The Palin and Bush Doctrine


I watched the first clip of Sarah Palin’s interview with Charlie Gibson, and to me, the most striking part was her complete inability to answer the question: “Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?” Here’s what she said:

“Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?”

“In what respect, Charlie?”

“The Bush — well, what do you interpret it to be?”

“His world view?”

“No, the Bush Doctrine, enunciated in September 2002, before the Iraq war.”

“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.”

“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?”

The transcript doesn’t really do it justice; the video is here, and it makes it pretty clear that she has no idea what the Bush Doctrine actually is. It also makes it clear that she is very quick on her feet — she almost succeeds in getting Gibson to tell her.

Personally, I would have loved to see a good follow-up question. For instance: do you know in what respect the Bush Doctrine departed from previous policy? — This one would have gotten away from the mere gotcha of whether she knows what the name “Bush Doctrine” refers to, and onto a much more substantive question. Likewise: how would you argue in favor of the Bush Doctrine to other countries who point out that when we invaded Iraq, the intelligence that we said showed that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to us turned out to be wrong? Or: do you think that other countries have the same right of preemptive self-defense that we have? If so, would you support the right of Russia to invade Georgia, or Pakistan and India to invade one another?

This matters not because I think a whole lot turns on whether or not someone can correctly identify the Bush Doctrine, in particular, but because it is not a hard question to anyone who has been following foreign policy for the last few years. I want someone who might end up being President to have a reservoir of background knowledge to draw on in times of crisis. And Sarah Palin just doesn’t have one.

One way to see this: Palin was plainly just pulling a response to this question out of thin air. But when she did respond, after Gibson told her what the Bush Doctrine was, this is what she said: “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.”

The big deal about the Bush Doctrine was that it changed our position radically. We used to affirm, along with all other countries, a right of what has normally been thought of as preemptive war: the right to respond to an imminent attack against us, when we have credible evidence that it is imminent. When a country is obviously on the verge of mounting an invasion or a strike against us — when its troops are rolling towards the border, or its missiles counting down — we have never thought that we had to wait for that country to actually attack before we did. But we did once claim this right only in response to evidence of an imminent attack, not to a general sense that another country was in some way threatening. The point of the Bush Doctrine was to chane that: to say, as Bush said at West Point: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.” It was, basically, the acceptance of preventive war: war waged not in response to evidence of an imminent attack, but in response to the possibility that a country that was not attacking us now might attack us at some point in the future.

To anyone who had been following foreign policy in even the most cursory way, but who had somehow forgotten what the name “Bush Doctrine” referred to, Charlie Gibson’s explanation would have made it clear what big Bush administration change in policy was under discussion. “Oh, right”, such a person would think: “that.”

For that reason, one of the most striking things about Palin’s response, to me, was this: in answering Gibson’s question, she seemed to think that she was accepting the Bush Doctrine, but what she actually said just restated the old doctrine of preemption. When, as Palin said, “there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people”, the claim that we have the right to preempt that strike does not require the Bush Doctrine; it just requires the old, and much more widely accepted, doctrine of preemption. That is: in what Palin says here, she’s not actually supporting the Bush Doctrine at all. She’s just saying what generations of American Presidents and candidates have said: that when a country is actually about to attack us, we don’t have to wait for them to actually land a blow before we can strike back.

The good news, I guess, is that when she’s forced to make up an answer out of whole cloth, she goes with preemption, not prevention. She doesn’t deny that she accepts the Bush Doctrine; she just doesn’t say one way or the other. The bad news is that this makes it pretty clear that the problem isn’t just that she doesn’t know what the name “Bush Doctrine” refers to. She doesn’t seem to know that there was a debate about preventive vs. preemptive war, in which the Bush administration came down decisively on the side of prevention. And that’s a pretty important thing to be unaware of.



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