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.

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.)

Palin also, in passing, described Russia's invasion of Georgia as "unprovoked." Gibson interrupted her: "You believe unprovoked?" She affirmed, "I do believe unprovoked." This was an eyebrow-raiser. Almost everyone, even Russia's harshest critics, acknowledges that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili did, in fact, provoke Putin—even if Putin might have been hoping for a provocation—by attacking South Ossetia first.

Then there was the moment that has caused many jaws to gape—when Gibson asked what she thought of "the Bush Doctrine" and she clearly didn't know what he was talking about. I must confess, this didn't bother me much. Her initial response—"In what respect, Charlie?"—was a fair point. So many Bush doctrines have been promulgated, proved wrong, and abandoned without comment.

What did bother me was that, after Gibson outlined the doctrine's meaning (the right to attack a nation in anticipation of a threat), she didn't answer the question. She said, "If there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend the country." This is true to the point of banality; no one would dispute it. The question is whether it's proper to take armed action not if a strike seems imminent but if preparations seem to be in the works for a possible strike sometime in the future.

The two most shuddering moments, however, came when Palin revealed her character. In a sense, character is more important than a specific bit of knowledge. A person can acquire knowledge. Character defines how much that person values knowledge, how curious she is, how keenly she wants to understand a subject deeply, and what she is likely to do once she achieves this understanding.

Thursday night's interview suggests that Palin doesn't value knowledge much at all, that she puts faith above facts and instincts above thinking.

The first hint of this came at the start of the interview, when Gibson asked if she'd ever doubted her readiness to be vice president. In a way, it was a silly question. She wasn't going to say, "Yes, Charlie, I had many doubts." Still, I'm glad he asked it, because her answer disclosed volumes:

I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink.

Congratulations to Malcolm Gladwell for contributing another phrase to the popular lexicon, but the thesis of his best-selling book Blink was not that snap decisions are superior to decisions based on careful deliberation. It was that people who have a deep understanding of what they do—for instance, really good surgeons, military commanders, air-traffic controllers, and so forth—often make their best decisions quickly and instinctively.

But if you don't know what you're dealing with, snap decisions can be fatal. And it's very clear, on foreign policy and national security (in addition to much else), Sarah Palin doesn't know what she's dealing with. Worse, she doesn't know how much she doesn't know. She thinks that being "committed to the mission" exempts her from the need to think and that, therefore, firmness alone will yield righteous policy. In the wrong hands, this is a very dangerous trait.

The other spine-chilling moment came when Gibson asked about her recent comment, in a speech at her church, that the war in Iraq is "a task that is from God." (ABC then showed a YouTube clip of the speech.) Palin tried to finesse the question, saying that her remarks were only "a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words" that we should pray not that God is on our side but that we are on God's side. Gibson didn't back down, noting that she had in fact gone on to say, "There is a plan, and it is God's plan." To this, Palin replied:

I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan for this world is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that these are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That in my worldview is a grand—the grand plan.

Two things came to mind upon hearing her say these words. First, they sound like the earnest answer given by a contestant in a beauty pageant when the M.C. asks her about world peace. (Sorry to seem sexist, but it's true; read it again.)

Second, and more to the point, do we want someone a heartbeat away from the presidency—and a 72-year-old cancer survivor's heartbeat, at that—to possess both impetuousness ("You can't blink") and holy certitude? Isn't that what we've had, actually in the Oval Office, the past eight years?

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