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Frida Ghitis: The next president needs to know about Aleppo, and about Syria, and about a lot more

Syria's civil war is a throbbing wound, one that is infecting the planet with instability and extremism, she says

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN  — 

“What is Aleppo?” It is many things, but let’s hope among them that it is the turning point in a presidential campaign that has until now been dangerously dismissive of the crucial decisions the next US president will face the second they step into the Oval Office.

In a campaign season where shocking moments have come all too frequently, the Aleppo question was another stunner. It happened Thursday morning, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” It was a shocking exchange between the Libertarian presidential candidate, Gov. Gary Johnson, and one of the show’s panelists, Mike Barnicle.

Frida Ghitis

Barnicle: “What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?”

Johnson: “About…?”

Barnicle: “Aleppo”

Johnson: “And what is Aleppo?”

Barnicle: “You’re kidding.”

Johnson: “No.”

Barnicle proceeded to explain that Aleppo is a city in Syria at the center of that country’s civil war. Johnson replied, “Got it,” and with that he declared that “With regard to Syria I do think it’s a mess.” He went on to explain his views on the country, but at this stage it was all pointless. Who cares what Johnson thinks about Syria now? He knows nothing about it. His opinion is meaningless.

And he’s disqualified from becoming president.

If there is one silver lining in this sorry incident – which is yet another embarrassment for the United States on the global stage and another sign that there is something terribly wrong with this year’s election – it is that the phrase “What is Aleppo” quickly rocketed across social media, proving that voters are not completely oblivious to this scandalous display of ignorance by a man trying to lead the country.

American voters know something is amiss. Whether it is the candidates or the media, what we have been hearing from the campaign trail is desperately lacking in substance, particularly regarding foreign policy. With just two months left until Election Day, it’s time for that to change.

The next president needs to know about Aleppo, and about Syria, and about a lot more.

Aleppo used to be Syria’s largest city. Its population, like that of much of the country, has been decimated. The remaining residents have been caught in a brutal confrontation between rebels on one side, and government forces, supported in the country by Russia and the Iran-allied Hezbollah militia. The civilian population has endured a strangling siege, which left them short of food, electricity or running water. Early last month, a rebel group that rebranded itself after being part of al Qaeda, broke the siege, but the fighting has continued and the government has taken back positions from the rebels.

Do all American voters need to understand this? The Syrian war is extraordinarily complicated, and even the experts have to work hard to keep up with all the details. Well, what everyone should understand is that Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe of historic proportions, with consequences reaching across the globe. It would help if voters knew that a brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is using poison gas and dropping barrel bombs on civilians; that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is backing him, and that the rebels fighting the government include both radical Islamists and moderate Kurdish forces fighting alongside groups of moderate Arabs.

For voters, this is knowledge is optional. For presidential candidates, it is just the beginning.

It is, of course, not uncommon for candidates to try to steer the discussion away from foreign affairs. But foreign affairs, and international crises, never steer themselves away from American presidencies.

The war in Syria is a throbbing wound, one that is infecting the planet with instability and extremism and that threatens the progress toward peace and stability that has been painstakingly achieved over many decades. A candidate who doesn’t understand a key facet of a war that is changing the world does not deserve the job.

The civil war in Syria has not only shaken up the Middle East, it is reshaping Europe and having an impact practically everywhere.

If that war had ended quickly, we would not have seen the brutality of ISIS and the spread of terrorism. We would not have seen the flood of refugees that, combined with the fear of terrorism, has fueled extreme right-wing parties in Europe and elsewhere. Fears over the refugee crisis contributed to the Brexit vote, which could prove to be the first step in the unraveling of the European Union.

The reality is that the presidential election campaign is a job interview. And it’s time to question the applicants sharply. It’s time to move on from the questions we have all heard a thousand times and drill down into the specifics of their plans. Secret plans, as Donald Trump claims to have, will not cut it. We need to know what they intend to do, and not only about Syria.

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    How do the candidates intend to support American allies who feel threatened by an expansionist Russia? Does Trump, who admires Putin, want to let Russia do what it wants in Eastern Europe, or would he defend democracy the way Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman did?

    What about China? Do the presidential candidates believe America should stand up for its allies in East Asia against another aggressive power, or do they think the US should retrench? And North Korea – how should Washington respond to its continuous nuclear buildup and provocations?

    Then there’s Latin America, the United States’ long-neglected neighbor. Should the US work to realize the potential for greater cooperation and unity on this hemisphere?

    There are countless questions that must be asked, and – more importantly – answered. Neither journalists nor voters should be satisfied with evasions or platitudes. The stakes could not be higher. Let’s turn “What is Aleppo?” into a pivotal point in this dismal campaign. It’s time to get serious.