Palin on the Bush Doctrine

Sarah Palin, who has largely been kept away from the press in the week following the Republican convention, finally gave a major interview last night to ABC’s Charlie Gibson, mostly focusing on foreign policy. It’s been the big topic of discussion in the blogosphere overnight and this morning.

The Bush Doctrine

Palin was asked a rather straightforward question:  “Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?” You can judge her answer for yourself:

Foreign Policy‘s Blake Hounshell pays her a lefthanded compliment:

Setting aside Palin’s obvious lack of knowledge here, her answer was interesting, because she inadvertently reverted to longstanding U.S. policy, pre-Bush Doctrine: “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,” she said. “In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.” An eminently sensible answer.

Ezra Klein of the left-of-center American Prospect is similarly mixed:

Should this disqualify her? Of course. Will it? Of course not. She basically handles herself fine. Indeed, the segment is testament to nothing so much as to the cookbook approach Republicans are now allowed to take on foreign policy questions. Faced with a concept she doesn’t know, and a question she doesn’t understand, she quickly and confidently segues into an impassioned denunciation of “Islamic extremism” and its associated maladies. It may be that the media sells this clip as proof of her unfitness for office — they do control how these things will be understood, contrary to their protestations — but viewers watching this on their lonesome wouldn’t notice anything particularly awry, and that’s because we demand exactly nothing in the way of intellectual heft or analytical precision from our presidential candidates.

The Atlantic‘s James Fallows, though, is less forgiving:

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.

Rather clearly, Palin was “coached up” during the last week so that she could give rehearsed answers to foreign policy questions and Gibson caught her with a phrase that wasn’t on her vocabulary list. Should she have known what “the Bush Doctrine” was without hesitation? I suppose. Then again, I’m not sure why it matters.

What does matter is whether she has an informed view about the substance of the doctrine, namely, preemptive use of force and, especially, a general philosophy of when it’s appropriate to go to war. Whether she passed the test on that score is debatable.  But, clearly, she’s got an answer for these questions.

The Experience Question

Dan Drezner is right to be credulous of Republican foreign policy operatives like Bob Kagan railing against an elite foreign policy class claiming they’re better judges of foreign policy experience than neophytes like Palin.  Of course experience matters and, rather obviously, Palin has next to no experience in foreign policy or national security policy, Alaska’s proximity to Russia and Canada notwithstanding.

It’s also a rather strange position for Republicans, and Team McCain in particular, to take after spending months building their campaign around the argument that the country could not afford to elect a man with so little foreign policy experience as Barack Obama as commander-in-chief during these perilous times.

Conversely, it’s rather awkward for Team Obama to now be arguing that Palin is too inexperienced to be vice president.  After all, the main reason that he’s more prepared for foreign policy quizzes than Palin is because he’s had two years’ advance notice about the exam.

Fallows makes the interesting analogy with sports fans:

Mention a name or theme — Brett Favre, the Patriots under Belichick, Lance Armstrong’s comeback, Venus and Serena — and anyone who cares about sports can have a very sophisticated discussion about the ins and outs and myth and realities and arguments and rebuttals.

People who don’t like sports can’t do that. It’s not so much that they can’t identify the names — they’ve heard of Armstrong — but they’ve never bothered to follow the flow of debate. I like sports — and politics and tech and other topics — so I like joining these debates. On a wide range of other topics — fashion, antique furniture, the world of restaurants and fine dining, or (blush) opera — I have not been interested enough to learn anything I can add to the discussion.

That’s a fair point and, like Fallows, I follow sports and not so much furniture and opera.  Then again, neither Fallows nor I know much about moose hunting.  Arguably, at least, the latter is more useful than the former.

Palin is a state governor who was previously a small town mayor and city councilman.  There’s no evidence that she had serious aspirations to national office prior to being tabbed as McCain’s VP nominee.  So, really, it’s not all that surprising that she kept up with the foreign affairs debate only at the margins up until now.  Even if she eagerly awaited every issue of The National Interest with a yellow highlighter in hand, nobody would have known.

Obama grew up overseas.  Presumably, he had some natural interest in international affairs even growing up.  Nonetheless, his focus until beginning his campaign for the United States Senate was squarely on local issues.

