Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson asked a television interviewer Thursday, "What is Aleppo?" betraying a lack of interest or even superficial knowledge of the civil war in Syria that has been raging for more than five years.
The question came during an interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Panelist Mike Barnicle asked the two-time Libertarian nominee and former governor of New Mexico, "What would you do if you were elected, about Aleppo?"
At first, Barnicle thought Johnson was joking — replying with "you're kidding" — when Johnson didn't recognize the city.
Here's the beginning of the exchange:
BARNICLE: What would you do if you were elected, about Aleppo?
GARY JOHNSON: About?
JOHNSON: And what is Aleppo?
BARNICLE: You're kidding.
BARNICLE: Aleppo is in Syria. It's the – it's the epicenter of the refugee crisis.
JOHNSON: OK, got it. Got it.
Aleppo was Syria's largest city before the war and it's a central battleground in the fight between government forces and the opposition. The iconic photo of 5-year-old bombing victim Omran Daqneesh, widely seen on TV and newspapers last month, was taken in Aleppo.
Once Barnicle explained, "Aleppo is in Syria. It's the epicenter of the refugee crisis," Johnson tried to regroup.
"OK. Got it," Johnson said, falling back on Libertarian principles of limited foreign engagement. "Well, with regard to Syria, I do think that it's a mess. And I think the only way that we deal with Syria is to join hands with Russia to diplomatically bring that at an end. But when we've aligned ourselves with, when we've supported the opposition, the Free Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army is also coupled with the Islamists, and then the fact that we're also supporting the Kurds. And this is — it's just a mess," he said.
"I do understand Aleppo," he continued later in the interview. "And I understand the crisis that is going on. But when we involve ourselves militarily, when we involve ourselves in these humanitarian issues, we end up with a situation that in most cases is not better and in many cases ends up being worse."
Johnson also suggested that the war in Syria is the result of a U.S.-backed effort at regime change. While President Obama argues that Syrian President Bashar Assad should be removed from power through diplomatic means, the administration has avoided military action directed at the regime.
Johnson later tried to explain. "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," Johnson said in a statement, as reported by Politico. "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."
Johnson also acknowledged the interview was a black eye for his campaign, which is currently drawing support from 9 percent of the public, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
"I feel horrible," Johnson told Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics. "I have to get smarter, and that's just part of the process."
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton briefly addressed the flub Thursday morning in response to a question from a reporter. "Well, you can look at the map and find Aleppo," she said.
"Aleppo" quickly trended nationally on Twitter, with many criticizing the candidate's misstep.
Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein have attracted unusual attention for third-party candidates this year, as many voters seek an alternative to the Republican and Democratic standard-bearers, both of whom are saddled with high unfavorable ratings.
Stein also garnered headlines this week while taking part in a demonstration against a controversial oil pipeline in North Dakota. The local sheriff says Stein could face criminal charges for trespassing and spray-painting construction equipment.