Sunday, September 21, 2014
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The Bush doctrine? What's that?

Flunking a basic foreign policy quiz

The Bush doctrine? What's that?





The first chunk of Sarah Palin's ABC News interview, which aired last night, featured several noteworthy exchanges. Let's quickly review them, before proceeding to the highlight of the evening.

We learned, for instance, that she is even more hawkish than the Bush administration...correction, we learned that the McCain foreign policy team is even more hawkish than the Bush administration; it was downright fascinating to watch McCain's resident neoconservative, Randy Scheunemann, pull the wires that moved Palin's mouth. Three times, in almost identical phrases, Palin said that "we cannot second-guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself," thereby signaling that a McCain administration would take a hands-off stance if Israel decided to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. And that stance places McCain to the right of the Bush administration, which has taken substantive steps to discourage Israel from attacking Iran - by refusing to allow Israel planes to use Iraqi air space, and by turning down Israeli requests for bunker-busting bombs.

We also learned that Palin, again reciting Scheunemann's lines, would be willing to risk going to war with Russia, one of the world's foremost nuclear powers, if Russia was to attack a neighboring NATO member. (As she put it, "Perhaps so"). Given the sensitivity of international relations at the moment, it might have been wiser to avoid such specificity, or at least to contextualize the remark by stressing the importance of diplomacy. But a novice is not likely to know such things. Hillary Clinton, a previous female candidate with actual foreign policy credentials, was often adept at simply refusing to entertain "hypotheticals" on sensitive issues of war and peace.

We also learned that Palin regards her state's geographical proximity to Russia as a serious foreign policy credential. As she put it, "You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska," which is akin to a young teenager insisting that she's capable of driving the family car just because she can see the driver's ed school from the window of her bedroom.

But the highlight of the interview was the exchange that began when Charlie Gibson simply asked, "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?"

And she froze. One second passed, two seconds...Then this reply: "In what respect, Charlie?"

Clearly, she had no idea what he was talking about. This person is supposedly ready to assume the presidency on a moment's notice, yet she had no clue about the signature foreign policy doctrine of the Bush era, as enunciated in a 2002 speech, and subsequently in the 2002 National Security Strategy, declaring that the United States reserves the right to launch preventive wars against potentially hostile regimes - or, as the document put it, against "emerging threats before they are fully formed."

In that respect, governor. Apparently her tutors had neglected to provide that particular index card.

The torture continued. Gibson, asked again about the doctrine: "The Bush - well, what would you interpret it to be?"

Now she was really lost, so she hazarded a guess: "His world view?"

It was like hearing an English teacher ask a student for her interpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter, and the student, not having read the novel, responding, "Human nature?"

Gibson pressed onward, dropping a hint: "No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated in September 2002, before the Iraq war."

The reference to war was just enough to give her some traction, enough to retrieve a general talking point from her memory bank. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Bush doctrine question, but it bought her some time: "I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid the world of Islamic extremism, terrrists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation," plus a couple more sentences.

At this point, Gibson took pity and provided her with the right answer: "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 country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree...?"

OK, now she finally had something to work with.  She responded: "Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligent and legitimate evidence that tells us that a strike is imminent against the American people, we have every right to defend our country."

It was an interesting answer. At face value, it appeared that she was disagreeing with the Bush doctrine, sounding a tad more dovish in fact, saying only that we should "defend our country" only if the intel says that a strike is "imminent"...whereas the Bush doctrine said that we reserve the right to go on offense even when threats are not yet fully formed.

So was she actually intending to signal that the McCain team would roll back on the Bush muscularity? Or was she just scrambling to come up with a general answer, in a bid to recover from her revealing bout of cluelessness? Is it feasible that she was intending to distance the McCain team from a doctrine that, only moments earlier, she had never heard of? Highly doubtful. Clearly, her tutors have a lot more work to do.

Joe Biden (remember him?) might be tempted to shake his head at all that Palin seems not to know. But, in one passing moment last night, she did reveal her line of attack in the upcoming vice-presidential debate. While dismissing the fact that she has never met a foreign head of state, she said this: "We've got to remember what the desire is, in this nation, at this time. It is for no more politics as usual - and somebody's big, fat resume maybe that shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment where, yeah, they've had opportunity to meet heads of state."

That's how she'll go at Biden on Oct.2. Granted, in that remark, she could easily have been talking about John McCain, but at least she can deliver a political line better than she can parry ignorance about the signature national security doctrine of the past eight years.

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Tracking the McCain campaign's false assertions is probably a full-time job, so I try only to cherry-pick the choicest examples - such as the whopper uttered by McCain himself during his appearance earlier today on The View.

He deserves credit for going on the show and mixing it up with such a disputatious bunch - indeed, one of McCain's best traits is that he welcomes argumentation and generally handles it well - but sometimes the strain of making the case for Palin just becomes so tough that truth becomes a casualty.

McCain was in the midst of arguing that Palin would "reform Washington," when some of the interlocuters pointed out that she hasn't even reformed Alaska, that in fact she has taken "a lot" of earmarked federal pork. To which McCain inexplicably replied, "Not as governor she didn't."

Oh, really?

Alaska in 2008 is reportedly receiving $346 million in earmarked federal pork, which works out to $506 for each Alaskan - the highest per-capita rate of any state in the nation, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks earmark spending.

Clearly McCain would like the voters to forget George W. Bush so that he can run on his own, but he is making his task potentially more difficult by becoming nearly as truth-averse as the man he seeks to succeed.




Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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