Ultimately, few presidents have significant foreign policy experience when they take the job.   McCain has far more than Obama — but neither have had executive responsibility in that milieu.   If the tickets were flipped, Joe Biden would have the clear advantage over Palin on IR knowledge but Palin would have the advantage on executive experience.

My strong preference, as those who’ve been reading the last couple of weeks have gathered, would have been for a more seasoned choice than Palin.   Indeed, Palin was near the bottom of my favorites among those on McCain’s short list.   Conversely, I thought Biden was a slam dunk good pick by Obama.

Ironically, at least thus far, the general public has had the opposite reaction.  Biden created no buzz for Obama and little enthusiasm even from his own base, since he went against the youthful change dynamic Obama has been selling.   Palin, while seemingly undermining McCain’s “experience” message has, by contrast, been a huge hit not only with the base but with undecideds.    The pick not only killed the Democrats’ convention bounce but gave the Republicans a much larger one.

It’s not over yet, of course, and Palin’s still going to have to make her way through the media gauntlet and a vice presidential debate.  Her lack of preparation could still cause her bubble to burst.   But not having a wonkish knowledge of the terms of art in the debate are probably an advantage rather than a liability with undecided voters.

UPDATE: It appears that there have in fact been Four Bush Doctrines.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    Am I the only one that notices that when politicians (on either side) are asked questions they are at least 50% likely to say whatever they want to say on the topic regardless of whether it can be considered “an answer” to the question?

    Usually it is prefaced with “the important thing is . . .”

  2. Wayne says:

    Ask 10 people what the”Bush Doctrine” is and your get 10 different answers, Google it and you get various takes on it. It covers a variety of policies.

    If she answered it by using one definition, they would have turn around and use a different one. She did it right by asking what aspect of it he was talking about.

  3. Dantheman says:

    Interesting take, James.

    What I found more interesting were the positions she advocated, especially assuming she was basically a blank slate on foregin policy prior to her nomination:

    a. a position on preventative vs. preemptive war far closer to Obama’s position than Bush or McCain’s,
    b. a totally free hand for Israel to attack Iran, if deemed necessary to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, even more so than Bush’s position,
    c. a position on going after Al Qu’eda in Pakistan closer to Obama’s position than McCain’s, and
    d. (least surprising) a position on Ukraine and Georgia in line with McCain’s and more aggressive than Bush’s or Obama’s.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I think Big Tent Democrat’s view is worth consideration also:

    This is seriously nuts. Palin asked Gibson to define what HE meant by it. (NOTE: Stellaa points out that Gibson tried the same game with Obama and Media Matters ripped Gibson for it then. Guess Sargent is ok with it when it is done to a Republican.) Indeed, her eventual answer to the question is extremely sensible (unlike Bush and McCain’s actual policies) and smart politics. She did not accept the premise of Gibson’s question and then gave a sensible answer to the question. This type of stuff is what is killing the Left blogs right now. They look like fools when they act this way. The video is on the flip.

    This is the lawyer’s p.o.v. If you are asked a question which uses a term and you don’t know what the questioner means by that term, then ask him what he means by it. Now, whether it makes for a good t.v. interview is for other’s to decide.


  5. fredw says:

    Sarah Palin is well qualified in foreign affairs; you can see part of Russia from part of Alaska.

    Sarah Palin is well qualified in foreign affairs; you can see part of Russia from part of Alaska.

    Sarah Palin is well qualified in foreign affairs; you can see part of Russia from part of Alaska.

  6. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    With all the “advice” she is getting from the blogosphere on foreign policy, she should be an expert in no time at all.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    If we are trying to gauge Palin’s ability to quote foreign policy doctrine or understand minute details of world affairs I think we can agree she has much to learn (and memorize). However a president does not make foreign policy decisions without the input of cabinet officers and expert advisers. Basic ideological approaches to foreign policy are important but details are generally worked out by others. The press (and the Democrats) seems to want to trip her in details. I expect the public to find it pointless.

    Many governors have become president with no foreign policy experience (let’s go ahead and give the Russian thing a rest). Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, they all came in as newbies.

    The Palin bounce (it’s been long enough to say there has been one) and the fascination by the public rests on her being more like us, the common citizen, than any of the other candidates. Much of Bill Clinton’s charm was his good ol’ boy, Bubba personality. Palin’s got the same charm with voters.

    With McCain-Palin you’ve got different but complimentary styles that will attract voters. The question is whether it will attract enough voters.

