing. I don’t know where he will have peaked in the polls but I think he will now be known as Aleppo Johnson and that will be the end of [his] bid.”

For what it’s worth, The New York Timesand Hill – were also slammed for not being able to accurately identify Aleppo.

In its write-up on Johnson’s stumble, the newspaper initially described Aleppo as the capital of Syria, and then as the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The Times later issued two corrections stating Raqqa is the ISIS capital and Damascus is the Syrian capital, before ultimately identifying Aleppo as a “war-torn Syrian city.”

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