Gary Johnson: “I Would Get Out of Afghanistan Tomorrow“

Last month, I wrote a piece suggesting that Americans who want to end the war in Afghanistan ought to consider supporting former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in the GOP primary as a means of raising the profile and impact of Republican sentiment against the war. I noted that while, according to The Washington Post, 56 percent of Republican voters want to see a substantial withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan this summer – half of Republicans don't think the war's worth fighting – you can count on your fingers the Republicans in the House who have supported any initiative to press against indefinite continuation of the war, and so far not a single Republican in the Senate has done anything against the war. I suggested that if Republicans critical of the war rise in the primary, that could move the debate in Washington and end the war sooner, because the so far near-monolithic support of the war by Republican officials has been a key political cause of the continuation of the war.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post noted that polling data suggests that Republican candidates who oppose the war could rise in the GOP primary: “I'd say one of the big 'surprises' coming up in the GOP primary will be the lack of Republican voter support for the war in Afghanistan,” said Republican strategist Mike Murphy. “I think we have hit a tipping point politically and this will emerge as a very big story in the Republican primaries later this year.”

The rise in the GOP primary of Republicans opposed to the continuation of the Afghanistan war could save thousands of American and Afghan lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

On April 28, 2011, I talked to Gary Johnson about the war. While I was talking with him, I raised some other issues of US foreign policy.

Some highlights of the interview:

“I would advocate getting out of Afghanistan tomorrow … I realize that the logistics of getting out tomorrow isn't tomorrow. But it's months, it's not years.”

  • Johnson advocates cutting the annual military budget by 43 percent. Over ten years, this is more than seven times what President Obama proposes to cut from the military budget.
  • Johnson supports the bill introduced by Senator Boxer that would require the president to establish a timetable with an end date for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. This bill has, so far, not been endorsed by a single Senate Republican.
  • Johnson opposes the US military intervention in Libya and thinks we should get out.
  • Johnson questioned why we have a US military base in Okinawa – something few politicians in Washington have been willing so far to do despite the fact that the base is spectacularly hated by the local population.
  • Johnson supports the legalization of marijuana. He noted that half of what we now spend on law enforcement is drug-related, that we now have the world's highest incarceration rate and that much of that incarceration is related to the fact that marijuana is illegal. He argues that if marijuana were legalized and controlled, 75 percent of the border violence in Mexico would cease, saving thousands of lives.

Here is the interview, which I have abridged slightly.

Robert Naiman: Let's start with the war in Afghanistan. According to The Washington Post, half of Republican voters say the war's not worth it; 56 percent of Republicans want to see a substantial withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan this summer. What is your opinion of the war in Afghanistan, and what do you propose to do?

Gary Johnson: Initially, I thought that our going into Afghanistan was totally warranted, that that is what our military is for. We were attacked, we attacked back – I'm talking about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. But after being there for about six months, I think we pretty well effectively wiped out al-Qaeda, or sent them elsewhere – and that would, of course, be Pakistan. So, here it is, we're there ten years later, in what I say is building roads, schools, bridges, highways, and hospitals, and we're borrowing 43 cents out of every dollar to do that, and, worse yet, men and servicewomen are losing their lives. I would advocate getting out of Afghanistan tomorrow, and for all the debate and the discussion over all the problems that we would encounter doing that, which I think would be completely warranted, I think we would have that same debate and discussion 25 years from now, if that's when we finally decide to get out.

RN: There's some discussion now about peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, an attempt to get a political resolution – what's your view on that?

GJ: That that should be our focus, and should always be our first and foremost defense would be just those kinds of initiatives. But I would want to make it really clear: I would get out of Afghanistan. This would not be a phased get-out. And I realize that the logistics of getting out tomorrow isn't tomorrow. But it's months, it's not years.

I'm talking about cutting defense spending by 43 percent and believing that we can provide a strong national defense for ourselves. And I think that defense is the key word as opposed to what I would describe as nation-building.

