Sunday, September 14, 2008

Yeah, But Did You Hear She Hunts Moose?

Thank God for Charles Krauthammer! His column today was pure gold. You see, when Charlie Gibson asked Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine and she clearly had no earthly clue what he was talking about, it was really Charlie Gibson who was in the wrong, since Sarah Palin has five kids and thus is exempt from having to be qualified for (or even interested in) her job. Let's have a look at this wretched waste of column inches:
There is no single meaning of the Bush doctrine. In fact, there have been four distinct meanings, each one succeeding another over the eight years of this administration -- and the one Charlie Gibson cited is not the one in common usage today. It is utterly different.

He asked Palin, "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?"

She responded, quite sensibly to a question that is ambiguous, "In what respect, Charlie?"

Sensing his "gotcha" moment, Gibson refused to tell her. After making her fish for the answer, Gibson grudgingly explained to the moose-hunting rube that the Bush doctrine "is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense."

Well, it didn't take him long to get to the moose reference! That's a favorite cliché to fall back on right now, since apparently moose-hunting and mooseburgers are signs that you are a Real Genuine American. Well, Sarah Palin didn't know what Charlie Gibson was referring to, and Charles Krauthammer says it's not her fault. Why? Because the Bush Doctrine (and Krauthammer notes that he was the first to use the term) can refer to many things: a "freedom agenda," for one. Or unilateralism. Or the notion of the preventive war (as opposed to preemptive war). Krauthammer notes:

Presidential doctrines are inherently malleable and difficult to define. The only fixed "doctrines" in American history are the Monroe and the Truman doctrines which come out of single presidential statements during administrations where there were few other contradictory or conflicting foreign policy crosscurrents.

This is true, and it's a fair point. But it has almost nothing to do with Palin's interview. She didn't falter because she was unsure of which "Bush Doctrine" Gibson was referring to. Most Americans who have observed the Bush administration's foreign policy since 2000 could tell you all the elements of the various Bush Doctrines that Krauthammer listed, and they would probably include them all as elements of one doctrine: namely, the idea that American military power should be the main tool used to aggressively pursue regime change in the Middle East; that the use of unilateral, preventive force against real or imagined threats is acceptable foreign policy, more important than international alliances, and preferable to perceived security weaknesses; and that international laws, institutions, customs, and norms can be circumvented by the United States in order to achieve Americans' security and combat terrorism. 

Is this too wordy and specific to be a doctrine? Probably. But it broadly captures the distinguishing features of the Bush administration's foreign policy, and it outlines how the McCain administration could also be expected to act. Could Palin have addressed all of these issues in a succinct, sound-byte style answer? Of course not. But she should have been able to pull out one of the big ideas from that description and comment on it.  Preventive war, a freedom agenda, and unilateralism are commonly invoked in discussions of the "Bush Doctrine," and she should have known that. But a look at the transcript will show what she actually knows: not much. Here's the section of the interview Krauthammer's column is about:

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?

PALIN: In what respect, Charlie? 

GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be? 

PALIN: His world view. 

That's not really a good start. When asked what she interprets it to be, she could have mentioned the freedom agenda, unilateralism, preventive war, the axis of evil, etc. His world view? 

GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war. 

Ok, so if Gibson thinks that THIS is the Bush Doctrine (and that's not an uncommon definition, despite what Krauthammer says), she should have some opinions. What about the Bush administration's treatment of the UN? What about preventive war? What about regime change? All of these issues are in play, and this was Palin's response:

PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better. 

What? That's barely even an answer. We get one vague sentence about Islamic extremism and then a bunch of trite talking points about how wonderful American democracy is. No one is arguing about how wonderful American democracy is.  It's painfully obvious by this point that Palin has no earthly clue what ANY of the definitions of the Bush Doctrine are, and she certainly doesn't have any real opinions on any of the issues raised by Gibson's question. So she falls back on talking points - not surprising, I guess, since she didn't even have an opinion on the surge when asked about it in 2006. 

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

So once Gibson actually defines the question (and the doctrine), he defines it incorrectly. He should have said "preventive" war, not preemptive strikes. The difference between preemptive war and preventive war is huge, and the latter is a pretty new idea: it was first outlined in the Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy Statement. Most international lawyers saw it as a clear departure from accepted international legal practice. The National Security Strategy Statement acknowledged that international law allows states to respond to threats and actual attacks with force. But then it departed from those two accepted notions and said that the notion of "imminent threat" must be adapted to new circumstances - circumstances that would allow not only preeminent attacks against imminent threats, but preventive attacks against emerging threats. Nearly every international law scholar agrees that this is fundamentally wrong.

If Gibson hadn't screwed up the question, we might have actually heard an interesting answer from Palin. It's not really a minority opinion that the US should be able to preempt attacks. The question of preventing them is the essence of what Gibson was trying to say, and his error ruined what might have been an interesting moment in the interview - if Governor Palin had shown that she had any thoughts at all about that issue. I wouldn't bet on it. 

So, back to Krauthammer. He concludes:

Yes, Sarah Palin didn't know what it is. But neither does Charlie Gibson. And at least she didn't pretend to know -- while he looked down his nose and over his glasses with weary disdain, sighing and "sounding like an impatient teacher," as the Times noted. In doing so, he captured perfectly the establishment snobbery and intellectual condescension that has characterized the chattering classes' reaction to the mother of five who presumes to play on their stage.

Ah, see! So Sarah Palin didn't know what the Bush Doctrine was, but neither did Charlie Gibson, so it's ok. As I've shown, which particular "Bush doctrine" Gibson was referring to is unimportant, because Palin didn't have the slightest clue what he meant anyway. And even when he put the question in the context of Iraq, which narrows the confines of the doctrine, Palin couldn't provide a coherent answer to the question. Is this a question of intellectual condescension? Is it, as Krauthammer implies, a sexist, anti-family reaction against some presumptuous woman whose only crime is daring to join Washington's big-boy elite? 

Or is it legitimate concern that a person who could very well become president has no opinions about foreign policy?

Krauthammer's not dumb. Quite the opposite, in fact. But while he has impressive intelligence, he lacks honesty. If he were even the least bit honest with himself - or as a columnist, with his readers - he would admit that this has nothing to do with elite condescension towards a woman, towards a mother of five, towards a moose-hunter. It has everything to do with the nation's right to know if a possible vice president (and possible president) has even the smallest understanding of foreign policy at a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars.

Not that Krauthammer cares about that. If the voters know too much, his side might lose. That must be part of the "Country First" ethos. 

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