The media flap over Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s knowledge or ignorance of “the Bush doctrine” has revealed much more about her critics than it has about the experience of the Republican vice presidential candidate herself. After all, her response to ABC’s Charlie Gibson’s question was perfectly legitimate, clear and well-informed. However, the fact that she tried to pin down Mr. Gibson on the specific meaning of his question and seemed to play for time a bit was immediately pounced upon by political opponents as a demonstration of ignorance. It was nothing of the sort.
Instead, what Mrs. Palin managed to illustrate was the bias of Mr. Gibson in particular and liberal-leading reporters in general, who let’s face it are the majority. To them, “the Bush doctrine” is a code word what they consider objectionable and sinister about the Bush foreign policy over eight years in office. As Mr. Gibson, after some prompting managed to get out, the essence of that “doctrine” in his view is preemptive military action against enemies of the United States. The word “neo-conservative” is often added by Mr. Bush’s critics to make the whole thing sound even more sinister.
The Internet is full of snooty commentary about Mrs. Palin’s performance. One example is the blog entry by James Fallows, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, written from China by someone who did not watch the interview and who should know better, but allowed his overwhelming sense of superiority run away with him. (Of course the Atlantic Monthly has been revealed to be far from objective in this election in the flap over the doctored McCain pictures.)
Mr. Fallows wrote, “What Sarah Palin revealed is that she has not been interested enough in world affairs to become minimally conversant with the issues. Many people in our great land might have difficulty defining the ‘Bush Doctrine’ exactly. But not to recognize the name, as obviously was the case for Palin, indicates not a failure of last-minute cramming but a lack of attention to any foreign-policy discussion whatsoever in the last seven years.” This characterization is untrue, immensely unfair, but quite typical.
The concept of preemption caused a furious uproar when it became part of the National Security Doctrine, as published in the aftermath of September 11, and was the subject of fierce debate. In this lengthy document authored by then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the reference to preemption was the one sentence that was pounced on. No one in the Bush administration actually called it “the Bush Doctrine,” as former NSC member Peter Feaver explained to The Washington Post on Saturday. The phrase tends to be used in this context only in the presence of a sneer or an expression of great alarm.
Charles Krauthammer, also writing in the Washington Post a few days later, points out that in actual fact there is no one such doctrine, but several. Mr. Krauthammer claims authorship of the phrase, though certainly not with a derogatory intent, in an article in the Weekly Standard from 2001 entitled, “The Bush Doctrine: AMB, Kyoto, and the New American Unilateralism.” He counts no less than four different “doctrines,” which makes Mrs. Palin’s request for a clarification of Mr. Gibson’s question even more understandable.
A brief run down of successive “Bush doctrines” amounts to: 1) The rejection of useless foreign treaties as identified by Mr. Krauthammer in 2001; 2) the post-September 11 willingness to “go it alone,” expressed by Mr. Bush as “Either you are with us or with the terrorists” - an ultimatum that brought Pakistan to the American side very quickly; 3) the determination to engage in pre-emptive military action, which was mainly about the invasion Iraq. It should be noted that preemptive military action has not been taken either before or after, though in the context of Iran it is constantly raised as a specter by administration critics; and 4) the Freedom Agenda, which Mr. Bush laid out in his 2004 State of the Union address and made the promotion of liberty and democracy in the Middle East and beyond the centerpiece of American foreign policy.
All this back and forth over the “Bush doctrine” may well be only meaningful to foreign-policy types and political operatives. Mrs. Palin, on the other hand, has not had much time to sit around having the wonkish foreign-policy discussions, having had a state to run and a large family to raise. Americans as a whole will find those accomplishments a lot more compelling than the parsing of words.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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