  8. Norman Rogers says:

    I am bemused by the fierce (negative) reactions to Sarah Palin — by otherwise mature and sensible women (I’m a guy, of a certain age BTW). Of course, it’s not just the liberal women — the men, too, who have invested their hopes for their team on the slender shoulders of Obama are equally crazed.

    The fact is, James, that you too seem to be invested with the notion that this woman is a lightweight (kinda how you snootily think of el Rushbo!). The fact is, Sarah would eat you for lunch in a debate. She handled Gibson with ease!

    But the women, the women who are so vehement in their quest for more rights for themselves and their sisters, who would have taken to the streets if one of their own (political sisters) had received a tenth of the vitriol directed at Sarah, the women who revel in their declared victimhood — these are the broads who hate our Sarah the most.

    What a stitch!

    Here’s a couple of clues, James. This gal has real talent and a great personal story. She’s lived an exemplary life and she’ll skin that gasbag Biden quicker than a moose (or a caribou). No, Gibson didn’t faze her one bit. And the old white guys in her home state whose butts she kicked on her way to the governorship didn’t either.

    And I’m laughing heartily at your discomfort.

  9. sam says:

    David Frum’s column on NRO is worth looking at. After pointing out that there were some questions she could have appropriately given an evasive answer to, he says:

    But Palin never punted. She tried to bluff her way through, pretending to know what she obviously did not know. It’s an understandable impulse, and in the context of a single interview, not so very terrible. But is it an impulse she would lay aside once in office? Or is it a deeper habit? A lot may turn on the answer to that question.

    The title of the piece is Presidential Knowledge.

  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    Barrack 0bama is well qualified in foreign affairs; you can see more people get killed in Illinois then in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Barrack 0bama is well qualified in foreign affairs; you can see more people get killed in Illinois then in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Barrack 0bama is well qualified in foreign affairs; you can see more people get killed in Illinois then in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  11. Triumph says:

    This lady is really smart!

  12. James, when Ezra Klein writes:

    Should this disqualify her? Of course.

    Do you quietly chuckle to yourself at the childlike partisan silliness of such a comment? Do you think it is fair to embarrass the young man by quoting him like this?

  13. sam says:

    Somebody over on the VC asked an interesting question. Suppose Sarah Palin had decided to run for president, how long would she have lasted in the GOP debates?

  14. Spoker says:

    Oh, that Bush Doctrine! The doctrine that the msm made up to lump GB’s foreign policies into so no one would really know what they were talking about but could be cited as a got’cha when it fit the idiot that used it. Or did you means the one that Barry Goldwater in 1964 called ‘preemptive strike’ but the press didn’t like the name so they renamed it. Or could it be the one that in Ronald Reagan refused to rule out if he believed it was necessary to prevent an attack on the U.S. You mean that one? Come-on! Oh sure, you must mean that one that even in Wikipedia has multiple definitions? I know, I’ve got it now! You must mean the one that Sarah Palin defined and then failed to walk into Chuck Gibson’s trap when he asked about it. This is a pathetic argument made with and 8 years old logic in many cases delivered with a junior high presentation. Yea, this is really a new kind of politics! What’s next, knock, knock jokes?

  15. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I am just a bit curious James in that there seems to be quite a bit of interest in what Sarah Palin thinks about the Bush doctrine. What is the Bush doctrine. I know what the Monroe Doctrine is but I do not think Pres. Bush has either written or enumerated what the Bush doctrine is. Some say it has to do with preemptive strikes if intel says an attack in imminent. Others say that plus the spread of democracy. For Sarah Palin, candidate for the number 2 job to ask for specifics rather than give a shill for Obama a way to tie her to the Bush admin. seems pretty adept at dealing with adversaries. Might be useful in her future as Vice President of the United States. Why is it there is not much in depth questioning of Obama’s qualifications to be President of the United States? James, I would be be edifying to learn of Barrack’s accomplishments as a public servant or better yet, a list of legislation he authored. Basically anything this man has done.

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    Why is it there is not much in depth questioning of Obama’s qualifications to be President of the United States? James, I would be be edifying to learn of Barrack’s accomplishments as a public servant or better yet, a list of legislation he authored. Basically anything this man has done.

    Ya let me interview him. Here are a list of my questions so that will you know that I will be fair.