RN: There's a bill before the Senate now sponsored by Senator Boxer. It's essentially the same as a bill that was introduced last year by [former] senator Feingold. It would require the president to establish a timetable with an end date for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Do you have an opinion on that policy?

GJ: I'll shoot an opinion from the hip, and that would be to support such a piece of legislation.

RN: Let me ask you about your views on the Libya war. Do you think that the US involvement is justified? What do you think about the president's decision to do this without Congressional authorization? And what do you think the US should do now?

GJ: Well, you know, Bob, what I'm doing right now requires an opinion on everything that's happening right away. So, right when Libya happened, I issued my written opinion on that. And I think it's pretty well opposed to everything we're doing in Libya, A through Z. And it starts with no Congressional authorization. Where in the Constitution does it say that because we don't like a foreign leader, that we should go in and topple the foreign leader? Who are the rebels? Are we not involved in a civil war here? And if that's what we're involved in, then don't five other countries in the Middle East qualify for this same kind of intervention? Under the umbrella of a no-fly zone, did not Saddam Hussein exist for 12 years? Under the umbrella of a no-fly zone, did not the atrocities in Bosnia occur? So, I just see this as a growing conflict, and not in any way do I see this as ending anytime too soon.

RN: And so, what do you think the US should do now?

GJ: Well, given that we're in there right now, I would be looking to extricate ourselves from that. In my opinion, the trouble with all of our interventions, at least in my lifetime, is just all the unintended consequences that go along with those interventions. Like I say, I thought Afghanistan was originally totally warranted, but it went so far beyond that initial reaction or attack back … There's no foreign threat here. There's no foreign threat in Afghanistan. There's no foreign threat in Libya.

I would have said before we went into Iraq that we didn't need to do that. First of all, I didn't see them as being a threat to us, to our national security … I thought that if we went into Iraq, we would find ourselves in a civil war, an endless civil war.

RN: You mentioned that you want to cut the military budget by 43 percent.

GJ: We can cut military spending by that amount of money and still provide a strong national defense. “Strong national defense” being the key … as opposed to … “nation-building,” I use that [term] as a context of our getting involved and spending all our resources – in this case, our borrowed resources – on building other countries when we have these same needs here in this country.

RN: The president has recently talked about a $400 billion cut from the increase that was proposed before. Some are now talking about $1 trillion in cuts, there was a bipartisan task force that recommended $1 trillion in cuts – both these proposals are over the next ten years. Do you have an opinion on these proposals?

GJ: Well, if you take what is estimated to be the entire defense budget – depending on what you include in defense – today, that number is $800 billion, so if you're going to cut 43 percent from that, you're looking at a [more than $300 billion] reduction this year going forward; so, in ten years, that would be $3 trillion. So, I think I go further than anybody else is talking about.

I come at this from the standpoint that we're spending more money on military spending than all of the other countries in the world combined, even though we're only 5 percent of the world's population.

RN: I wanted to ask you specifically about the base in Okinawa. Of course, there are hundreds of US military bases around the world. But to me, this is a kind of striking example, given that this base is so unpopular in Okinawa, so unpopular in Japan. They had a national election where it was a key issue: the incoming government had promised in its campaign that it would get rid of the US military base. The new government came in, tried to negotiate that, and the US refused, and the prime minister had to resign. Even today, the governor of Okinawa, the local governments, they're all totally against this military base – at a time when we're talking about what to cut in the budget.

So, I wanted to ask you, in particular, when we have a military base someplace where the local people don't want it, really hate it, and want it to go, do you think that should be a factor in our decision to maintain a military base there? Should we take into account the opinions of the people that live in the area?

GJ: Well, everything that you said I am aware of, and everything that you said I concur with completely. Why, why do we have a base in Okinawa? How can there be anything more frustrating than the example that you just pointed out? Yes, you would have to think that primary in the consideration of maintaining a base would be the notion that it was something that the people in the country of the base would be supporting.

