Watching Sarah Palin's first big interview.

Military analysis.
Sept. 12 2008 1:43 PM

The Sorrow and the Pity

When it comes to foreign policy, Sarah Palin doesn't know what she's talking about.

Read John Dickerson, Timothy Noah, and Jack Shafer  for more of Slate's take on Sarah Palin's interview with Charles Gibson.

Sarah Palin and Charles Gibson. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin and Charles Gibson

Judging from the excerpts shown Thursday on ABC's World News and Nightline, there are several appropriate responses to watching Sarah Palin answer Charlie Gibson's questions on foreign policy and national security—sorrow, pity, incredulity, fear.

Gov. Palin was obviously briefed by Sen. John McCain's advisers, and briefed fairly well. She recited what were plainly the main points of these tutorials with an assertive confidence familiar to those who engaged in high-school debate competitions.

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But it was painfully obvious—from the rote nature of her responses, the repetitions of hammered-home phrases, and the non sequiturs that leapt up when she found herself led around an unfamiliar bend—that there is not a millimeter of depth undergirding those recitations, that she had never given a moment's thought to these matters before two weeks ago.

And why should she have? As governor of Alaska, nothing in her line of duties has compelled her to pay attention to such matters—and that is precisely the point.

It is stunning that Palin, McCain, and their spin masters persist in claiming that she has experience in foreign affairs by dint of governing a state that borders Russia.

Let's be clear about the nature of this border. Alaska's farthest-flung islands, along the Bering Strait, come close to the Chukchi Peninsula of Chukotka, an autonomous region of Russia on the country's northeastern tip—as far from Moscow as New York is—whose 50,000 residents are best known to most Russians as the subject of off-color jokes involving cannibals.

There are no issues between the United States and Russia in this region, except for the occasional tussle over fishing rights (in which, even so, Gov. Palin has never involved herself). No one entertains the remotest fantasy of, say, Russia invading North America through the Bering Strait.

When Palin brought up her proximity to Russia ("They're our next-door neighbor," she proclaimed), Gibson asked what insights she derived from this fact. She replied:

Well, I'm giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relations with all of these countries, especially Russia. We will not repeat a Cold War. We must have good relations with our allies, pressuring also, helping us to remind Russia that it is their benefit, also, a mutually beneficial relationship for us all to be getting along.

What does this mean? I have no idea, and I doubt that she does, either. It doesn't help her argument of wisdom-through-osmosis that she has never been to Russia—or, shockingly really, any country outside North America, until last year, when she visited the troops in Kuwait and Germany. (Her P.S. after admitting she's never met a foreign head of state—that probably a lot of other vice presidents hadn't, either, before taking office—turns out to be untrue. ABC reported Friday morning that every VP since Spiro Agnew had taken such a meeting before getting tapped to be a running mate.)

Gibson asked her if Georgia should be admitted to NATO? She replied, "Ukraine, definitely, yes. Yes, and Georgia." He then asked if this would require us to go to war in response to Russia's invasion. "Perhaps so," she replied, correctly noting that this is what NATO membership entails.

Left unasked was whether, say, if Georgia were admitted right now, NATO would be obliged to go kick the Russians out of those areas that they currently occupy. In fact, it would. Is Palin saying she would go to war, under current conditions, if only there were a legal framework to allow it? It seems so.

Fortunately, the whole issue is a nonstarter because, under NATO's charter, a nation must have firm and recognized borders in order for membership to be so much as considered. Georgia does not have such borders. (The status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has long been in dispute.)

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