    Question 1: why as a proclaimed Christin is it above your pay grade to know when a human baby becomes a human?

    Question 2: how many states are in the is a hint it’s between 1-50?

    Question 3: if you put libstick on pig is it still a pig or a donkey?

    That should be enough, but if any of you have any other suggestions I would like to hear them and might consider them if he can get past my first 3.

  17. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    G.A. I have a few suggestions. Which of Saul Alinski’s Rules for Radicals do you think is the most effective? Why will you not release your college transcripts? When did you stop selling coke? Or did you? Why is it none of your friends will stand up for you?

  18. Billy says:

    Smell that coming from the Republican base? It’s fear.

  19. brainy435 says:

    I usually respect your opinions, even when I disagree with you Mr. Joyner, but this post is pretty damn pathetic.

    “Vice President Dick Cheney and the hawks in the Pentagon are said to have encouraged Mr. Bush to support Mr. Sharon’s military drive, arguing that it was simply an extension of the so-called Bush Doctrine, which holds those who harbor terrorists accountable for terrorism.”

    I’d give more examples of how this ‘doctrine” changes based on how one wants to frame an argument but your spam filter wouldn’t like it.

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    Smell that, see that, hear that, coming from the Democrat base? It’s the same old donkeypoop.

  21. Brian says:

    I actually don’t put much stake in the “experience” of a candidate to be president as, none of them have been president.

    That said, McCain is the one who has been pushing this idea, and pushing it hard, so that’s why I think it will, throughout the remainder of campaign, be a constant burden on them.

    As far as Palin goes, I’m inclined to agree that the ideological stances are far more important for executives than intricate knowledge – although an expansive knowledge and basic understanding of the forces that have shaped the world is hugely important. Facts change, but how those facts factor into the big picture is the important thing. To highlight this would be great for Palin. She sort of did this accidentally, but to embrace it as principle would have played better.

    My impression of her with Charlie Gibson is that she is exactly what she says she is: a hockey mom. Not a VP ready for national or global politics. I think she is 4 years too soon. A little more foresight would have served her to no end. She may well make it through this rough phase ahead and do well. But I think that she’s in danger of being forgotten quickly. I guess we’ll see how it plays out.

  22. JBJB says:

    I think its funny that the pundits and blogger talk about foreign policy knowledge like it’s some great academic achievement. Anyone with above average intelligence can come up to speed on “foreign policy” in a matter of months. It’s not organic chemistry, differential equations, statistical thermodynamics, or something that requires a lifetime of engagement and investigation. I mean, 98% percent of the political establishment does nothing buy spew foreign policy talking points they have memorized over the years. Go watch Meet The Press on any given weekend, its nothing but establishment accepted talking points.

    Palin will be fine, she is smart and hard working, with a good value system and moral compass. I would same the same applies to Obama, he’s just been practicing a little while longer.

  23. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Obama has done what??? He has not yet won a contested election. He won caucuses and he won, by the skin of his teeth, the democratic nomination but they had to cancel the roll call vote, just in case. All of his opponents have had problems just before the election and dropped out. He has been given a pass on his past. The most softball questions possible have been asked of him. He is owned by the far left. Ayers owns his ass and Ayers is an enemy of America.

  24. DL says:

    And now for the great foreign affairs debate (Palin/Obama is what seems to be the big one)

    Mayor. Palin(not governor) can you describe in detail the political and ecomnomic structure of Diego Garcia, and the names and titles of the top three officials?

    Senator and presidential candidate Obama. Can you tell us exactly and without any equivication, precisely what continent Kenya is on -oh and by the way, how’s your grandfather doing?

    New the next day
    World savvy Obama brilliantly pitches no hitter against isolated mother of five during foreign affairs knowledge and expertese battle.

  25. DL says:

    I for one would relish hearing Sarah respond to these “gotcha” ignoramuses with this response.

    I’m not accepting your premise that the politicized media of America should be controlling America’s policy and that is really what you guys and your fake “gotcha” interviews and loaded debate questions are really about – determining the who, what, and how, we function. Quite frankly, if you are so interested in those things, you should do what I do, get involved and run for office on the basis of your ideas.

  26. anjin-san says:

    I for one would relish hearing Sarah respond to these “gotcha” ignoramuses with this response.

    Well, you would have to wait for her handlers to tell her what her position is…