RN: I wanted to ask you about your opinion on the war on drugs. This is kind of a signature issue for you. I wanted you to talk about the cost, your perception of the failure, and particularly the implications of the war on drugs for people in other countries, particularly in Mexico and Latin America – Mexico, where thousands of people have been killed in the war on drugs there; Central America, where there is now apparently a big expansion of the criminal drug trade. So, tell me about your thoughts on the war on drugs, and what you think the US should be doing instead, particularly as that relates to the impact of the war on drugs on other countries.

GJ: As governor of New Mexico, what my pledge was, and what I did, and I'm really proud of this, and I said I was going to do this, that everything was going to be a cost-benefit analysis. Everything. What are we spending our money on, and what are we getting for the money that we're spending. That there wouldn't be any sacred cows, that politics was going to be the last consideration on the list, that first and foremost it was going to be about the issues, and understanding the issues. So, when it comes to the war on drugs, I'm opposed to the war on drugs, A through Z. But I came at it initially from the standpoint of – and, you know, there's naivety, I guess, on a broad number of issues, and this is after I'm elected, one of them is, I guess I really didn't understand that half of everything we spend on law enforcement, the courts, and the prisons is drug-related. And when you think about that, that is just staggering.

And when you think about what are we getting for half of law enforcement, half the courts and half the prisons? Well, what we're getting, is we're arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country, which I point out is the population of New Mexico that gets arrested every single year. And, we now have 2.3 million people behind bars. We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. And this is America? Liberty, freedom, the personal responsibility that goes along with that? I guess, except when it comes to your own body and what the decisions are surrounding that.

So, going back to 1999, I came to the conclusion … that 90 percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related, not use-related. That's not to discount the problems with use and abuse, but that ought to be the focus. So, in 1999, I advocated then, I advocate it now. Legalize marijuana. Control it, regulate it, tax it. It's never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired, get behind the wheel of a car, do harm to others. It's never going to be legal for kids to smoke pot or buy pot. And under which scenario is it going to be easier for kids to smoke pot or buy pot? The situation that exists today, where it's virtually available anywhere, and the person that sells pot also sells harder drugs? Or a situation where, to purchase it, you would have to produce an ID in a controlled environment, like alcohol, to be able to buy it. I think you can make the case that it would be harder to buy it, in that controlled environment.

When it comes to all the other drugs – [marijuana] is the only drug that I'm advocating legalizing – but when it comes to all the other drugs, I think what we ought to really be concentrating on are harm reduction strategies, the things that we really care about, which is reducing death, disease, crime, corruption. In a nutshell, it is looking at the drug problem first as a health issue, rather than as a criminal justice issue.

So, here we have the border violence with Mexico. Twenty-eight thousand deaths south of the border over the last four years. I believe that if we legalize marijuana, 75 percent of that border violence goes away, because that's the estimate of the drug cartel's activities that revolve around the drug trade. The drug trade – prohibition – these are disputes that are being played out with guns, rather than the courts. Control this stuff, regulate this stuff, take the money out of drugs, and so goes the violence.

RN: Finally, I wanted to ask you: you know that a lot of people in America are upset about the wars and want the wars to end – all these wars, the war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs …

GJ: And you and I included in that group …

RN: Yeah. And a lot of these folks don't ordinarily vote in Republican primaries or participate in Republican caucuses. So, I wondered if you want to speak about your outreach and interest to, let's say, nontraditional Republican voters, and what you're finding when you're talking to people, some people say that these wars aren't an issue. What are you hearing from voters on the campaign trail about these wars?

GJ: Well, first of all, I am running as a Republican here, and I think that I speak on behalf of a majority of Republicans, even though they may not know that, simply because they may have heard my name, but they have no idea who I am or what I'm even talking about.

I'm thinking that I may be speaking on behalf of the majority of Republicans, or enough Republicans, to actually win the primary, but I'm putting that to the test.

RN: Thank you so much for taking time for me.

GJ: And thank you for your activism. I appreciate what you do, because these conflicts are ridiculous. And – you have goals – should I ever reach this goal of holding this office, of being the guy on the watch, one of those goals would be to have no man or servicewoman lose his or her life.